Taking aim for the Riverton Rifle

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reggieleachThe following column was initially published in the Winnipeg Free Press on February 28, 2013.

“We the undersigned put forth his name, to the Hockey Hall of Fame…”

Those words wove their way through the halls of the esteemed institution of hockey lore in Toronto on Feb. 23. John K. Samson, best known as the frontman for indie rockers the Weakerthans, led a group of 25 people who sang the chorus as they hand-delivered a submission addressed to Hall of Fame chairman Bill Hay.

Whose name did they put forth? That of the Riverton Rifle: Reggie Leach.

The lyrics are classic Samson: taking a seemingly mundane piece of bureaucratic lingo and making it mean something by setting it against scenes any hockey lover can relate to. Other lines in the song talk about scrimmages “with our elbows up” or of dads running out to buy new TVs and twisting antennae, all to catch a glimpse of the playoff runs of the “Broad Street Bullies.” There’s a nod to the mythical start of Leach, that he apparently played some of his first years on borrowed skates owing to poverty. The song is fittingly titled www.ipetitions.com/petition/rivertonrifle/.

Samson marshalled the group of singers at the CBC Toronto atrium, rehearsed the song and led them down Front Street like the Pied Piper of Manitoba.

In typical self-effacing fashion, Samson told me via email, “It was way further than I thought it would be. I led us through several doors and a big hallway and then down an escalator, everyone singing the whole time, while people stared and pointed and took pictures of us.”

The group dropped off its submission and left feeling happy.

The submission to the Hockey Hall of Fame itself is impressive. It features letters of support from writers like Joseph Boyden (author of Three Day Road), Stephen Brunt (formerly of the Globe and Mail) and ESPN’s Chris Jones (in the interests of full disclosure, I also submitted a letter). It includes a petition of more than 1,000 names.

Then there’s the statistical breakdown. Compiled by Phil Russell of Ottawa, the statistical summary of Leach’s career makes it plain that he is the peer of many honoured members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Leach holds the record for most goals in a playoff season with 19 (Jarri Kurri tied the record, though Leach did it in 16 games and Kurri in 18). He is the only non-goalie to win the Conn Smythe trophy (Most Valuable Player in the playoffs) on a losing team. His 381 regular season goals put him two spots behind Cam Neely on the all-time list and one ahead of Ted Lindsay.

When you contrast those numbers with the fact that his “LCB” linemates Bobby Clarke and Bill Barber were each inducted over 20 years ago, Leach’s exclusion seems like an oversight.

Hockey is a game that still grapples with issues of race and the contributions of indigenous players are often overlooked. For example, Willie O’Ree is credited with breaking the NHL’s “colour barrier.” While he no doubt faced great and unique hurdles becoming the first black player in the league, the first non-white player was Fred Sasakamoose, a First Nations man. Inducting Leach into the Hall of Fame would be a big step towards making things right.

While Leach overcame poverty and racism to reach the NHL, his greatest challenge may have come from within: he battled alcoholism during and after his pro hockey days. A few years back I saw him deliver a passionate message about living alcohol-free at a dinner for a national indigenous hockey tournament. He then laughed, joked and took pictures with dozens of young kids hoping to follow his path to the big leagues.

Leach didn’t respond to calls or emails for this piece, but is aware of Samson’s submission to the Hall of Fame.

Surprisingly, Samson admits he was more of a Habs fan growing up. However, Leach offered a window into the lives of the indigenous people Samson grew up close to in the Interlake but didn’t know much about. It also made him proud of the area they both called home.

“I never thought of the players I saw on television being from somewhere like Riverton, somehow.” Samson said. “Reggie Leach deserves to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame for his accomplishments on the ice, but even more so for the content of his character, what he had to overcome in order to succeed, his openness about the mistakes he made, and the inspiration he’s been to so many young people, especially kids from small towns and First Nations communities. Whatever the statistics say, that’s the kind of person we should honour.”

The Hockey Hall of Fame considers public suggestions of candidates for induction that are submitted by March 15 every year.

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