Long before it became in vogue for this franchise to re-acquire talents for a second go-around in Orange and Black, Rick MacLeish broke the mold as one of those rare success stories.
Jettisoned by then-GM Keith Allen in 1981 following a 38-goal, 74-point campaign, the 31-year-old MacLeish left Philadelphia after 320 goals, 15 hat tricks and more than 700 games, traded to the Whalers in a transaction which dealt on both sides with prospects and draft choices. Away from familiar surroundings and an organization accustomed to winning, his career promptly tanked.
Over 80 games in the next two seasons playing for historically poor clubs in Hartford and Pittsburgh, the man with the killer wrist shot and a Stanley Cup-clinching goal to his credit scored only 19 times and put up 52 points.
Yet he returned to Philly in the late Summer of 1983, and turned enough heads during the preseason, including a retread coach in Bob McCammon, to be offered a 40-game contract.
After putting up four goals and 10 assists in the season’s first month and playing alongside young talent like Dave Poulin and Brian Propp along with rediscovering chemistry with Bill Barber, MacLeish cooled off. He ended up with a respectable eight goals and 22 points in 29 games, then was sold to Detroit, oddly enough, a day after the Flyers went to Joe Louis Arena and pounded the Red Wings.
In an era when players were often washed up or released without warning back into the real world once their twenties turned into their thirties, MacLeish set a precedent that careers could be salvaged with the right, and familiar, situation. Playing under a coach in Bob McCammon who previously rubbed he and a chunk of the core veterans the wrong way, it was interesting that MacLeish was able to respond, where those like Reggie Leach did not.
When things were good, under the tutelage of the late, legendary head coach Fred Shero, they were great.
“Ricky, Ross (Lonsberry) and I played on a line together for 5-6 years. I’ll tell you what, he was probably the fastest player on the ice,” said former Flyers broadcaster Gary Dornhoefer as part of statements released Tuesday morning by the club.
“As far as a wrist shot is concerned, there was no one better at getting that shot away and accurate. Ross and I would talk and say ‘let’s just give Ricky the puck and he’ll put it in.’ If you look at the amount of goals he scored, well, that’s why we kept giving him the puck. Ross and I had cement hands so we’d pass the puck to him. It saddens me that he was such a young man and is no longer with us.”
That speed and shot on full display (with more than a bit of interference by Dornhoefer) against the Soviet Red Army team, in a 4-1 win on Jan. 11, 1976 — a game which the man himself named as his greatest satisfaction as an NHL player:
Still He Rose
Comebacks may not have been innate for the Ontario native, but they certainly defined his long, rich life.
Tabbed as a raw, undisciplined presence upon his acquisition in January of 1971 from Boston, MacLeish first had to cool his heels in the minors, at the club’s then-affiliate in Richmond. He posted 35 points in 42 AHL games in 1971-72 after struggling to nine points in 43 NHL appearances since the trade. In 1972-73, he exploded into star status by being the first Flyer to reach 50 goals and the second (with Bobby Clarke doing so earlier that year) to reach 100 points.
He never repeated the feats from his true rookie season, but established himself as a dangerous presence on the wing, hitting the 30-goal mark six times with a high of 49 in 1976-77. Playing third-and-fourth-line minutes in 1979-80 as the Bullies veteran presence aged and shrunk, MacLeish turned in an impressive 31 goals and 66 points for the club defined by a 35-game unbeaten streak.
MacLeish also endured his share of misfortune. A knee injury suffered in February of 1976 derailed a legitimate shot at 50 goals, and left him out for the remainder of that season where his presence might have made a difference as the Flyers were swept by the Canadiens in the Finals.
In the 1977 offseason, he and teammate Bob Dailey were lucky to be alive after a van the former was driving hydroplaned on a South Jersey road and flipped over. MacLeish attended Barry Ashbee’s funeral in a full body cast, having suffered a compression fracture in a neck vertebra days before.
That following season, “Hawk” — so named because of his nose and not for his puck-stalking instincts — tallied 31 goals, but was again lucky to be alive after suffering a cut to his jugular vein late in the regular season when Kings forward Marcel Dionne’s skate slashed his neck as he dove for a puck.
“The Doc was only on the trip because he had some friends in the area. If he was not there, and they tried to clamp it and take me to the hospital 45 minutes away, I’m not sure I would have made it. I didn’t realize I was in trouble,” MacLeish quipped in Jim Jackson’s 2005 book Walking Together Forever, “Until I took a drag of a cigarette and smoke came out of my neck.”
If that weren’t enough, the stitches that were originally put in that night broke out, causing a 4 AM bloodbath and an emergency trip to get the old ones replaced.
Following his playing days, MacLeish, like many of his teammates, made the Delaware Valley his home. At a time when many ex-players were not given preparation to deal with life beyond the rink, MacLeish was no exception. He, like Leach, had troubles with alcohol, endured a failed marriage, and took a while to gain equilibrium in the working world, eventually becoming involved with the insurance business and horses.
He also suffered a heart attack, presenting as back pain, during a Flyers Alumni game more than a decade ago, and managed to come through the resulting open-heart surgery. It was a catalyst for MacLeish, who finally changed his freewheeling habits in his 50s.
“Life after hockey wasn’t fair to Ricky,’’ said Flyers senior vice president Bob Clarke in his own statement. “He left us far too soon.”
Two things that were more than fair: his induction into the third Flyers Hall of Fame class in March of 1990, and his long-overdue induction to the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame along with Lou Nolan — who announced dozens of his goals at the Spectrum — this past Fall.
Time in a Bottle
In the ultimate act of selfishness as fans, we wish our heroes remain evergreen, all grace, smiles, youth and motion, depicted and frozen in time as they are on celluloid, cardboard, video and in the windmills of our minds. That’s the deal we make once we invest in memorabilia that captures these moments forever in one brief instant.
But time has a funny way of constantly intruding and interrupting the fantasy, slamming us back to Earth with alarming speed. This calendar year has not been kind to many icons of music, entertainment and sports. With the glory years and brand of hockey MacLeish helped represent now four decades distant, the dose of reality is especially bitter.
Now, as MacLeish joins the sad list of departed that previously included Cowboy Bill Flett, Gene Hart, Wayne Stephenson and Ross Lonsberry, thoughts turn to the idea of what may happen once those stewards of the legacy like Leach, Barber, Parent, and Clarke fall prey to the finite nature of a human lifespan.
When it was initially reported earlier in the month that MacLeish was in an area hospital, battling an undisclosed illness, couldn’t it be reasonable to expect he’d recover and come back better than ever?
Yet, stories are not always written with the cleanest and most rewarding of endings. It too often leaves us forever to cling to the memories.
“With the passing of Rick MacLeish, the Flyers have lost one of their legends,” said Flyers club president, Paul Holmgren. “A good father, grandfather, teammate and friend, Rick will be missed by all who were fortunate to come and know him over the years.
“His happy and friendly demeanor was front and center everywhere Rick went. Today, our thoughts and prayers are with Rick’s wife, Charlene, his daughters, Danielle and Brianna along with his grandchildren. May he rest in peace.”