Bill Meltzers Heros Of The Past

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Reggie Leach #27

Article by Bill Meltzer

The only person who could have stopped Reggie "The Rifle" Leach from being remembered as one of the greatest snipers ever to lace up a pair of skates was Reggie himself. Arguably the most naturally gifted member of the famous LCB line, Leach had a hat trick of devastating shots in his arsenal. He had a wicked 100 MPH slapshot that intimidated defenders and goaltenders alike, a wrist shot that could pick any corner or find the tiniest five hole opening, and a tricky backhander that made many a goalie look foolish. Leach was dangerous any time he got the puck over the blueline. He could score from any angle and was a good enough stickhandler to elude would-be shotblockers and pokecheck attempts. He also had underrated speed and was lethal in transition. Reggie Leach should have ranked among the NHL's all-time leading goal scorers. He doesn't. While he did score a respectable 381 goals, with all of Leach's offensive ability and the talent that surrounded him on his line, 500 goals or more should not have been an unrealistic career milestone for him to attain. Instead, he had three great seasons and a bunch of underachieving ones. By his own admission, it was his inability to conquer his personal demons that left him with such a sporadic, bittersweet career. Leach was hounded by two interrelated problems throughout his career: 1) He was extremely lazy, and 2) He had a drinking problem. When Leach felt like giving a professional effort, he was sensational. When he did not, he was ineffective. At his nadir, Leach was an outright liability.

Leach always took pride in his shooting ability. He would take hundreds of shots every day, moving the puck around and focusing in on specific small targets. Leach later admitted, "Shooting was probably the only thing I worked on." Leach backchecked grudgingly and sporadically and often ignored fundamentals like supporting the puck carrier along the boards or making sure to get the puck in deep when it was time for a line change. Moreover, as his career moved along, Leach let his non-shooting skills dissipate. He didn't like to pass and he never quite learned to use his skating ability to its maximum advantage.

Born to unmarried teenage parents in Riverton, Manitoba, on April 23, 1950, Leach never really knew his father, who went off to work in the mines before he was born. His Cree Indian mother soon left, too, moving to Edmonton. Reggie was raised by his paternal grandparents, along with twelve of their own children. They were extremely poor and the poverty was exacerbated by rampant drinking. Several members of the household died alcohol-related deaths. Reggie, a poor student and already drinking by the time he was a young teenager, found his salvation in playing hockey. Using borrowed equipment, Leach spent hour after hour playing hockey. When he wasn't in an organized game, he'd go off on his own to skate and shoot.

At the age of 13, Leach was recruited to play with adults on a semi-pro club. News of the talented youngster's abilities spread quickly. Leach soon joined the Flin Flon Bombers, the top junior club in Manitoba. Leach enjoyed great success playing on the right wing of Flin Flon's top player, a center by the name of Bobby Clarke. Leach and Clarke developed a friendship off the ice as well. Clarke was drafted seventeenth overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1969, while Leach, a year Clarke's junior, went third overall to the Boston Bruins in 1970.

Leach saw little ice time with the powerhouse Bruins. In 1972, Boston dealt him to the Oakland Seals in order to be able to stock up for a successful run to the Stanley Cup, acquiring Carol Vadnais in the process. Leach spent two forgettable years with the lowly Seals. He was no more productive than the rest of his teammates. Leach had no inclination to work for his keep and the Seals coach had little interest or patience in trying to coax him to get the most out of his raw talents. After the 1973-74 season, a chance at a new hockey life was presented to Leach. One week after the Philadelphia Flyers had won the Stanley Cup, they traded promising young winger Al MacAdam, center Larry Wright, and a first round draft pick to the Seals in exchange for Leach. Reggie now had the opportunity not only to get back on a winning team, he also would be given a chance to play on the first line with his old Flin Flon teammate, Clarke, and another young star, Bill Barber.

Leach got off to a slow start in 1974-75. Flyers coach Fred Shero was unhappy with his lack of defensive play and overall lack of intensity. He wasn't scoring, either. Through the first quarter of the season, he had only three goals. One day, Clarke pulled Leach aside and told him that he needed to buckle down. The team captain also promised Leach that if he found ways to get open, either Clarke or Barber would find a way to get him the puck. Shero also admonished the player, in his own typically mercurial way. Leach had only been a Flyer a short time but he already knew that if Shero felt the need to confront a player, the player had better take the coach's words to heart or else he was not long for the team. In their brief talk, Shero merely asked Leach if he could look him in the eye and say that he had ever really tried to test his abilities to their limit. In a near-whisper, Leach answered, "I don't think so."

Even Leach realized that his career had come to a make-or-break point. He liked being a Flyer. He liked his teammates, the place he lived, and even the rabid fans who had fallen in love with the Broad Street Bullies. If he wanted to keep those things, he knew he couldn't continue to coast three out of every four games. Even if he went to yet another team, if he didn't start showing something quickly, he'd soon be out of chances and on his way out of the game he loved. For the rest of the season, Leach gave (more or less) a concerted effort to listen to Shero and to give more of himself at practice and in the games. Almost immediately, Leach began to reap dividends. In the next 60 games, Leach pumped home 42 goals. In the playoffs, he added eight more goals, as the Flyers won their second straight Stanley Cup.

The LCB line became the scourge of the National Hockey League, rivaled only by Buffalo's French Connection line as the league's top three man unit. The supreme playmaking of Clarke, the all-around abilities of Barber and the dazzling arsenal of shots possessed by Leach combined to form the first genuine three man juggernaut in Flyers history. Although Leach was still no more than an adequate defender, his shortcomings in his own end were usually covered by his savvy linemates and the Flyers defense corps. By the end of Leach's first season in Philly, Philadelphia Bulletin writer Jack Chevalier (the same man who coined "Broad Street Bullies") had taken to calling Leach "The Rifle." The nickname stuck.

The Flyers of the mid-1970s were a colorful, rowdy bunch. Even in an era in which two-fisted drinking among hockey players was widespread, Philly had a large number of heavy drinkers on the team, including coach Shero. Only when the alcohol consumption routinely inhibited someone's ability to play, as had become the case with Leach's predecessor on Clarke's line, "Cowboy" Bill Flett, was it considered a problem. Although quite a few Flyers from that era found themselves becoming full-blown alcoholics either at the end of their career or, more typically, shortly after their career ended, it was rare for someone to fail to show up for practice or to be too impaired to play in a game. When it did happen, though, Leach was the team's most likely suspect. Because Leach had hit such a good scoring groove, Shero looked the other way when his star right winger overslept and came late to practice or staggered into the dressing room on a game day. On such occasions, Shero left it to Clarke's discretion whether Leach was able to play. Usually, he played and no one was the wiser. The few occasions in which time was too short to sober Leach up enough to dress for a game, Clarke would inform Shero that it was a no go, and Leach would be scratched with "the flu."

Leach's second season in Philadelphia was his best. He ripped apart NHL goalies for 61 goals during the regular season. In the playoffs, he was even more deadly. In 16 playoff contents, The Rifle pumped home 19 goals, a record that still stands (it was later equaled by Edmonton's Jari Kurri). His best individual playoff performance came on the afternoon the Flyers eliminated the Bruins from the semi-finals. He scored five goals that day, three of which came on backhanders from the off-wing circle that flummoxed Bruins' goalie Gilles Gilbert. Oddly, Leach almost did not play in that game at all. He never showed up for the morning skate. Concerned, several teammates went to his house in suburban New Jersey and were relieved to find him alive, albeit in a drunken slumber in the basement. Dragging him to the Spectrum and throwing him in a cold shower, they finally got him to stir. Leach spent the rest of the pre-game time drinking coffee (and, according to some accounts, at least one more alcoholic beverage). It came right down to the wire but finally Clarke gave Shero the thumbs up and Leach took to the ice with the other Flyers. The rest was history.

Although the Flyers were swept in the 1976 Stanley Cup Finals by the Canadiens, Leach continued his torrid scoring, finding the net more four times. Despite the Flyers loss in the Finals, Leach was chosen as the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy; just the third time the award went to someone who was not on the team who won the Cup.

Leach's career began to take a downward turn in 1976-77. Feeling that he had proven himself as a world class sniper, he relaxed a bit. His offense tailed off and his sporadic checking became non-existent. Shero, growing weary of having to constantly cajole Leach, finally responded by benching him. For the next several seasons, Leach fell into a pattern of inconsistency. His goal totals dropped in half and he would often find himself sitting when the Flyers were protecting a late game lead. Quite simply, he wasn't producing enough offense anymore to make up for his other deficiencies. After Shero left for the New York Rangers and Bob McCammon took over as coach in the 1978-79 season, Leach continued to play sporadically. His career had reached another cross-roads when Pat Quinn was brought in to replace McCammon midway through the season.

Before the 1979-80 season, Clarke, by now a playing assistant coach, suggested to Quinn that Leach responded best when he received a lot of positive reinforcement. Quinn made reviving Leach's career a pet project. He succeeded. Leach, reunited full-time with Clarke and Barber and receiving a vote of confidence that he would not be traded, rebounded to have a 50 goal season and another solid playoff run. The Flyers of 1979-80, led by the stellar goaltending of rookie Pete Peeters and paced offensively by the dual threat of the LCB line and the Rat Patrol (Ken Linseman centering rookie left wing Brian Propp and rugged right wing Paul Holmgren), set a North American pro sports record of 35 straight games without a loss. They advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals before losing a heartbreaking sixth game to the New York Islanders.

Leach's career was back on safe footing after the 1979-80 season. Unfortunately, Leach spiraled continually downward again after his big bounceback campaign. He loafed his way out of Quinn's good graces and even Clarke grew tired of Leach's drinking binges, which were becoming more and more frequent. When Quinn was fired and McCammon brought back, it was just a matter of time until Leach punched his ticket out of town. It took exactly one day. Leach showed up late for McCammon's first practice and, later that day, the former scoring star was placed on waivers.

The Detroit Wings, a weak club in the early 1980s, decided to take a chance on the alcoholic right winger. He played rather poorly, managing 15 mostly meaningless goals in the 1982-83 campaign. Even the Wings had seen enough. He was released again. This time there were no takers.

Realizing that he had to figure out what to do with the rest of his life and knowing that he was drinking himself to an early grave, Leach made two of the best decisions he ever made. In the mid-1980s, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and conquered his drinking problem. Needing money, he took a job with a small landscaping company. Eventually, he came to own the company and it grew into a profitable business, which bears his still widely recognized name.

Reggie Leach still lives in South Jersey. His son, Jamie, played parts of five seasons in the NHL, appearing for the Penguins, Whalers, and Bob Clarke's Florida Panthers. In 1990, on the strength of his three great seasons, Reggie was inducted into the Flyers Hall of Fame. Today, Leach occasionally appears at Flyers Alumni events and makes periodic in-studio appearances for Comcast Sportsnet. In addition to his landscaping business, he also works for the Canadian government, traveling to Indian communities on the Canadian plains to warn youngsters about the dangers of alcohol abuse.

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