Former Flyers right winger Reggie Leach, known as The Rifle because of his blazing shot, was an All-Star, a 1975 Stanley Cup champion, and an alcoholic during his playing days.
Now 70, Leach has been sober for 35 years and is teaching hockey skills – and life lessons -- to youngsters all over North America when the coronavirus pandemic permits. Leach and his son, Jamie, a former NHL player, and a 15-member staff instruct players mostly in Canada and a handful of states.
The elder Leach also is a motivational speaker, talking primarily to Indigenous youngsters about his missteps.
Teaching and trying to keep kids away from the grasp of alcohol and drugs, Reggie Leach said recently, is more rewarding to him than anything he did in a superb NHL career, which was highlighted by a remarkable 80 goals -- a league-leading 61 in the regular season and an NHL-record 19 in the 1975-76 playoffs.
“I tell them about the mistakes I made and I think it’s important for me to get that message across to young kids so they understand that part of it,” Leach said last month from his home on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario. “Most of the kids I talk to don’t know who I am, but their grandfathers do, and when the kids go on the Internet to find out about me, they find out I was pretty decent.”
That helps the young players stay engaged to the messages he delivers.
“I’m proud when the kids check out what I did in hockey and what I do with my life today,” Leach said in a low, matter-of-fact tone.
Back when he played with the Flyers, it wasn’t unusual for Leach and some of his teammates to bar-hop in the cities they played. Vancouver was one of their favorite stops, said Joe Watson, a steady defenseman on those teams.
“We’d go to the Ritz Hotel there,” Watson recalled Thursday. “There’d be six or seven of us and Reggie would arm-wrestle these loggers and miners who would come in from work. He’d arm-wrestle for a whole table of beer, and each table would have 20 or 30 beers on it. We’d be there for maybe five, six hours, and by the time we’d leave, we had five full tables of beer. That’s how good he was at arm-wrestling, so it was nice to go to a bar with Reggie because he’d put these guys down."
The beers went down, too.
Watson, who has sold advertising for the Flyers’ arenas for the last 35 years, paused.
“With what Reggie has accomplished and how he’s come a long, long way from where he was, it’s a credit to him, and he’s married to a new lady and she seems really good for him," he said. “He does a lot of work for the underprivileged kids in Canada and when he speaks, they listen because he’s been there before. Theses kids have their eyes and ears wide open when they listen to his story.”
Leach and his son, who played five NHL seasons and won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, have run the Shoot to Score summer hockey camps together for the last 15 years, spreading their lessons to over 100 communities.
“Jamie does it full time all year round,” Leach said. “We teach in First Nation communities and mixed communities. I think it’s important with these hockey schools that everybody is included and not just First Nation kids. We have to learn to work together in the world to be successful.”
Enriched his life
Leach, the first Indigenous superstar in NHL history, calls it a “traveling hockey school” and says it has enriched his life and kept him close with his 50-year-old son, who grew up in Cherry Hill when Reggie played for the Flyers. They pull into their venue in a black pickup truck that has three Stanley Cups painted on it -- the combined total they won as NHL players -- and a slogan on its side: Play Hard or Go Home.
“A lot of times these northern communities can’t afford to send all their kids, so we bring the schools to them,” Reggie Leach said. “It’s more than hockey. We do a lot of teaching there, a lot of life choices. I have some kids who have been in the program for six, seven, eight years, and some of them call me Grandpa Reg.”
Leach and the staff preach about slap shots, teamwork, and the intricacies of hockey, along with the downfalls of drugs and alcohol.
“We tell them how important it is to work hard, pay attention, do the drills right, and, most important, be a kind person,” Leach said. “We tell them, ‘Don’t take shortcuts.’ ”
Leach and his son stress that not everyone makes it to the NHL, and that “in today’s world, you need an education to advance,” the former Flyer said.
Boozing, Leach said, was a habit he started when he was 12 years old. It carried into his playing career.
Leach, the only forward in NHL history to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the best playoff performer on a losing team, finished with 381 goals in a 13-year career that, he feels, may have put him in the Hall of Fame if it wasn’t cut short because of his drinking.
He wasn’t complaining. Fact is, Reginald Joseph Leach is at peace with himself and his transformation since his playing days ended.
“I’ve been rewarded for a lot of the work I’ve done with kids. I’m actually more proud of what I do today than what I did in my hockey career,” he said. “That’s my joy in life, helping young kids along the way. …. It’s why I still go into these arenas and skate with these kids.”
Last June, Leach , who left school after eighth grade, was awarded an honorary degree from Brock University. Later in the year, he was given the Order of Canada -- the nation’s highest civilian honor -- for his work with children.
“Seeing the kids’ smiling faces all the time,” Leach said, is what keeps him feeling young. “We know a lot of kids are having a tough time, but at the rink it’s a different situation. We have to pay attention to our kids. Don’t ignore the kids.”
Leach said he tried to quit drinking several times. It would last for a few months, but the habit would return. It wasn’t until he went to a rehab that he stopped permanently.
“We all go through some ups and downs and he was able to pull together with some help,” said Bob Kelly, one of Leach’s former Flyers teammates. “He’s really done a great job, and his name is huge all across Canada. He’s just a very humble, quiet person. A great teammate.”
Watson, who said Leach’s shot was so hard he would break teammates’ shin pads with his blasts in practice, agreed.
‘Trials and tribulations’
“You go through trials and tribulations in life; we all go through them,” Watson said.
“I always considered Reggie a person of goodness and it was only a matter of time before he got past his demons and proved it to the world,” said Bill Clement, another former Flyers teammate.
While with the Flyers in 1976, Leach had too much to drink one night – earlier that day, he stormed out of practice after an argument with an assistant coach -- and then scored five goals in the next night’s playoff game against Boston.
That happened after captain Bobby Clarke, Leach’s best friend since their days as junior teammates with the Flin Flon Bombers, pleaded to coach Fred Shero that the team needed The Rifle in the lineup.
“They couldn’t find Reggie, and I guess Clarkie had an idea where he was and he went to Freddy," Watson said. "Thank God he did, and I think Freddy talked with the assistant coaches and they decided it would be better to play him.”
“Everybody knows Freddy was a weird duck,” Leach said of the eccentric man who was a coaching genius, an innovator who used some unusual teaching methods to lead the Flyers to Stanley Cup titles in 1974 and 1975. “He’d always say, ‘Not everybody is created equal, it doesn’t matter what.’ I was the second guy in NHL history to score 80 goals [in a season] and I had to practice every day. Never had a day off. I was his whipping boy all the time.”
Shero, it should be pointed out, got more out of Leach than those who coached him with Boston, Detroit, or the old California Golden Seals. Much more.
All these years later, Leach is still paying it forward to the youngsters he instructs.