What Makes a Hall of Famer?
While researching the profile for former NHL star Reggie Leach, I discovered that there is an online campaign run by Canadian song writer John K. Samson to get Leach into the Hockey Hall of Fame. You can check out Samson’s page in support of Leach right here.
It seems the primary reason that Reggie Leach fans want to see him join the Hall of Fame is as much about the wonderful work he has done inspiring First Nations kids in Canada — Manitoba, in particular — as it is about his hockey career. There is no question that Leach has done some great things to spread both a love of hockey and a new appreciation for life among Native peoples of Canada. He deserves a lot of admiration and respect for this, particularly since he now says this means more to him than anything in his hockey career — including winning the Stanley Cup. Leach has helped countless kids avoid bad choices such as alcohol and drugs by telling his own story about how addiction nearly destroyed him. Few former athletes are as open and candid about their personal struggles, and Leach is right there with the best of them when it comes to giving back to the community.
However, the issue I would like to consider here is whether or not Reggie Leach should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and it actually touches on many other athletes in other sports who also may or may not deserve Hall of Fame status. The question is what criteria should get a player into his sports’ Hall of Fame, and on the flip side, are there any Hall of Famers who deserve to be kicked out.
When it comes to getting into a Hall of Fame in a Player’s category, I am a firm believer in the actual on-ice achievements and how they relate to those of other players and Hall of Famers.
Let’s look at Leach’s NHL career in brief. A few things jump right out that suggest Hall of Fame consideration. First and foremost, there was his remarkable 1975-76 season and playoffs in which he scored a combined 80 goals. He led the league with 61 in the regular season and then again in the playoffs with 19 goals — although his Philadelphia Flyers team came up short of the Stanley. Nearly 40 years later, Leach is tied with Jari Kurri for the most goals in a playoff year, but Leach’s per-game average was higher, since he did it in three fewer games). Leach also had a record 10-game goal-scoring streak during the 1976 playoffs (truly amazing when you think of the game today!) and he scored five goals in one playoff game to tie the NHL record. Leach remains the only non-goaltender to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP while playing on a losing team.
So Leach’s 1975-76 season alone goes a long way toward making him a potential Hall of Famer. The other big numbers in his favor are a second 50-goal season in 1979-80 and nearly 400 career NHL goals. It’s worth noting that there are players in the Hall who scored fewer career goals than Leach.
But once you get past 1975-76, the second 50-goal season, the one Stanley Cup championship, and the 381 career goals, there is very little from Leach’s NHL playing career to suggest Hall of Fame status. Take those three accomplishments away from him, and he is clearly not a Hall of Famer. And this is where it gets interesting for me, because in my view — regardless of sport — the definition of a Hall of Famer is someone who was consistently outstanding throughout the prime years of his career. Gilbert Perreault, drafted two spots ahead of Leach, and Darryl Sittler, drafted after him, both meet this criteria. Leach does not. At the time he was cut by Flyers head coach Bob McCammon in 1982, Leach himself noted that he had had “some good seasons and some bad seasons” in his career. Some of his success was also due to the performance of linemates Bobby Clarke and Bill Barber, who are both Hall of Famers.
So my feeling is that Leach does not deserve to be in the Hall of Fame in the player’s category any more than several other players of his generation who are also not in there. Personally, it’s harder for me to understand why Rick Middleton, to name one player off the top of my head, is not in the Hall of Fame. I’m not saying he should be in there either, but his career was certainly more consistent than Leach’s. By the way, there are a handful of players in the Hall that probably shouldn’t be there any more than Leach or Middleton, but that doesn’t mean the standards should be lowered for others.
Are the people lobbying to get Reggie Leach in the Hall misguided? No, I just think they have a different standard. In their view, Leach deserves the recognition because of the obstacles he overcame and the work he has done to help others. These are great qualities, but they do not change the basis for Hall of Fame membership, in my view. I think the people backing Leach would be better served if they petition the Hall to have a special area just for remarkable players who either overcame obstacles or did tremendous community work, as Leach now does. I would like to go to Toronto and see these people honored for their off-ice work. I would really like to see a ceremony at the Hall honoring people in this category every year. If the Hall ever did that, Leach should be in the inaugural group of honorees along with Willie O’Ree and other great ambassadors of the game who came from diverse backgrounds or made it their life’s work to help others.
The flip side of this equation is my sense that while outside behavior shouldn’t get you into a Hall of Fame, it should be able to get you removed. This already happened with Alan Eagleson, who was removed from the Hall after being convicted of cheating NHL players out of millions of dollars. I believe Gil Stein was also removed from the Hall when it was discovered he had used his job-related power to influence the vote in his favor.
I would go one step further and say that even the greatest of sports stars should be removed from a Hall of Fame if they are later convicted of murder or some other horrible crime that forever disgraces them in history. This is basically the O.J. Simpson situation. Football, however, has not removed Simpson from Canton. Since he was never actually convicted of murder, perhaps this was the fair decision, but I’m sure I’m not the only guy who would argue for his removal.
On the other hand, I firmly believe Pete Rose belongs in Cooperstown. There is no question he merits that as a player, and his gambling problem did not adversely affect his performance on the field. More important, his gambling problem didn’t physically hurt anyone, and I don’t believe there is proof that he deliberately bet against his own team when he was playing (if there is, and I don’t know about it, then he shouldn’t be in, just like Shoeless Joe). Pete Rose had character flaws, for sure, but he is a deserving Hall of Fame player.
So that’s it, I guess. Reggie Leach was a great talent and is an inspiring human being. I love his life story, which should somehow be permanently recognized in the Hall. However, he was not a Hall of Fame hockey player, and I could not honestly sign a petition to grant him that status.