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.
Researching the profile for former Colorado College and minor-league star Bob Collyard, a 1969 draft pick of the St. Louis Blues, I came upon an interesting story about a lawsuit that Collyard filed in a U.S. District Court during the late 1970s.
Collyard, who played 10 games with St. Louis in 1973-74 but never made it back to the NHL after that, sued the NHL, several U.S.-based teams, and even the United States government for effectively allowing the NHL and its clubs to discriminate against American hockey players. Another lawsuit filed by Warren “Butch” Williams attempted to make the same case, and the fact that these suits arose at the same time is noteworthy. Obviously, there was a sense among American players that they were not being given a fair shake in the NHL, which seemed far more interested in employing Canadians at the time.
Needless to say, Collyard vs. Washington Capitals and Williams vs. Boston Bruins didn’t get very far as court cases. In fact, they were both dismissed by a U.S. District Court in Minnesota on the same day. Legally, there was no grounds for a lawsuit, and it’s ridiculous to assume that there was an organized conspiracy against non-Canadian players.
No, this issue didn’t belong in a courtroom, but it is fair to say that it was very, very tough for American hockey players to reach the NHL in the 1970s. Many of the U.S.-born players from that era tell stories of being harassed by Canadians, who felt they were simply better at the sport. History has shown that USA Hockey can hold its own, and the potential discrimination long since faded away, but in the 1970s, it was probably very palpable.
Here’s what I wonder. Recall how violent hockey was in the 1970s. Recall that the product the NHL was selling was at least in part embraced because of that violence. Recall that Canadians were developed in leagues where fighting was tolerated, while Americans came up through high schools and colleges where fighting was strictly prohibited. Thus, there likely was a belief that the marginal American players were less inclined to cater to the rough stuff or drop the gloves. This might have made them less useful than their Canadian counterparts, even if they could skate and shoot the puck with more skill.
Again, not an organized conspiracy, but a reality of the era. Consider that the movie Slap Shot is widely recognized by hockey players of that era as coming very close to what life was like. At its heart, Slap Shot was a movie about a college player who didn’t fit into the pro lifestyle. Perhaps Boston-born Ned Dowd, the player on whose experience Slap Shot is based, felt a sense of discrimination from the Canadians of his day. Perhaps the Hanson Brothers — who are not just violent but crazy — are ironically shown the only Americans capable of fitting into such an environment, even though their hockey talent level is questionable at best.
Taking this issue to court was a bit much, but the mere existence of these cases is a reminder of what the NHL was like in the 1970s and reflect a very real sense within these players that they were not being given a chance because they came from south of the U.S.-Canadian border.
I just finished researching and writing the profile page for Brian “Spinner” Spencer. It’s hard to believe he has been dead for more than 26 years, because I remember when he was killed in the summer of 1988. News of his death appeared on the same Hockey News cover as a story about the Edmonton Oilers’ fourth Stanley Cup championship. Wayne Gretzky and Janet Jones, who were about to make some news of their own that year, were on the cover right there with an inset photo of Spencer and a headline that read “Spencer Gunned Down”. I remember that issue of The Hockey News well.
Anyone interested in Brian Spencer’s life beyond what I have in his HDC profile should read the 1988 book “Gross Misconduct: The Life of Spinner Spencer” or watch the 1993 TV movie based on the book. The film has a slightly different name — “Gross Misconduct: The Life of Brian Spencer”.
Brian Spencer’s life was tragic pretty much from start to finish. He was born into a very poor family that lived in central British Columbia. His father obviously had some anger management issues, which led to his death in 1970 — a big part of the Spencer story. Brian Spencer also had a twin brother named Byron, but it was Brian who was pushed by his father to be a hockey player, even though there was no organized hockey for him to play in his part of Canada.
Spencer’s father helped teach him to play the game well enough to walk onto a major-junior league team as an 18-year-old. He proved good enough there to be drafted by the Leafs and then to make it to the NHL, playing for four teams over the course of 10 seasons. That was the high point of his life. He struggled to adjust to retirement and live his last nine years in Florida, where he was charged with murder, acquitted, and then eventually murdered in a random act of violence less than a year later.
Spencer was not a goon. He was a hard-working player and a great teammate by all accounts. He was the Unsung Hero of a Buffalo team in 1975-76 that had its share of great players. He had a fairly long NHL career and was always popular with fans — the first fan favorite in New York Islanders history, in fact. But he was haunted by demons, and those demons eventually caught up to him. If anything, playing hockey was an oasis for Spencer, who didn’t even realize how much his fans loved him even after he retired.
Nobody should have to die at the age of 38, and certainly not at the wrong end of a loaded gun wielded by a complete stranger. Hockey gave Brian Spencer something to live for, something he could not replace after he was no longer able to play the game at its highest level. If he had been able to make that transition more smoothly, he might still be alive today.
Watching today’s players and those yet to come, it’s important to care about them as human beings and not just hockey players. Their careers are relatively short, and they will have many years to face after the cheering stops. Regardless of how well they are paid or how much fame they attain, when they step outside the arena they are all just as human and vulnerable as anyone else. Brian Spencer’s short life will always be proof of that.