What seems at first a cup of sorrow is found in the end immortal wine.
THE BHAGAVAD GITA
"That's sick," I said when my friend Mark (Doc) Kelly called to tell me about the anniversary party.
"Heavy-duty laughs," Doc said. "Besides, he knows about it."
"I still think you're hitting the guy where he lives," I said.
June 1, 1986
"We're taking your car," Doc said.
The written notice arrived a few days later. It was from Sam Simmons, a teacher and hockey coach at South Kent School, South Kent, Conn. It read, in part:
"February 7, 1986 marks the tenth anniversary of one of the more memorable events in National Hockey League history. It was on this night in 1976 at Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, that Darryl Sittler set an NHL record by notching ten points (six goals, four assists) in a single game. The Leafs were hosting Boston that night and tending goal for Da Broons was your friend and mine, David Reece."
Simmons reported that while Sittler, a sixth-year man in that 1975-76 season, played for nine more NHL seasons, Reece had "gone on to other things...particularly to Springfield and Rochester in the American Hockey League." The note concluded with an invitation to join "about 20 people with whom David feels he could share this evening" at a Roast of Reece on the anniversary of the game that effectively ended his NHL career.
It still sounded sick, or at least it did until the next day when Reece called, his words tumbling out in hoarse exuberance. A man who can't say hello without pushing the enthusiasm indicator off the dial, Reece sounds like John Madden.
"Naw, it'll be great," he said. "Great! I think we should invite Sittler. Some goalies keep guys in the NHL. I put that s.o.b. in the Hall of Fame. He should stop by and say thanks."
Reece was calling from the Trinity-Pawling School in Pawling, N.Y., a prep school where he is the hockey coach and director of admissions. Ostensibly, he was trying to finalize the guest list, but he obviously was also letting me know that this affair had his imprimatur.
"Why would anyone want to subject himself to this?" I asked Doc as we pulled onto the Mass. Pike for the three-hour drive from Boston to Pawling.
"Maybe he's trying to bury it," said Doc, who, having exhausted his capacity for analysis and compassion, added, "We come not to praise Reece, but to bury him. I got my shovel ready. Heh, heh."
I had known Reece since he came to the now-defunct AHL Boston Braves in 1973, an All-America from the University of Vermont who had his eye on one of the two Bruins' goaltending jobs. He was sure it would only be a matter of time.
"I think next season," he had said one night in February 1975 when I showed up unexpectedly at his Rochester, N.Y. apartment. We drank beer and talked far into the morning. At the time, he was tending goal for the Rochester Americans, and I was working for a pro soccer team that was teetering on, and would soon topple over, the edge of bankruptcy. It is embarrassing to recall that I felt our friendship tainted by envy as Reece sketched out what seemed to be his secure future: Bruins, new contract, marriage, house, family. "And I'd like to see Europe next summer, after the playoffs," he said. Sure. After the playoffs.
He did make the Bruins the next season and played creditably, with a 2.68 goals-against average through 13 games until Sittler's scoring outburst in the 11-4 Toronto win on that fateful February day in 1976. Four days later, Reece was sent down to the Springfield (Mass.) Indians. He would finish the season there, return to Rochester and then Providence for part of the next season, play for the U.S. national team in the 1977 world championships and retire. He never played another game in the NHL.
I thought of calling him the day after the Sittler debacle, but I didn't know what to say. Besides, we hadn't seen much of each other that year. In the next 10 years we talked on the phone twice and communicated sporadically through Doc, who, like Reece, is a private-school administrator. I never saw Reece again until the day of the anniversary party when Doc and I walked into the frigid Trinity-Pawling rink. He was on the ice running a practice. We got what I figured was a more or less standard Reece greeting. He skated to the boards, hoisted a leg up on the dasher, began climbing the chain link fence, all the while shouting a hyped-up commentary: "And it's a wild brawl, with the players trying to get at the fans...."
"Happy anniversary," I said, extending my hand over the fence after he had climbed back down. I noticed he was wearing goalie skates.
"You hosehead," he said—only maybe he didn't say hosehead. His team skated through 3-on-2 line rushes. The players were fast but small. "I'm experimenting," he said. "I'm not taking postgrads. We're going with the kids we've got. You bring in PGs and you win, but so what? What does that do to the kid who's been here three years? I mean, you going to crush kids just to win?"
Three seasons ago Trinity-Pawling was 12-9, more than respectable considering it plays some of the best prep schools in the country. This year's team, made up largely of ninth-and 10th-graders, finished 3-15-1 and was 2-10 at the time of my visit. "I don't care," said Reece. "I did it the other way and won. Now I'm going with my principles. Stay for practice. I'll be through in an hour-and-a-half."
"See you at the roast," I said.
"Keep your head up." warned Doc.
On every dinner plate there was a puck that carried a photo of a tight-lipped Reece surrounded by his game stats—25 shots, 14 saves, a .560 save percentage. On the other side was a picture of a grinning Sittler and this note: HALL OF FAME TICKET. FEB. 7, 1976 GAME PUCK. SIX GOALS, 4 ASSISTS.
The five-page program for the evening included old newsclips headlined REECE IN THE CREASE AWAITS HIS RELEASE, and REECE'S NIGHT TO DISREMEMBER, and The Boston Globe's game story quoting a shell-shocked Reece: "If there ever was any doubt that this isn't a cutthroat business it's gone now. We're down 8-4 and what are they doing? Pouring on the coal. More steam! More steam! Guys are fighting each other to get over the boards. Guys are shooting from everywhere." At least Sittler hadn't stripped him of his sense of humor, I thought.
There were gifts: the alleged game puck, a hunk of rubber battered almost beyond recognition; a Bruins jersey with REECE on the back—"We picked it out of a trash can at a Springfield bus terminal, Dave"; a goalie glove with no pocket or webbing, supposedly the one Reece used that night; the promise of a tube of Solarcaine for the burn the goal light had left on his neck; and, finally, a Pick-Me-Up bouquet, which, if it didn't pick him up, at least set him up for what came next: the videotape.
"We thought you'd like to see these goals, Dave, because we know you didn't see them the first time," said Simmons, the M.C., switching on the VCR containing a tape of all the game's goals.
Reece leaned back in his chair, and laughed as the game appeared on the TV monitor. There was Toronto's Lanny McDonald picking a corner with a perfect shot. "No way I could've had that," said Reece to a chorus of groans from the rest of us. Toronto's Ian Turnbull put one in the net high on Reece's glove side. "Good hands, David," said someone at the table. A fight broke out in the game. "I should've been third man in and got myself thrown out," said Reece. On the monitor, Sittler scores, then Borje Salming, then Sittler again.
"They're sending a guy to Trailways for the bus ticket now," someone said. Sittler completes his first hat trick with a 50-footer off Reece's stick, and George Ferguson makes it 8-3 Toronto. On the screen Sittler scores three more, the last from behind the net on a bank shot off a skate. The tape ended and Reece got to his feet and applauded. I was sitting beside him and it seemed to me he was genuinely amused and, more than that, relieved.
"A toast, gentlemen," someone said, "to the man who made Darryl Sittler a legend."
Reece's friend Larry Smith gave a slide show of highlights of Reece's career and among the jabs was an ego-saving picture of Reece at the University of Vermont when he was the state's 1971 Athlete of the Year. Of that award Reece said, "I beat out a..." and then laughed so hard he could barely say "cow." Everyone laughed. Someone told the story of the way Dave used to toss pucks up in the air and bat them, baseball-style, out of the zone with his goalie stick and of how in an overtime game at Vermont he tossed a puck in the air and whiffed on the swing. The puck rolled into the cage, costing his team the game. There was absolute quiet in the rink until Reece's father shouted from the stands, "The only thing left now is suicide." Reece laughed at the memory.
Everyone was in high spirits, and then Simmons threw a changeup, altering the course of the evening.
"David, you did something none of us could ever do," said Simmons. "You made it to the NHL. And I don't think any of us understands how you could work so hard to get there, then go through something like you did on that one night and, somehow, keep it all in perspective. You stayed cheery and strong, and you never changed. We respect you for it. That's why we're here tonight." We toasted and applauded.
Reece said we were still a bunch of hoseheads. Then he lowered that John Madden voice and leaned forward, arms on the table, hands fiddling with a fork. "I know feelings are hard to talk about," he said. "Particularly sometimes with men. The memories of that game are a difficult thing to share. But I think you helped me handle it in a personal and caring way. Until tonight, I hadn't seen the replay. And, until tonight, I don't think I ever completely let go."
We were, for a moment, self-consciously silent. Humor sometimes masks deeper emotions. Reece had lifted that mask. Odd, I thought. As a player, Dave was known for never taking off his mask. Then again, it wasn't his mask he was lifting. It was ours.
Simmons called for the check.
As we stood to leave, I told Dave I had never met his wife.
"Come over tomorrow," he said. "Linda's the silver lining in this. I met her in Springfield two weeks after I got sent down. Here I was feeling life had served me a garbage sandwich [he didn't say garbage] and I meet my future wife. She's great. If it wasn't for Linda, I think I would've been bitter. Our daughter, Meredith, is five now. Thank you, Darryl Sittler."
When Doc and I arrived at the Reece house the next morning, Dave was away holding an admissions interview, but Linda was home.
She laughed when we said Dave told us he hadn't seen the tape of the goals before. That wasn't true. "The tape was delivered to our house a week ago," she said. "Dave kept saying, 'I've got to watch that. But not today.' Finally I told him, 'David, you know you're going to have to look at it, so why don't we just sit down and do it.' Goalies are so vulnerable. So we watched it and he was fine.... The only thing that still bothers him is wondering why they didn't take him out."
I wondered, too. Days later, I asked Don Cherry, the former Bruins coach, why he had left Reece in the game. "Reecer was caught in a situation where our other goalie, Gerry Cheevers, had just jumped back from the WHA and hadn't played in two months," Cherry said. "I didn't want to throw him in on a night where everything was going for Toronto. But at one point I felt so sorry for Reecer that I looked down the bench at Cheevers. Gerry just threw a towel over his head."
Linda told us that Dave sometimes talks to the student body at morning chapel. "He tells them about that game and about how when life seems to serve you a...ah...broccoli sandwich, it can set off a whole other chain of events that are positive."
As we walked to the door, I asked Linda if Dave had ever seemed bitter. She said no. "That game was a factor in our meeting, but not in our life together."
"Our life together," Doc repeated afterward. "That's key. She could've said our lives together."
"Maybe he wasn't bitter, but I think, somehow, we helped him bury it," I said.
"You just think of that? Hosehead," Doc said.