SI Vault
Pat Jordan
December 13, 1971
John Ferguson, long and lean and sharp, is perched on a stool in a New York City drugstore, his shoulders hunched over the counter. His face, fleshless and dominated by a beaklike nose, is pointed down at his hands, which are moving back and forth across the Formica counter. He has curved his long, thin fingers so that each hand is shaped like a talon, and now, slowly, he brings the hands together until the fingertips touch and then withdraws them. He repeats the process time after time while the fat man standing beside him fidgets and stares at the moving hands. The fat man has a pink, anxious face, and he is clutching a piece of paper in his right hand, which he keeps out of sight.
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December 13, 1971

Icemen You'd Love To Hate

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McKenzie skipped around the NHL for five seasons, with minor-league descents to Hershey and Buffalo in the American Hockey League, before he finally stuck in 1963 with Chicago. He admits that the farther down in the minors he went, the more violent the level of play became and the more forcefully he had to prove himself because of his size. "A lot of guys never made the NHL because they were scared off by the minors," he says. "But maybe those guys were born scared anyway."

In 1965 McKenzie was traded to the New York Rangers, whose city and style of play ill-suited him. "If I took two steps away from the Garden, no one knew me," he says. "Besides, I didn't fit into the Rangers' style of play. I wasn't a finesser like them. I looked out of place on the ice. When I was traded to Boston in 1966 I felt I could skate as well as any of the Bruins. I became more confident. Now when I go out to dinner in Boston everyone knows me. It feels funny after all these years to finally be recognized. Even the front office treats me differently. When I used to work the rodeos in the summers no one ever said a word. Now, all of a sudden, everyone's worried about me getting hurt."

In 1970 the Boston fans voted John McKenzie the Most Popular Player on the Bruins. They treated him and his wife to a two-week vacation on the French Riviera, which McKenzie describes as "a long way from riding broncos in Calgary. A lot of things have changed since I first came up. In those days I was mostly too embarrassed even to ask for a raise. If I did, the front office said take what they offered or go back to the minors. I usually took it. But then, money didn't mean much to me, either. All I cared about was hockey. Today everything is moneyized. Young players bring their lawyers and agents with them at contract time. Maybe it's better for them, but I don't know if it would have been better for me when I was younger. Pretty soon hockey players will be playing just for money instead of for the love of the game—like American athletes. They think the world owes them a living, that playing baseball or football is a big thing. Some of our guys are getting like that, too. They idolize Harrelson and Namath. But no matter what they do, they're no different than the rest of us. Most hockey players don't feel they're doing anything special because in Canada it is expected of a man to play hockey. Everyone plays. So when we come to the States and people make a big deal of us, we tend to stay in the background—like Bobby Orr. You don't see him on the Johnny Carson Show every night. All he wants is a chance to prove his ability, to play the game. The Americans play for rewards, not the game. They want attention, publicity, money, all the extras. And they're very conscious of injuries. When a hockey player gets 10 stitches during a game, he goes back on the ice because he doesn't want to miss the action. When a baseball or football player gets hurt, he won't play. He's thinking about his career, his future, how much this injury will mean to his salary, everything but the game. I'm getting older now, and I admit I'm more conscious of injuries, too. But not when I'm on the ice. As soon as you start shying off, you get hurt. Then you wonder what am I doing here, and it's time to quit. I still think I hit as hard as I always did. And when I hit a guy it's nothing personal. I never think of an opposing player as a guy I like or dislike. I can light with a guy on the ice and then go out drinking with him after the game. I've been in so many fights over the years I've learned to leave them on the ice. You isolate them as part of the game. They mean very little to you. Your ice personality has nothing to do with the type of guy you are off the ice."

Reggie Fleming has the puck. He looks around. He is alone at center ice. He begins skating furiously toward the Ranger goal, his eyes glassy, his hair blown back like the comb of a rooster. Thousands of fans in Madison Square Garden are screaming for someone to stop him. Suddenly Brad Park appears in front of him. There is a clatter of sticks, and now Reggie is alone again as the action moves swiftly away from him back toward the Buffalo goal. He looks around, bewildered, as the Ranger fans begin to laugh at him. "Hit someone, Reggie," yells a fan. "Why don'tcha hit someone?" But there is no one to hit.

The first time Reggie took the ice in New York a decade ago everyone skated away from him. They were all too fast, he says. His coach took him off the ice and told him that if he wanted to stay in the NHL he had to stop people from moving away from him. It did not take Reggie long to realize that if he hit people hard enough and often enough they did not move away so quickly. In that first game he accumulated 37 minutes in penalties, and his fate as a hockey player was sealed.

"If that's what I had to do to stay in the NHL, O.K.," he says today. "I didn't like it, but you can't always be what you want. My biggest problem was trying to convince my mother I wasn't as bad as all the papers said I was. She had never questioned anything I did before, but now she was afraid I would get hurt. She said she didn't bring me up to be rough like that. Then she began worrying that all the mean things the sportswriters were saying would hurt me. I had to call her after every game so she wouldn't worry. I still do. I'm an only child, and she worries."

Reggie Fleming is 35 years old, stands 5'8" tall and weighs almost 200 pounds. It is said by many people—although never to his face, only after they have moved away—that Reggie Fleming is getting too fat to play hockey.

Reggie has a broad, spread-out, small-featured face. His eyes are small and a brilliant blue. There is something childlike about those eyes, their brightness, openness. They reveal the man. Reggie Fleming is open and friendly. He loves to talk (in a scratchy, Aldo Ray voice). He talks to fans whether he is on the ice or off. He talks to the visiting team's trainer, to equipment men, players, referees, reporters, anyone, everyone. People never look for Reggie, he finds them. "Radar," said one player, touching his head.

Sometimes Reggie will be talking to three or more people at the same time, all the people curiously strangers to one another, when suddenly he begins introducing everyone to everyone else, trying, like a proper host, to pair those people he feels have a common interest. "He's a writer," he will say to an NHL official. "Maybe you'd want him to do a story." And the NHL official will smile and move quickly away.

Because of this openness, people often dismiss Reggie as if, in a world that cherishes guile, he is somehow deficient. He is the kind of man people like having known but not knowing. He cloys. He talks too much, said one man. But listening to Reggie Fleming talk, the words bubbling out like boiling water. one gets the feeling that he is trying very hard to say something that has eluded him all these years. There is a point he is trying to make. He is trying to get something right, to set it straight, something he has never before been able to do, and if only he says enough words, then sooner or later the right combination will spill over. But it never does. It eludes him like the faint breeze that can be felt only after it has passed. And he senses that all the while people are listening to him—pretending to listen, at least—they are thinking of the clever things they will say when they move away. There was the Garden employee who listened for 20 minutes and then said as he moved out of earshot, "He's a real cementhead," and laughed.

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