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Color of Hockey: Leach earns Order of Canada for post-NHL achievements

Accolade salutes retired forward's efforts to promote role of sport in building healthy communities

by William Douglas @WDouglasNHL / Staff Writer

William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past seven years. Douglas joined in March and will be writing about people of color in the game. Today, he profiles former NHL player Reggie Leach, who was recently named to the Order of Canada.

Reggie Leach kept pretty quiet about one of the biggest honors of his life.

Leach was on a Delaware golf course with his former Philadelphia Flyers teammates when the official word came that he had been appointed to the Order of Canada, one of the country's highest civilian awards.

The high-scoring right wing known as the "Riverton Rifle" didn't say much about the honor to most of the 65 Flyers alumni who gathered for their annual golf invitational tournament on June 27.

"I didn't tell anybody," Leach said. "I don't really say too much about stuff that I get."

But the alumni didn't let him get away with it. After the news filtered through the group, Flyers Alumni Association president Brad Marsh quickly reshuffled the lineup at the alumni banquet that night to recognize Leach's accomplishment.

"Even though they had illustrious careers, many alumni will be remembered more for what they did in retirement than they did in their National Hockey League playing days," Marsh said at the banquet. "I said, 'A perfect example of this is Mr. Reggie Leach, and something very special happened today in Canada -- Reggie was awarded the order of Canada.'

"Of course, the Flyers faithful that [were] in attendance, some 265 people, brought the roof down."

Leach said it's still sinking in that he's among the 83 new appointees to the order, which recognizes Canadians for their "dedication to the community and service to the nation."

Leach was one of the NHL's top scorers in the 1970s and early 1980s with 666 points (381 goals, 285 assists) in 934 games with the Flyers, California Golden Seals, Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings.

He led the NHL in goals with 61 in 1975-76; won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the 1976 Stanley Cup Playoffs by scoring 19 goals in 16 games, even though the Flyers were swept by the Montreal Canadians in the Final; and scored five goals on seven shots in Game 5 of the 1976 Semifinals against the Boston Bruins.

But Canada is recognizing Leach largely for his post-NHL work in "promoting the role of sport in building healthy communities," part of the message he delivers in talks to the nation's Indigenous youth and others about life choices and substance abuse.

"I dedicate this Order of Canada to all our First Nation youth and everybody that's struggling in our First Nation world and to everybody that's struggling, really," said Leach, who is Ojibwe. "Hockey is a very, very small part of my life circle. I'm always going to be known as Reggie Leach the hockey player, but I'm a lot more than that today."

Leach has been on an accolade roll lately. He received an honorary doctorate from Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, in June; he recently spoke at the United Nations about the importance of sports for aboriginal people worldwide; and he was inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame in November.

Once he's formally invested at an upcoming ceremony, Leach will be one of 7,634 Order of Canada recipients since the award's creation in 1967 as part of the country's centennial celebration.

He'll also be among more than 30 hockey players in the order, a group that includes Hockey Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Bobby Orr, Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe, Guy Lafleur, Bobby Hull, Mario Lemieux, Willie O'Ree and his longtime Flyers linemate Bobby Clarke.

"Now they're hanging around with me," Leach said with a laugh. "I'm very happy to be in the company of all these guys."

Leach, 69, has never left Clarke's wing. The two combined with forward Bill Barber to form the "LCB Line" that helped power the Flyers to their second Stanley Cup in 1975.

Leach and Clarke had an on-ice chemistry that stemmed from their days in juniors, when they played together in Flin Flon of the Western Hockey League in the late 1960s, and blossomed into a lifelong friendship.

"Even today, we talk all the time. He just did a big fundraiser in my hometown of Riverton, Manitoba, a couple of weeks ago," Leach said. "You're always attached to people that you admire, and Bobby Clarke is the best friend I have."

Hockey brought Leach fame and recognition, but it also contributed to his drinking, which he details in his 2015 autobiography "The Riverton Rifle: My Story -- Straight Shooting on Hockey and on Life."

"In just a few short years, I had left behind my life as a carefree kid to become a married father of two," Leach wrote. "I had gone from relative obscurity to hockey stardom -- and life in the fast lane. The change had been overwhelming and I turned to alcohol to help me cope."

Told by a doctor that "either you stop drinking now or you keep drinking and die," Leach checked into rehab in 1985 to confront the demons that drove him to alcohol. In the years since, he has used his life story to inspire others to make good decisions or to pick themselves once they've fallen.

"I made a lot of those bad choices as a young person, a young hockey player in the National Hockey League, and you learn from those mistakes and move on," he said. "Everybody makes mistakes, no matter who you are. You have to give them a second chance and let them move on. That's what life's about."

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