Ottawa Hockey History: The Night Ken Linseman Became "The Rat"
We have talked often about how hockey is a game of speed and emotion. Sometimes that emotion gets ratcheted up to a fever pitch and becomes irrational. That irrationality can turn into bloody mayhem quickly. And on one spring night in Ottawa in 1977, it did just that.
1976-77 had been a good year for the Ottawa 67s. Coach Brian Kilrea’s team had finished in first place in the Leyden Division of the Ontario Hockey Association, one point ahead of the Sudbury Wolves who had players like Ron Duguay, Dave Hunter and Mike Foligno. The 67s boasted a fair bit of talent themselves with players like Bobby Smith, Doug Wilson and Steve Payne. Their reward for an excellent regular season was a bye in the first round of the playoffs. In fact, in that Leyden Division, the 67s, Wolves and the Kingston Canadians all enjoyed that luxury. Over in the Emms Division, the Toronto Marlboros, coached by George Armstrong, Bill Long’s London Knights and Bert Templeton’s St. Catharines Fincups got the same benefit. Back in those days, the Leyden Division was representative of Eastern and Northern Ontario. The Emms Division consisted of teams from Southern and Southwestern Ontario. And while these six teams spent a week on the practice rinks, there were four teams facing off in best-of-five showdowns to see who would advance. In one series, the Sault Ste. Marie (always seemingly referred to as “The Soo”) Greyhounds knocked off the Peterborough Petes, while the Windsor Spitfires swept the Kitchener Rangers. The reward for the Greyhounds was to face the first place 67s. The Spits got to go up against the first place Fincups. In the other two series, Kingston played Sudbury and London took on the Toronto Marlies. Remember that back in the 1970s, the OHA playoff series were not best-of-seven affairs. Instead, they were conducted on a “first team to eight points” basis. Teams got two points for a playoff win and a single point if the game ended in a tie. Yes, in those days, it was possible to have ties in playoff competition. In the 67s series against The Soo, Ottawa won four and tied one to take that set. Kingston took six games to upset Sudbury. St. Catharines needed six games to defeat Windsor and London toppled the Marlboros in the same six games. This left four teams still in contention for the league title and the right to compete in the Memorial Cup: St. Catharines facing London, and Ottawa taking on Kingston. In the Emms Division final series, the first four games were won by the home sides. Each team had four points after those games. Game 5, in St. Catharines ended in a 3-3 tie. London won at home in Game 6 and was on the precipice of moving on to the OHA Final. But the Fincups won their next game at home and that set up a decisive Game 8 in London. That contest stayed true to form as the home team Knights won 3-2 to advance against the winner between the 67s and Kingston. The first two games in the Kingston-Ottawa series went to the home teams as well. On Sunday, April 3, in Game 1 in Ottawa, Bobby Smith scored twice and Steve Marengere and Warren Holmes had singles as the 67s doubled the Canadians 4-2. Bryan Sproxton and Mike Crombeen scored for Kingston. Ottawa fired 37 shots at goalie Rick Nickelchok while the Canadians had 30 shots on the 67s Jay O’Connor. Back in Kingston on Friday, April 8 in Game 2, Ken Linseman had a goal and three assists as the home team defeated the 67s 5-2. Onlookers began to notice the irritating behaviour that became the hallmark of Linseman’s career later on. In Ottawa on Sunday, April 10 during Game 3, the fuse was lit. As the game went on, it appeared to some that a lot of chippy play was going unchecked. Stickwork was occurring that was not being called and tempers began to get heated. Eddie MacCabe was a columnist for the Ottawa Journal and he was covering the game. In his column in the April 11 edition of the newspaper, he wrote “It was apparent early last night, though, that some ugliness was going to well up and spill over. Referee Blair Graham was, to put it as charitably as possible, lamentably inconsistent. He ignored repeated interference. He chose not to see repeated cross-checking.” MacCabe wrote that clean or “pretty” hockey didn’t appeal to the broad swath of fans, and that a lot fans liked a robust game, “But it’s another thing entirely to let interference go unchecked, to allow cross-checking to substitute for body-checking, to see high sticks as legitimate contact, and that’s the way it was last night.” All of these uncalled transgressions contributed to a rising temperature in this game and by the third period the kettle was coming to a boil. A few things were happening at the same time. According to a Canadian Press report of the game, “it started with Kingston’s Mike Simurda and Ottawa’s Shane Pearsall battling at centre ice. Ed Hospodar of the 67s then took on Linseman and (Brian, brother of Mike) Crombeen battled with (67s defenseman Jeff) Geiger.” Steve Marengere was a standout performer with the 67s at that time. He was an Ottawa boy who had climbed the hockey ladder all the way to play on the local Major Junior club. He and I conversed via email recently and he told me his version of how it started. “What I remember is Geiger and I were on the ice. Linseman took a run at me just inside our blueline and broke his stick. Geiger was my defence partner and his job was to be the enforcer. Geiger came to my aid”, said Marengere. This hit on Marengere happened at about the same time as the confrontation between Simurda and Pearsall. According to the CP report, “The affair appeared to be over with Simurda and Pearsall drawing majors and Crombeen and Hospodar picking up minors and game misconducts.” MacCabe’s column tells us more. As players began congregating and guys were trying to pair off with other guys, “Linseman, in the milling about, was engaged by Geiger, and Geiger was belaboring him with enthusiasm. Linseman covered up and retreated, and a linesman held Geiger. Then Linseman picked up the sharp butt of a broken hockey stick (the one he broke hitting Marengere) and skated around out of reach, taunting and threatening and was allowed to roam around while the official held Geiger.” MacCabe continued, “Eventually Geiger went to the penalty box but Linseman kept on with his act and Geiger went after him again. They tangled and went down, and Linseman bit Geiger on the lower jaw, gouging out a piece. The officials were trying to pry them apart but Geiger, now, was having none of it. It was in this second go-round, while Geiger was on his knees, held by an official, that Linseman kicked him in the face.” At this point, Geiger was intensely angry. His forehead had been gashed. He would later require stitches. The blood was pouring freely and grotesquely all over his face. His jersey, shoulder pads and elbow pads had been wrestled off in the fracas and he was now trying to break free of the officials and get at Linseman. When he finally did get at him, Linseman covered up. The expression that used to be used frequently was “turtled”. Later Geiger was said to have told reporters, “he kicked me...I tried to kick him back.”
Eventually, the players were removed from the ice and the game resumed. Both Geiger and Linseman were given minors, majors, game misconducts and match penalties. The Canadians later tied the game with less than ten minutes remaining in the third period. Mike Crombeen scored to make the score 4-4 and that was the way the game ended. But no one was talking about the tie game or the fact that the series was once again even. Everyone was talking about what they saw happen in that third period. All of the conversation was about Linseman kicking Geiger in the face. That talk never stopped. Not in Ottawa anyway. As a result of this incident, Linseman was charged with common assault by Ottawa Police. The case went to court in August of 1977 and during the trial, Geiger testified that while he was being subdued by an official and on his knees, “I looked up and saw a foot coming down. I just saw this foot coming at me. I put my head down and was hit in the forehead.”
After being ejected from the game, Linseman was heard by some people as saying that he had “fixed” Geiger and boasted that he had kicked the 67s defenseman. One fan who was at the game, Donald Kelly, testified at the trial that Linseman made the comments “in a very hyper voice” while standing outside the dressing room. Linseman and Geiger were each suspended for four games after the incident. They missed Games 4 through 7. The thing was though, that this series ended up going to a Game 8. Remember, that it was the first team to get eight points in the series that would advance. After Game 7, each team had won three, lost three and tied a game. Each team, then, had seven points. The series would go to a decisive game in Kingston to determine who would move on to the OHA final series against St. Catharines.
To this point, there had been four games played in Ottawa, three played in Kingston. One of the games in Ottawa, Game 3, had finished in a tie. Every other game had been won by the home team. In fact, Game 7 was played in Ottawa and was won by the 67s 9-0. Surely, the fact that Game 8 was taking place in Kingston would play into the hands of the Canadians. The series swung over to the visitor’s side in this game though. It wasn’t close. Ottawa won 6-1. Kingston went home while the 67s moved on. Game 1 of the league final was played in London and won by the Knights 7-5. Ottawa won the next three games. London won Game 5 at home to extend the series, but the 67s took Game 6 at the Civic Centre by a 7-0 count. That win gave Ottawa the OHA championship and the right to go to the Memorial Cup in Vancouver. There, the 67s and the New Westminster Bruins finished tied at the top of the standings after round robin play. They played in the final and the Bruins, with Barry Beck, Stan Smyl, Mark Lofthouse and Brad Maxwell edged Ottawa 6-5. Ken Linseman’s Junior career ended when his Kingston Canadians were eliminated from the OHA playoffs. That summer he was drafted by the WHA’s Birmingham Bulls. His talent and ability as a hockey player were always evident. He played with that edge that many people will say “crossed the line” when it came to any of the unwritten hockey codes. He played for the Bulls in the 1977-78 season tallying 76 points in 71 games. He was then drafted 7th overall in the 1978 NHL draft by the Philadelphia Flyers. He had a 14-year career as an NHL player skating with the Flyers, Oilers, Bruins and finishing with two games with the Leafs in 1991-92. Along the way, he earned his nickname “The Rat”. His reputation as an agitator on the ice is legendary. In a 1985 story in Sports Illustrated magazine, Linseman said he feels “no remorse” for many of the instances of violent behaviour he had exhibited over the course of his hockey career. The kick to Geiger’s face was just the beginning. In October of 1984, in a scrum in front of the Edmonton goal, a fight broke out and he bit the cheek of former teammate Lee Fogolin so violently that Fogolin required a tetanus shot. Linseman is quoted in the SI story as saying “If the league is going to let us fight, I don’t see where there are any rules about how we should fight”. He experienced numerous suspensions for actions he undertook on the hockey rink. That said, he was an extremely intelligent investor and set himself up well off the ice. Jeff Geiger moved to Austria after his junior career ended, played hockey there and stayed in that country for the rest of his life. He passed away in Austria earlier in February of 2021. That series between the 67s and Canadians has never been forgotten in the Nation’s Capital. When you mention the name of either Ken Linseman or Jeff Geiger to any hockey fan of a certain age in Ottawa, you will get the same look or the same thought. “Do you remember that night when The Rat kicked Geiger in the face?” And honestly, it’s incredible that that night has lived on this long in infamy. At least in Ottawa.
Howie Mooney | Sens Nation Hockey