Wednesday, September 22, 2010

John K. Samson and the Riverton Rifle

Anyone who considers themselves a serious fan of Canada's national pastime knows of some unjustly overlooked candidate for the Hockey Hall Of Fame and they'll gladly tell you why the selection committee are idiots for the unforgivable oversight. Whenever the discussion arises in a place where drinks are served, there are always a few present either eager to argue to the contrary or detail an elaborate conspiracy theory to explain why the unfortunate player has been shut out of hockey's most hallowed hall.   
Over the years, rational arguments have been made for a number of seemingly worthy players who've already earned a place in history, namely former Montreal Canadiens' captain Guy Carbonneau who took the Frank J. Selke Trophy three times and has as many Stanley Cup rings along with another well-respected defensive forward Marty Pavelich, the Red Wings' penalty killing ace whose superb shadowing skills helped Detroit win four Stanley Cups during the early 50s. Cases have also frequently been put forth for Eric Lindros, Doug Gilmour, Mark Howe, Pavel Burre and netminder Lorne Chabot who took the Vezina Trophy in 1935. You'd think being the first-ever hockey player to grace the cover of Time magazine would be enough to secure entry – evidently not.  
Another apparent Hall Of Fame shoo-in given the cold shoulder thus far is Maple Leafs great Paul Henderson who scored the game-winning goals in the last three games of the 1972 Canada Vs. Russia Summit Series, including the dramatic series winner. The fact that legendary Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak – whom Henderson beat in Game 8 – has already been inducted only makes Henderson's exclusion all the more puzzling, particularly for those who consider the "shot heard 'round the world" to be the greatest moment in the history of Canadian sport.
One former NHL star you don't hear many hockey nuts loudly arguing about is Reggie Leach who made his mark with the Stanley Cup winning Philadelphia Flyers during the Broad Street Bullies-era of the mid-to-late 70s. Manitoba's sharpshooting "Riverton Rifle" – so named for his 115 mph slapshot – notched a respectable 381 goals and 285 assists over a 934-game career that peaked in the 1975-76 season with the Flyers when Leach had a league-leading 61 goals and an incredible +73 rating. To this day, he remains the only non-goaltender with the distinction of winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP on a Stanley Cup losing team for scoring a record-setting 19 goals including five in a game against Boston. No doubt a particularly gratifying night for Leach since the Bruins originally picked him third overall in the first round of the 1970 Amateur Draft then unceremoniously dealt him to the hapless California Golden Seals two years later in a package deal to get solid defenceman Carol Vadnais for their 1972 Stanley Cup bid. It worked for the Bruins and also the Flyers who swiped Leach from the Seals in 1974 for next to nothing. 
Whether it's because Leach's numerous achievements with the Flyers and Flin Flon Bombers have been overshadowed by those of his attention-grabbing linemate Bobby Clarke or his notorious battle with the bottle negates all of his on-ice accomplishments in the eyes of the Hall's image-conscious selection committee, the troubled star has been left out of the ongoing dialogue almost entirely.
At least everywhere but Manitoba where Leach isn't considered a failure for his past problems, the current coach of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League's Manitoulan Islanders is a beloved cultural icon admired for the way he turned his life around and has so selflessly given back to his community. His hometown peeps in Riverton definitely haven't forgotten the "Rifle."        
To help get Leach into the Hockey Hall Of Fame, they've posted an online petition ( which inspired John K. Samson of Winnipeg's Weakerthans to write and record a song about the grassroots support for Leach's longshot bid.
Cleverly titled Petition, Samson's tune has just been released on his three-track Provinical Road 222 (Anti-) seven-inch EP and on iTunes (see links below), the second in a high-concept series of recordings dealing with stories connected by the roadways running through his home province of Manitoba.
Contrary to what you might expect, Petition isn't the sort of fist-pumping anthem that Leach fans will be busting out at Flyers' games but rather, a gently strummed and sensitively crooned folk ballad. Although it doesn't really convey why Leach deserves Hall Of Fame consideration, it's pleasant enough not to put off the hockey-hating segment of the Weakerthans' loyal following. It doesn't sound out of place alongside The Last And, a heady number informed by Edna Krabappel's relationship with Seymour Skinner on The Simpsons.
Even if The Petition falls short of making a convincing case for Leach, the release seems to be raising his media profile. If nothing else, it should get Samson an opening spot on the next Blue Rodeo tour and possibly some decent seats at an upcoming Manitoulan Islanders game.

Reggie Leach's historic five goal playoff performance

John K. Samson
A petition for Reggie Leach sponsored by Samson
Provincial Road 222 on iTunes 

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