A generation of butterflying goalies hits the ice secure in the knowledge that Reggie Leach has been out of the NHL for 26 years. Leach maintains that 10 times out of 10, from 30 feet out in practice, he could hit the crossbar. In games, he would go just under it even more often than he got under the skin of three Flyer coaches.
It doesnt exactly drive "The Rifle" through the roof that upstairs has practically vanished from the game. But he laments the lost art.
The way the rules are today, the kids even have that extra second because theyre not going to get hit, said Leach. And the last guy we saw shoot high was Brett Hull.
You dont even see the shot from the top of the circle off the pass to the winger breaking at the blue line. Thats because you dont see that pass. Everything is coming from behind now.
Its still really good hockey, but the biggest mistake the NHL made in the last 10 years was not going with the Olympic-sized rink. The game would open up again because its unbelievable how fast these kids are.
Back in the day, the Flyers salad days, Leach was as fast as the Spectrum crowd could turn on him.
Such a good skater that he could check too, just most of the time didnt want to, said Bob Clarke, Leachs friend, linemate and often caretaker.
He loved to score goals, just lit up when he did it. All his career, all he wanted to do was shoot. He dropped out of school in sixth grade, used to stand on the concrete in the summer and shoot and shoot and shoot.
He was one of the few guys in any era who could score from the areas outside the scrums in front of the goal. Very few in the history of the game have been able to consistently go under the crossbar like he did. Maybe Guy Lafleur, but Reggies shot was way more accurate than Bobby Hulls.
He was one of the best players in the game for three or four years
Leachs attention span could be as compact as his backswing. He ran hotter than Dave Schultzs collar, colder than his shoulder to the coaches who nagged and benched him.
He would tell me sometimes how he didnt feel Freddie Shero showed any confidence in him by taking him off the line late in games when we had the lead, said Clarke. Pat Quinn got him going again by using him to kill penalties.
Reggie trusted Pat, at least for a while, and Reggie didnt really trust too many people.
When he was good, he was unbelievably good. Five goals in Game 5 to put the two-time defending champion Flyers past the Bruins into the Stanley Cup finals in 1976, was the signature game of Leachs career, largely because Boston goalie Gilles Gilbert signed off on it, allowing three scores on backhanders from Leachs off wing. He was so hot the five goals came on nine shots Leach managed to miss Gilberts suitcase, packed for the summer at his side.
But it was in the next series against Montreal, when practically all of Leachs shifts were against the best defensive winger ever, Bob Gainey, Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden, and three huge and mobile Hall of Fame defensemen (Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe), that Leach defined unstoppable.
The Flyers, who were minus Rick MacLeish and had Clarke playing on one leg, otherwise were shut down by a team about to win its first of four straight championships. And Leach still stuck four darts past Dryden.
Dryden started the series 6-foot-4 and was 5-8 by the time the time Reggie was done, said Clarke. When he wound up, Dryden shrunk before your eyes.
It was the hardest-fought sweep in hockey history. And Leachs 19 playoff goals in 16 games that spring made him the only non-goalie ever to win the Conn Smythe Trophy from the losing side.
Proudest moment? Leach was asked last week. First, I think was just playing in the NHL, but there were a lot of them, like winning a (1975) Stanley Cup with the Flyers, and that incredible year in 1976.
In life, when you have your great moments the bad are all gone, making you a better, happier person.
Leach has become that guy through 26 years of sobriety that began the year he left the game, virtually broke and with a broken marriage. Alcoholics Anonymous succeeds by reminding its participants that every day is a challenge. But Leach, who counsels the youth of Aundeck Omin Kaning First Nation on Life Choices, says practice has made sobriety simple for him.
Been doing it for 26 years, he said. The last four have been on the Northern Ontario reservation, 90 minutes from Sudbury, five or six hours from Toronto, where he joined Dawn, his significant other and a lawyer who works for a financial company that makes loans towards First Nation economic development. She is on a lot of major boards in Canada, said Leach.
They met when he made an appearance at Native hockey tournament, Leach soon decided he had cut his last lawn and landscaped his last bush on behalf of Reggie Leachs Sports Lawn Service in South Jersey.
I had done that long enough, he said. At first I was thinking about joining my son Jamee, who is a golf pro in Winnipeg, but then I met Dawn.
Best thing I ever did was move here. Dont miss the traffic. Do miss being able to have a pizza delivered at 10 p.m.
Jamee does the booking for the traveling hockey clinics the Leaches put on. Daughter Brandie is a chiropractor in Austin, Texas. Three grandchildren, the work Leach does with First Nation youth, the fact that he says Dawn and his ex-wife Isabel get along like one big happy family makes life even sweeter than the spot on his stick that launched pucks at a clocked 115 miles an hour.
Cut back on the alcohol stuff, would you? he asked at the end of the interview. Im not really into it. I try to be more positive.
You media guys bring up my off-ice stuff like I was the only one. I could tell you stories about guys who were better players than I was. If you go back to the 82-83 season (his final one in the NHL, with the Red Wings) I was no different than two, three guys who played on my team.
I never had a DUI. Some of the coaches who got down on me had their own alcohol problems. I could go on, but I dont, I averaged 32 goals a year. Im happy with what I did. Now Im happy to make it to age 61.
His oldest friends are as thrilled by that as they are surprised.
Leachs father drifted off to work the mines before Reggie was born. His mother moved to Edmonton and left him with his paternal grandparents, who had 12 kids of their own. One of those children died in an automobile accident, another froze to death drunk in a snow bank. Two sisters died young, one of asphyxiation in the front seat of a car, the other in a mental hospital.
No, I never would have thought he would make it this far, could have this kind of life, said Clarke.
I was at Reggies home when I was 17 and he was 16. There was no running water, or a toilet, only a grandmother, who wasnt discouraging drinking in the house, raising the whole bunch of them. Coming from that, hes done an amazing job.
He got drafted (third overall) by the Bruins, a partying team where he fit right in and continued that in Oakland (where Leach was traded in a package for Carol Vadnais). He was pretty good in Philly (where he was traded for a package including Al MacAdam after the first Cup) for three, four, five years, then got going again. It certainly ended his career way too early, caught up to him at the same time it did MacLeish, both heavy smokers and drinkers.
Leach still got in 13 seasons, breaking 45 goals three times, adding those 19 in the playoffs the year he scored 61, his career season, along with Clarkes (119 points and plus 83) and Bill Barbers (50 goals).
Clarkie makes the bombs and I drop em, Leach gleefully would say. Two seasons later, when he was a 24-goal dud, Leach maintained instead the worst thing I ever did was score 60 because now they expect you to do it every year.
The doghouse where he was sent by Shero, Quinn and Bob McCammon had saloon doors for easy access by a player who didnt want to do much more than score. All the while, Leach resented coaches for thinking of him only as a scorer.
Pat would use him in a checking role once in a while and got him going again, said Clarke. The way he could skate, he could check as good as he wanted to, but lots of time he didnt.
Freddie was OK, recalled Leach. Pat was the guy who could figure me out and Clarkie knew what I could do when I wanted to do it. McCammon probably was the worst coach I ever had, was never on the ice at practice.
It was McCammon, brought back with a mandate to bring discipline when Quinn was fired with six games to go in the 1981-82 season, who ended Leachs Flyer days. He was told to go home after coming on the ice three minutes late for a practice, which Leach believes was done to keep him from a performance trigger of a contract extension. He never made more than 145,000 a season. And because management hated him when they werent forced by 47 playoff goals in 94 career games to love him, Leach generally had to fight to get every penny.
One September, when reporters chased him to the Portland, Maine after he bolted camp seeking a renegotiation, they asked if he had talked to GM Keith Allen. Might as well talk to this ashtray, said Leach memorably.
McCammon and Quinn knew the feeling, too, when Leach would lose interest. Ultimately, he was even harder to stay angry with than for opponents to stop him. His demons were much harder to beat than even Ken Dryden. So everybody who ever knew this gentle soul with the hard shot celebrates his happily-ever-after.
Jay Greenberg covered the Flyers for 14 years for the Daily News and Evening Bulletin. His history of the Flyers, Full Spectrum, was published in 1996. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.