Reggie Leach won a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe trophy, notched 381 goals in 13 National Hockey League seasons, and shares scoring records with legends like Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
But the man known as the “Riverton Rifle” declares that “I’m more proud of what I’ve done after hockey than during my hockey days.”
Hockey brought Leach fame for his regular season scoring prowess and post-season lamp-lighting heroics with the Philadelphia Flyers during the team’s “Broad Street Bullies” haymaker heydays in the 1970s and early 80s.
His post-hockey life has brought something more – sobriety, clarity, sense of purpose, and a renewed family closeness.
Leach, who’s Ojibwe, First Nation, candidly recounts his life on and off the ice in his autobiography “The Riverton Rifle My Story – Straight Shooting on Hockey and on Life.”
It’s a story that spans Leach’s impoverished beginnings in Riverton, Manatoba, to junior hockey stardom in Flin Flon, Manitoba, with a young teammate named Bobby Clarke, to an NHL career marked with records on the ice and recklessness off it.
“It wasn’t that hard to do if you’re honest with everything and go ahead and write it, ” Leach, 65, said of penning the book. “It’s more of a learning book based on the Seven Grandfather Teachings of the Ojibwe nation. It was dedicated to my grandkids and kids that need help.”
People who watched a young Reggie Leach play hockey in Manitoba considered him a natural – a swift skater blessed with a hard and deadly accurate shot.
What they might not have known that his skating skills were honed by figure skating lessons and the shot developed from countless hours in the offseason shooting on the hard concrete of thawed-out rinks.
The hard work paid off in success in major junior hockey. Playing alongside Clarke, Leach 255 goals and 146 assists in 183 games for the Flin Flon Bombers of the Western Hockey League and the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
Although he was a star player in juniors, he wasn’t immune to racist taunts of opposing players and so-called “fans” in the stands.
“There’d be a bunch of name-calling and everything else,” he said. “My junior coach, Pat Ginnell, said ‘Reg, the only reason these people are calling you names is you’re being noticed out there.'”
The Boston Bruins noticed Leach and took the right wing with the third overall pick in the first round of the 1970 NHL Draft. He appeared in 78 games over two seasons with the Bruins playing with the likes of Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Gerry Cheevers and Derek Sanderson.
His stint in Boston ended when he was traded to the lowly California Golden Seals in the 1971-72 season in a blockbuster deal that sent prized Seals defenseman Carol Vadnais to the Bruins.
Leach endured three seasons in Oakland with the white skates-wearing Seals before being dealt to the Flyers and reunited with Flin Flon linemate Clarke, the gap-toothed, diabetic center who blossomed into the ringleader of the Broad Street Bullies and one of the best players in the NHL.
Leach would often say that “Clarkie makes the bombs and I drop ’em.” He proved to be quite the bombardier throughout his NHL career, notching 381 goals and 285 assists in 934 games.
While Leach was piling up goals, he was also compiling records, many of which stand today: goals in consecutive playoff games (10 in 1976); most goals in one playoff game (5 in 1976), shared with the Montreal Canadiens legend Rocket Richard, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Darryl Sittler , and Pittsburgh Penguins’ Mario Lemieux; most goals in one period of a playoff game (4 in 1976), shared with Flyers forward Tim Kerr and Lemieux; most goals in one playoff season (19 in 1976), shared with Edmonton Oilers winger Jari Kurri.
Success for Leach came as fast and hard as the shots he fired at terrified goalies. Perhaps too fast.
He drank, heavily. He wasn’t an everyday drunk. Sometimes he wouldn’t imbibe for weeks. But when he did, he went all-in.
“Years of binge drinking had taken a toll on my (first) marriage and it was hanging on by a thread,” Leach writes in his book. “By that time, I would go on a bender every week or two – run out for a loaf of bread on Friday and return on Sunday.”
After a doctor told him “Either you stop drinking now or you keep drinking and die,” Leach checked into the Maryville Addiction Treatment Center in Williamstown, N.J., where he confronted the demons that drove him to booze.
“It was very difficult to look at my past,” he writes. “In just a few short years, I had left behind my life as a carefree kid to become a married father of two. I had gone from relative obscurity to hockey stardom – and life in the fast lane. The change had been overwhelming and I turned to alcohol to help me cope.”
Leach left rehab in 1985 and felt good enough to consider resuming his hockey career – either as a player or a coach. Former teammates Clarke and Bill Barber suggested that he lace up the skates and give hockey a go again.
“It slowly dawned on me that I was about to return not just to the game I loved but also to the life of a professional hockey player, a life that involved spending time in bars and other places where beer taps were open,” Leach writes. “I knew I had to avoid situations that would trigger a relapse in my drinking – so after a lot of thought about what I had just fought through and careful reflection on what I had learned, I decided not to make a comeback.”
And he hasn’t looked back. Sobriety rekindled Leach’s relationship with his son, former Penguins right wing Jamie Leach, and his daughter, Brandie, a chiropractor in Austin, Texas, and a former Canadian national team lacrosse player.
He moved from South New Jersey, where many of his Flyers teammates retired, to Manitoulin, Ontario with his wife, Dawn. The “Riverton Rifle’ may be retired, but he hasn’t stopped working.
He helps teach aboriginal kids the value of making positive choices through the Shoot to Score hockey school he runs with his son. And he’s an in-demand motivational speaker who shares his story and his phone number with troubled teens.
“I’ve done this for a number of years. I’ve probably had 50 to 60 calls at night,” Leach told CBC News in November. “Even if you talk to these kids one or two minutes and give them the acknowledgement they deserve, I think for me it’s a big relief just to see smiles on their faces.”
While Leach speaks with pride about his post-hockey life and his Ojibwe heritage, he talks modestly about whether he should be honored for his playing career.
There was a 2013 drive to have Leach inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, where his “LCB” linemates Clarke and Barber are already enshrined, that spurred a petition and even a song.
“To me, it really doesn’t matter,” Leach told me. “All these people that want me in the Hall of Fame, I say they are my hall of famers.”
But he isn’t shy about saying who he thinks should be enshrined in Toronto – former Flyers left wings John LeClair and Brian Propp.
Propp produced 425 goals and 579 helpers in 1,016 NHL games over 16 years.
“He’s got nearly 1,100 points, no different than some of the other players that are put in there,” Leach said.
LeClair, part of the Flyers’ famous “Legion of Doom” line with center Eric Lindros and right wing Mikael Renberg, tallied 406 goals and 413 assists in 967 NHL games over 17 years.
“I’m happy that Billy and Clarkie got in there,” he told me. “I’m happy for all the guys from the Flyers who got in the Hall of Fame, that’s great. There should be more players in the Hall of Fame who played for the Flyers who are not.”