FORT WAYNE – So Reggie Primeau is gone, dying Wednesday at 77, and that will mean something if you’re of a certain age in this town, an age that remembers the evil Toledo Blades and the evil Dayton Gems and the evil Port Huron Flags – and, sure, let’s throw the Muskegon Mohawks in there, too, ’cause why not?
Reg’s era was their era, when the NHL was six teams, and the International Hockey League was stocked with players who would have been there had they just had the great fortune to be born a few years later.
But Reg and Lenny Thornson and Choo-Choo Repka were not, and so we got ’em here. Got Jumbo Goodwin and Stubby Dubchak and Eddie Long and Chuck Adamson, too.
And they’d go out there in Komets orange-and-black and carry the fight to all those Blades and Gems and Flags – look, there’s Lorne Weighill and Gary Ford and Bob Tombari, and Ray Germain and Jerry Korab, too – and if it wasn’t the greatest era of hockey here, it’s sure in the team photo.
But that’s not why you bow your head today because Reg Primeau is gone.
You do that because of what happened after.
You do that because Reg and Lenny and Choo-Choo and Eddie – all those Canadian boys Ken Ullyot and Colin Lister brought in to entertain us – decided to stick around when they hung up their skates. Because it wasn’t just a paycheck and a hockey sweater to them, see. It was home.
Fort Wayne didn’t adopt them so much as they adopted Fort Wayne, and so they stayed, they raised their kids here, they formed a bond with the community that to my knowledge remains unique in the mercenary world of professional sports.
They stayed and others stayed, too, right down to the present day. And what they brought to this community and continue to bring to it remains of incalculable value.
And if that speaks well of their loyalty ... well, they got that honest.
These boys of winter, the ’60s kids, they stick together, even half-a-century later. They never quit on each other on the ice, and, once they were off it, the habit stayed with them.
A few years back, on the anniversary of a particularly stirring comeback in a game against Muskegon, I paid a visit to a few of them. It was a rough time for them collectively – Reg had just lost part of a leg, Ken Ullyot was suffering from fibromyalgia, and Lionel Repka had just lost his son in a tragic bicycling accident – and so the story became less about a hockey game than about them, their solidarity in the face of adversity, how it was a reflex that carried far beyond the confines of a hockey rink.
They were a community within their own adopted community, in essence. And so one day, sitting in Choo-Choo Repka’s quiet kitchen, he told me a story about the day he buried his boy out at Lindenwood Cemetery, and how at one point in the graveside service he looked up, and there, sitting in his wheelchair on a hill under a tree not far away, was Reg Primeau.
He’d just gotten out of the hospital, ... Repka said, and his eyes began to glisten, and then he couldn’t really talk anymore.
Now Reg himself is gone. And I’m guessing more than one eye will glisten over that among the boys who stayed, among the ’60s kids.
Hell. I know it.