Reggie Fleming, a brawling defenseman from hockey's pre-helmet days, died recently at age 73 with the same sort of neurodegenerative disease found in boxers and football players. So now the NHL can pretend to address the issue, too!
According to The New York Times' Alan Schwarz and Jeff Z. Klein, Fleming, who played from 1959 to 1974 and who can now be seen on YouTube either punching Bobby Orr in the face or talking haltingly with his son from a rehabilitation bed, was found by researchers at Boston University to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is associated with repeated head trauma. (Read the Toronto Globe and Mail's story, too, if only for the bracing images of brain tissue.) That's the same disease identified in 11 former NFL players. The NHL responded to the news with an expression of profound concern and a full-throated commitment to research and the spirit of inquiry:
Bill Daly, the deputy commissioner of the N.H.L., said in a statement that the league would have no comment on McKee's diagnosis until it "had a chance to read and digest it."
Fleming's story is sad enough, and there are surely many more like it from his generation. His son, Chris, told the Times his father never knew how many concussions he sustained during his career; no one ever bothered to keep records. After his career, Fleming was diagnosed a manic depressive; he drank and got into fistfights on the street. The Canadian magazine profiled him at the tail end of his playing days, and after today's news, you wonder both about the causes and effects of moments like this:
All the wars of all the nights of the past suddenly rage through Reggie Fleming's mind and, spinning, he attacks Harris, fists up and swinging, the crowd shrieking. Fleming misses with a wild right hook. Harris slams him in the face with a right, a left, drives a right deep in to Fleming's belly. Fleming gasps, doubles over and Harris slams his head back with an uppercut. The crowd screams with delight. The other players watch. Fleming swings blindly at Harris but Harris moves in, punches him furiously in the face and head and hurls him against the boards. Harris pulls Fleming's jersey over his head, tosses him to the ice, jumps on him and flails away. Blood appears on Fleming's jersey, spreading fast like ink on a blotter. Harris doesn't let up and Fleming is helpless. It's brutal and sickening to watch and finally it's broken up. To boos and thrown debris, Fleming leaves the ice, gasping for breath, blood pouring down his battered face. He heads to the dressing room, alone, closes the door softly behind him, and sits on the bench. From far away come the crowd noises. He says nothing, takes off his jersey, throws it in a corner. He turns back, closes his eyes for a few seconds. He opens them and looks at his hands, turning them slowly. They're trembling.
"Sometimes," he says softly and haltingly, "Sometimes I wish ... I wish I could control myself just once. It's ... it's the kids. I go home and they see the cuts and bruises and—" He doesn't finish the sentence. He lifts his hands to his face. For a long time he's quiet and then, from behind the red swollen hands, a long, shuddering sigh. In the morning, the children will see him. He knows what they will ask. And he knows, as always, he won't have an answer.
It probably speaks to the chances of hockey actually doing anything about the violence of its sport that the above story was posted, in tribute to Fleming, on a site called hockey-fights.com.
Photo via this guy's Photobucket
Brain Damage Found in Hockey Player [The New York Times]
Former NHLer had condition linked to concussions at time of death [Toronto Globe and Mail]
Reggie Fleming passes away at 73... [hockey-fights.com]