Rob (Bobby) Fleming is not a name that I would expect the vast majority of local sports folks to recognize, no matter how involved they were with their childrens’ various athletic pursuits, pre pandemic.
He is, however, a face that many had come to know.
It would have been next to impossible to make any kind of a regular visit to arenas in Rayside-Balfour, or perhaps one of the adjoining ball diamonds, and not have seen Fleming in the mix.
An ultra devoted scorekeeper for both hockey, as well as fastball and slo-pitch and the like, Fleming passed away last month, mere weeks after being diagnosed with cancer.
Make no mistake - those of us entrusted with finding people to fill the void for all of those games that the teens would prefer to bypass (think 8:00 a.m. on a bitter cold January morning) came to appreciate all that Fleming was willing to give.
For my part, I had come to know Rob fairly well, driving him home to Azilda following the countless Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats’ games that we worked together. It was there that my eyes were most opened to the fact that appearances can be deceiving. Those who knew Fleming well will nod and understand the nature of this comment.
There’s no denying that he faced more than his fair share of challenges in life. Undeterred, he was a constant within the fabric of Chelmsford sport. Quiet by nature, it was easy for one not to necessarily appreciate the knowledge that he had gathered via almost three decades or more of involvement.
In the days following his passing, I was reminded of a pair of episodes, those moments that tend to stick with you, for reasons unknown.
Like many who work high level hockey, Rob could get flustered, at times, when things would go absolutely berserk. And to be sure, there were many moments like this in the Sabrecats era of the early 2000s. With coach Ken Mackenzie and his lads battling coach Jim Capy and the Soo Thunderbirds in a particularly intense playoff matchup, the Rayside homeside were about to be assessed a delayed minor penalty.
As the whistle sounded, a small scrum broke out in front of the net, with officials deciding that the extra two would be handed out to the more aggressive Sabercats forward (four minutes for RB, two minutes for the Soo - plus the initial delayed penalty that was about to be called).
Instantly, I asked Rob to put up two separate minors on the scoreclock, the natural reaction given the sequence of events. In a split second or less, he looked back, suggesting that it should be a single four-minute penalty that goes up - and he was right. While this episode is likely more than a little mundane for all but the accomplished officials in the crowd, suffice to say that I’ve now incorporated it into pretty much every timekeeping clinic that I run.
(for those who are wondering, the rules governing coincidental penalties and the prioritization of those that are not cancelled dictates that every effort should be made to leave a team short-handed for as few players as possible - in other words, being one man short for four minutes is preferred to facing a five on three for two minutes - in the case above, we simply cancelled the original minor that was on delay with the Soo minor penalty incurred with the goal crease fracas, leaving us only the double minor to be posted on the board)
Fleming knew his stuff, a fact that many a local official has acknowledged in the past seven to ten days. There was also a certain appreciation that he had for the smaller things that became apparent as we worked NOJHL game nights together. As every timekeeper at every level of hockey will attest, there is going to come a time where you accidentally allow the clock to run, following a whistle.
In some cases, it’s as simple as not pressing firmly enough on the penalty clock. In many others, it’s simply a matter of being engrossed in the game. While it happened very rarely to Fleming (and almost never to my good friend Todd Guthrie, who deserves a shout out here), the rare mishap did occur during yet another fierce contest at the pre-refurbishment venue that is the Chelmsford Arena.
Understandably, the oversight drew a vociferous response from the adjacent Sabrecats’ bench, literally just feet away. Rayside captain Nevin Patterson, who happened to be serving a penalty at the time, calmly looked over at Fleming and said (paraphrasing) “don’t worry, we’re all human - we all make mistakes” - a classy move, if ever there was one, recognizing that Fleming was clearly upset by the slip-up.
Later in the game, Fleming would have a chance, with Patterson close by, to utter a simple “thank you”. Very few words, as was most often the case with Bobby, but delivered with the genuine sincerity that made it very clear just how much he appreciated the remarks of the veteran forward, earlier that game.
It was this version of Fleming that I and so many others had come to know: a gentleman whose involvement conveyed a desire to give what he could, however modest that might be, back to his community. There came a certain comfort level in knowing that Rob would be around, knowing that I could backfill his games after working around the schedules of others, given his willingness to accept all assignments that came his way.
There is a comfort that came from knowing that there would never, ever be that early morning phone call, just as tournament action kicked off, some frantic volunteer unsure of what to do given that her all too necessary timekeeper was late. Simply put, this never happened with Bobby.
There is an amazement at the fact that though he did not drive, Fleming would accept assignments at rinks right across the region, somehow able to navigate his way via transit or friends to destinations from Levack to Coniston.
Being at the rink, at the diamonds, is what he loved to do. I had very much come to know and appreciate Rob Fleming for who he was and what he had to offer.
And based on the outpouring of love that has been seen in the recent past on social media, I clearly was not alone.
Rob Fleming will be missed - and our sporting community is lesser, because of his absence.