"Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire."
So Right Wing Reggie Leach responded to Coach Fred Shero's thought-for-today on the locker-room chalkboard by playing pyromaniac and igniting for five goals as the suddenly mild-mannered Philadelphia Flyers ousted the Boston Bruins from the Stanley Cup semifinals four games to one last Thursday night with a 6-3 shootout at the Spectrum. "Five goals in one playoff game?" said Leach with stunned disbelief. "That's like the Rocket used to do."
By the Rocket, Leach meant the legendary Maurice Richard of the Canadiens, and it was hardly an idle comparison. Indeed, as Leach trained his sizzling shooting stick on Montreal Goaltender Ken Dryden in the opening game of the cup finals Sunday night at the Forum, he had already shattered one of the Rocket's playoff records by scoring goals in nine straight games and had equaled the single-game record of Richard and Toronto's Darryl Sittler by scoring those five goals against Boston. For added effect, the volatile Leach, who led the NHL with 61 regular-season goals while playing alongside Center Bobby Clarke and Left Wing Bill Barber on the highest-scoring line in league history, needed only one more silly little goal to break Montreal Captain Yvan Cournoyer's record of 15 in one playoff year.
Leach cracked Cournoyer's record just 21 seconds into Game One when he rifled a 35-foot shot past Dryden. Leach's goal stunned the Canadiens, and the Flyers quickly broke Dryden again for a 2-0 lead. However, Montreal rallied and escaped with a 4-3 victory when Defense-man Guy Lapointe beat Wayne Stephenson for the decisive goal at 18:38 of the third period.
May 16, 1976
In routing the Bruins with four straight victories after they had lost the first game of the series on home ice, the Flyers forgot their usual brawling tactics and pending court battles and raised their sticks and gloved fists only when the red light flashed behind the Boston goaltender. The Flyers had averaged 42 penalty minutes per game in their seven boxing matches with the Toronto Maple Leafs in their quarterfinal series, but they spent only 18 minutes a game in the penalty box against the Bruins. "We expected to beat the Flyers with our power play," said Boston Coach Don Cherry, "but we never got a chance to use it." Or as Flyers Defenseman Joe Watson said, "We proved that we can win games by playing pure hockey."
For the 26-year-old Leach, there was vengeance in his outburst against the Bruins, because the Boston team had discarded him on the Oakland junk heap four years ago. "I know I was better than at least one of their right wings," Leach says, "but they never gave me a chance to play." To emphasize his point, Leach scored nine goals in the five games against Boston, beating Gilles Gilbert seven times and Gerry Cheevers twice. "He just had my number," Gilbert said.
Leach turned the series in Philadelphia's direction in Game Two at the Spectrum when he flicked a lucky backboard carom past Cheevers for the game-winning goal after 13:38 of overtime. He scored the clinching goal in Game Three with an artful deflection past Gilbert from the corner of the crease, and he deposited a game-tying goal past Cheevers Tuesday night in Game Four. "We lost all our steam after Leach's goal," Cherry said. "The kid makes it look too damn easy."
Bernie Parent, the aching Philadelphia goaltender who sat on the bench and watched Stephenson stymie the Bruins throughout the four Flyer victories, sympathized with Cherry. "Reggie's so fast, man, it's unreal," Parent said. "It's instinct. He always picks the spot where the goaltender is most likely to miss. And he always finds holes that don't seem big enough for the puck to go through. Reggie has a natural talent."
Leach employed a variety of moves to score his five goals in Game Five, all of which came against the beleaguered Gilbert while the teams were playing at equal strength. His first goal was a forehand blast from the off-wing faceoff circle; his second was a replay of the first, only he shot from the right faceoff circle; his third was an off-balance backhander; his fourth was a bullet wrist shot from the right side after a perfect drop pass from Clarke; and his fifth goal was a quick backhander from the left side.
"I've got confidence now," Leach said. "I guess my shot is as quick as anyone's, and I know that from 15 or 20 feet I'm deadly."
That he is. "What makes Reggie so effective," says linemate Bill Barber, who scored 50 goals himself this season, "is that he never takes a big windup, tees the puck up and slaps at it. He has a great wrist shot, with real hardness to it. It's the best in hockey." Says Parent, "He's murder on goaltenders because he gets his shot off so quickly, with such little body movement, that you can't get set for it." Adds Shero, "Leach is the first winger I've seen since the Rocket whose backhand shot is as tough for the goal-tender as his forehand."
Leach, a Cree Indian, grew up in Riverton, Manitoba (pop. 797), about 65 miles north of Winnipeg. "It's the kind of town," he says, "where you walk into the tavern at nine in the morning and all the guys are sitting around, and when you come back at 11 at night they're still there in the same chairs. I'd probably be one of them if it wasn't for hockey. We were a poor family. I didn't get my first pair of real hockey skates until I was 13 years old. Some guy in town bought them for me. We had a shed out back of our house, and I shot pucks at a bucket for hours each day."
By the time he was 16, Leach had dropped out of school and joined the Flin Flon Bombers, a junior team whose star was a baby-faced local boy named Bobby Clarke. Leach enjoyed the occasional party, as he freely admits, and at least once Clarke had to bail out his young friend. On the ice, Clarke and Leach played on the same line and, thanks mainly to Clarke's playmaking, Leach scored 87 goals for the Bombers one season. Drafted by the Bruins, Leach spent part of a season with their Oklahoma City farm club, then occupied a "padded seat on the bench" in Boston for a year before he was traded to Oakland. "With the Seals," Leach says, "one guy was the coach, the general manager and the publicity director, so you did pretty much what you wanted to do both on and off the ice."
Leach loafed through two seasons with the Seals, scoring 23 and 22 goals. Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, Clarke was trying to convince Flyers General Manager Keith Allen that his Flin Flon friend would be a certain 40-goal scorer. At Clarke's insistence, Allen finally acquired Leach shortly after Philadelphia won its first Stanley Cup in 1974.
Shero placed Leach at right wing on a line with Clarke and Barber, but Leach started slowly, scoring only three goals in his first 20 games, and irritated Shero with his individualism. "Leach was like most hockey players," Shero says. "He did what he wanted to do. He had no idea of discipline, team play or zone play." Clarke always defended Leach. "We don't have players who can score from anywhere on the ice, like Reggie can," he says. "So what's better for us—me going into the boards and digging the puck out for Reggie, or Reggie going into the boards and digging it out for me?"
Leach remembers those days. "I was struggling," he says, "and Fred would leave books on positive thinking and books of quotations in my locker. Heck, I didn't know what half of them meant." Maybe not, but once Leach became acclimated to Shero's system he finished the schedule with 45 goals and added eight more as the Flyers won their second Stanley Cup. Even last week, though, Shero was still complaining that "Leach checks too much with his stick and doesn't use his body enough in the corners." But as Clarke said, "Yeah, but how many guys have scored 76 goals already this year?"
And after Sunday night Leach was at 77—and counting.