Then and Now: Prolific Goal Scorer Leach Now Devoted to Assisting Young Lives
By Bill Meltzer
One the most naturally gifted snipers to grace the National Hockey League in the 1970s to early 1980s, Reggie Leach was a nightmare for opposing goaltenders. Playing along Hockey Hall of Fame inductees Bobby Clarke and Bill Barber on the LCB Line, Leach's goal-scoring prowess earned him a spot in the Flyers Hall of Fame.
Nicknamed "the Rifle," Leach had a hat trick's worth of devastating shots in his arsenal. He had a wicked 100 MPH slapshot that intimidated defenders and goaltenders alike, but also a quick release and the ability to any corner or find the tiniest five hole opening. To top it off, Leach could score on tricky backhanders that made many a goalie look foolish.
In his heyday, 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.
"I was fortunate to play with great teammates and to have one of the best coaches ever in Freddie [Shero]," Leach recalled in a 2014 interview conducted at the 40th anniversary reunion of the Flyers' first Stanley Cup team. "I had a great career and I am proud of it, but those people all made it possible. The Flyers have always had a great organization and I was lucky to be part of it."
To this day, Leach still holds numerous Flyers records. In 1975-76, he set a still-standing mark for the most goals in season (61) and postseason (19, setting an NHL record that he still shares). That same spring, he set club records for the most goals in a single playoff game (five, against Boston) and 10 consecutive playoff games in which he scored a goal.
As much pride as Leach takes in his hockey accomplishments, he takes greater satisfaction in his post-career work.
"What I do is go around Canada to the First Nation communities. I work with the young people and talk to them to understand they can have hope and success and happiness in their life," said Leach.
"You have to understand, that a lot of these kids don't have role models or someone to guide them. A lot of them don't have nobody at all. Nobody to tell them about life choices. Nobody to believe in them. I was lucky. I had hockey. But I made a lot of bad choices, too. I'm honest about those things with them.
"When I talk to them, I just talk from the heart. If you help one or two people it's all worthwhile. Sometimes all these kids need is someone who cares, someone who listens and understands.
"You know, I'm from that same background, so they can relate. The hockey part and the Stanley Cups and all that is exciting to them. But, really, just spending some time with them, giving them a hug, can mean a whole lot. I don't want them to make the bad choices I made when I was younger.
"So that's what I do. The way I look my life is that everybody has a journey. My journey in hockey and the things in my life -- good and bad -- that have happened are what have led me to what I do now. I share these experiences and, honestly, doing it makes me happier even than winning the Stanley Cup."
One look at Reggie Leach's face nowadays reveals his sincerity. He is a man at peace with his life and its purpose: his hard-earned wisdom shines through a serene countenance. The smiles come easily to his grandfatherly face.
Salvation through hockey
Reginald Joseph Leach was born to teenage parents in Riverton, Manitoba, on April 23, 1950. He 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 grandparents, along with twelve of their own children. Reggie did not receive much guidance or individual attention in his formative years.
Leach grew up surrounded by poverty and alcohol abuse. Several members of the household as well as other he knew died young of alcohol-related deaths. The environment of his youth no doubt contributed to Reggie's subsequent life path of heavy drinking and other regrettable choices that would later cause him emotional pain.
Reggie Leach found his passion and self-identity through playing hockey. Using borrowed equipment in his early years, the youngster found joy and success out on the ice. 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 needed better coaching and the Seals 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 presented itself 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."
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 had push himself a little harder.
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 primarily an offensive specialist, he scored in bunches and any weaknesses in two-way play 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.
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.
Leach almost did not play in that game at all. He never showed up for the morning skate. Concerned teammates went to his house in suburban New Jersey and brought him to the rink. Assured by Clarke that Leach would sober up enough to play in the game, Shero started the winger on the day he made team 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 fell into a pattern of inconsistency over the next few years. His goal totals dropped in half and he would often find himself sitting when the Flyers were protecting a late-game lead.
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 did not again approach the heights of his 1974-75, 1975-76, and 1979-80 seasons, although he did have a 34-goal, 70-point campaign in 1980-81. When Quinn was fired near the end of the 1981-82 season and McCammon brought back, it was just a matter of time until Leach was gone from Philadelphia.
The former scoring star was placed on waivers prior to the 1982-83 season. The Detroit Wings, a weak club in the early 1980s, decided to take a chance on Leach. He played managed 15 goals in the 1982-83 campaign.
Leach retired with 381 career goals and 666 points in 934 regular season games in the NHL. In 94 Stanley Cup playoff games, he scored 47 goals and 69 points.
A new, rewarding life after hockey
Despite the happy times he had with his glory years with the Flyers, there was a lot of self-caused pain in Reggie Leach's life. His personal problems, largely contributed to by years of escalating alcoholism, made home life increasingly tough.
He was not the husband, father or friend he knew he could -- and should be -- but continues to try to drown his sorrows in drink. Finally, In 1985, Reggie Leach decided that it was time to start a new, happier and more rewarding life once and for all. In order to do so, he had to take an important step first.
"I went to alcohol rehab in '85," Leach recalled at the Broad Street Bullies reunion weekend in January 2014. "I was ready to help myself. I haven't drank since then."
Ever since then, Leach has taken the "one day at a time" credo of his rehabilitation program to heart.
"I just try to make the most out of every day," he said. "I'm grateful for every day."
Needing money after his playing days, Leach he took a job with a small landscaping company. Eventually, he came to own the company and it grew into a profitable business for a number of years. However, his real joy came from his family as well as his work in First Nation communities in Canada.
In the years following his own playing career, Leach has taken great pride in the accomplishments of his children and grandchildren. Son Jamie played portions of five seasons in the NHL, winning the Stanley Cup as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992. Daughter Brandie represented Canada in the world lacrosse championships in Scotland in 1991-92.