THE YEARS OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY – HOCKEY’S MOST HATED PLAYERS
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Monday, February 21, 2022
Photo Credits – Score Card Company, O-Pee-Chee Company, Ltd
THE YEARS OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY – HOCKEY’S MOST HATED PLAYERS
The 2021-22 season has been a somewhat eventful one for one Brad Marchand. As of the night of February 8, 2022, Marchand had scored 21 goals and added 28 assists for 49 points in 39 games. Back in November of 2021, he had been suspended for three games for slew-footing Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Vancouver Canucks.
Then, on the evening of February 8, as the Pittsburgh Penguins were playing in Boston, Marchand had himself quite a night. Well, he did have five shots on Pens’ goaltender Tristan Jarry without getting a goal or an assist, so it was a frustrating night offensively for him. That frustration would play itself out as he and Jarry co-mingled throughout the evening.
First, at the end of the second period, Jarry was trying to pass a puck over the glass to a Penguins fan sitting behind the goal. Keep in mind that this game was taking place in Boston. Jarry placed the puck on the tip of his blade to toss it over the glass to the young fan when Marchand came over and smacked the puck off the goalie’s stick. “My rink, my puck”, commented Jeff Marek on his radio show on Toronto’s The Fan 590.
Then with 25 seconds remaining in the third period and with Pittsburgh ahead 4-2, Jarry made a save and was momentarily decompressing after the whistle. That was when Marchand, who was skating nearby, sidestepped a referee and delivered a gloved punch to the head of the kneeling Jarry. The blow knocked the goalie to the ice.
Then, as a linesman was trying to direct Marchand away from the Pittsburgh goal, the Bruins’ winger extended his right arm and shoved his stick toward Jarry’s face and neck. For the punch, he was given a two-minute roughing penalty. For the stick in the face and throat, Marchand was given a major penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Tyler Kennedy, who played nine years in the NHL and was a former Penguin, took to Twitter and had a bit to say in a video. “Marchand suckered Jarry. It was dirty, but it was...you know...that’s part of his game. That’s what makes him a good player is getting under people’s skin,” said Kennedy. “I don’t think Marchand cares if he gets suspended. I think that’s part of his game. He needs to play on the edge.”
The whole episode resulted in a six-game suspension for Marchand and helped to underline the fact that he is one of those players that is universally despised. Fans of every other team in the National Hockey League have disliked Marchand for years. They would probably love to have him on their club though. This suspension was the eighth of his career. It was his second of the season after the November sabbatical for the transgression against the Canucks’ Ekman-Larsson.
So, after all this, I decided to put out a question on social media and on the page of the Sports Lunatics podcast I host with former TSN1050 radio producer Shawn Lavigne. I asked “In all the time you've been watching the game, who has been the most hated hockey player and why? Or, if you prefer, who was the player that you hated the most and why?”
The responses were many and varied. People went as far back as the 1930s and right up to today. Some chose a player or players because they just didn’t like the way they played the game or the way they treated other players. And a few chose players because of the way they always seemed to excel against their favourite teams. I chose to highlight four of those players to write about today. A day might come when I write about more, but for now, here are the stories of these four.
One name that was mentioned often was that of Claude Lemieux. Lemieux’s career spanned 21 years and he had the reputation of being both a clutch player and a top-flight agitator. As an 18-year-old, he played eight games with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1983-84 season. It took him a couple of years to garner a permanent position with the team but by ’86-87, he was a fixture with the club.
His career in Montreal really took off in 1985-86. Lemieux only played ten regular season games but he impressed his coaches enough to earn a regular spot for the 1986 playoffs. He rose to the occasion as well. He played in all twenty postseason games and scored ten goals and added six assists in helping his team win a Stanley Cup. That performance went a long way toward putting Lemieux into the Habs’ lineup the following season.
Those first three full seasons were his best with the Canadiens. Starting in that 1986-87 season, Lemieux scored 27, 31 and 29 goals. He also was assessed 429 minutes in penalties over that span. But it was his development as a defensive asset that allowed his stock to rise not only in Montreal but with other general managers as well.
In September of 1990, he was traded to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Sylvain Turgeon. Turgeon lasted a year and a half in Montreal before heading to Ottawa to play with the Senators. Meanwhile, Lemieux played five years with the Devils, helping the team to a Stanley Cup victory in 1995. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy in that playoff run as well.
When the Devils raised their Cup banner though the following autumn, Lemieux was no longer with the team. The summer of 1995 saw him and the team’s GM, Lou Lamoriello get involved in a bitter contract dispute and the previous season’s Conn Smythe winner dealt to the newly minted Colorado Avalanche. The Avs had moved to Denver from Quebec a few months before. Lemieux’s days in the Centennial State would be perhaps the most infamous in hockey history.
At the end of his first regular season with Colorado, his team got set for a first round series with the Vancouver Canucks. The Avs dispatched them in six games. They did the same in the next round against Chicago. Their third round opponent would be the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings under Scotty Bowman had finished first in the Central Division with a record of 62-13-7 and 131 points! They had more wins than any team in NHL history! The Avs’ record had been 47-25-10.
The last time Detroit had won the Stanley Cup had been 1955. There was a feeling that this Red Wings team was ready to win it again. The first two games of the series were at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. Paul Coffey scored two goals for the home side but he also deflected one into his own net as the Avalanche won in overtime 3-2.
The Wings went the entire 1995-96 season without being shut out. In Game 2, they fired 35 shots at Patrick Roy and he stopped them all as Colorado shocked Detroit 3-0. They now had a 2-0 lead in games going back home. This game would serve as a bit of a wake-up call for the Wings. They would go back to Denver and take Game 3 by a 6-4 score. The Avs took Game 4 and Detroit won Game 5 back at the Joe.
The sixth game of this series would be won by the Avalanche and it would knock the Wings out of the playoffs after being the regular season’s best team for the second straight year. But it would be remembered for an ugly incident in the first period involving one Claude Lemieux.
With Colorado leading 1-0 just over fourteen minutes into the game, after a faceoff in the Avs’ zone, the puck came out over the blue line. Detroit’s Kris Draper picked the puck up and fired it back in while skating backwards along the boards to avoid the check of Joe Sakic. As he was watching the dump-in, Lemieux hit Draper high and hard in the back causing his face to crash violently into the top of the dasher board in front of the Red Wings’ bench. Draper had never seen Lemieux coming in behind him and he went down to the ice in a heap.
Immediately, a penalty was called. Draper did not move. Other players had all kind of careened into the area at the same time and as players were pushing, some were trying not to be pushed on to the prone Draper. At this point, no one knew the damage that had been done to the Wings’ player’s face.
Draper himself had no idea how badly he had been hurt until the Detroit trainer, John Wharton, told him. Wharton covered Draper’s face with a towel and he and Keith Primeau helped the injured Red Wing off the ice. McNicholls Arena maintenance staff were busy scraping all the blood off the ice.
“I’d been injured before...broke a wrist, dislocated a thumb, knees...you feel that,” Draper told the Detroit Free Press in a 2020 interview. “I didn’t feel that hit. I just remember being on all fours.” What he “didn’t feel” was a broken jaw, a fractured cheekbone, a broken nose and damage to his right orbital bone. But in the moment, Draper had no idea any of this had happened.
He was somewhat lucid but he had very little memory of what was going on in the aftermath of the hit. “I just kept thinking ‘get to the door, get to the door’. Next thing I know, I woke up on the doctor’s table. I remember seeing the doctors and then I blacked out again. The next time I came to, I sat up. They had stitched me up and I remember getting up and my first reaction was, like most hockey players, I was looking for my gear to get dressed and go back out there. That’s when they walked me over to the mirror and said ‘You’re done for the night’.”
Lemieux got a five minute penalty and a game misconduct. He was suspended for two games in the Stanley Cup final. Draper and the Red Wings were incensed at what they saw as a weak punishment on Lemieux. It would take a while, but ten months after that hit, in a regular season game on March 26, 1997, Darren McCarty “cold-cocked” Lemieux (in the words of the Detroit Free Press and then proceeded to pound the Avs’ winger as he tried to turtle from the onslaught.
It was Lemieux’s propensity to do things like this – to hit a player from behind or to do things that could be potentially dangerous and then hide from any consequences - that earned him the derision and scorn from hockey fans everywhere. In the case of Lemieux and Draper, Lemieux never apologized. The two men went nineteen years without speaking to each other until the 2015 draft.
After Draper’s retirement in 2011, he began working in the Wings’ front office. In 2015, Detroit drafted Swiss goaltender Joren Van Pottelberghe with the 110th overall selection. Van Pottelberghe’s agent was Claude Lemieux. There was no way they could avoid each other. The hit was not discussed.
What that infraction did was to ignite a powder keg for the next decade and whenever the two teams met, fireworks were sure to follow. The rivalry became must-watch viewing for hockey fans all over. The Red Wings would go on to win the Stanley Cup in each of the next two seasons and they won a couple more as well, in 2002 and 2008. The team united in a common goal to become champions. And it can be argued that it began with a dirty hit by Claude Lemieux.
Another name that was mentioned often when I asked my original question on social media was Marty McSorley. McSorley came into the NHL as an undrafted player. He had played his Junior hockey in Belleville with the Ontario Hockey League’s Bulls and made his reputation as a guy who could drop the gloves with the best of them.
He started his NHL career as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1983-84 season and was there for two years before heading over to the Edmonton Oilers as part of a package for goalie Gilles Meloche. Playing on the Oilers with the band of stars they had was good for McSorley. If anyone tried to take liberties with Wayne Gretzky or anyone else on the team, they would have to deal with the 6’1” enforcer with fists the size of bowling balls.
McSorley was liked by his teammates. Their nickname for him was ‘Magic’. When Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in the summer of 1988, one of his stipulations was that McSorley be included in the deal. He had been working on his game steadily over his years in Pittsburgh and Edmonton and was not really just a pugilistic hockey player anymore.
In his second year with the Kings, 1989-90, he scored fifteen goals and amassed 36 points. The following year, he totalled 39 points and had a league-best plus-minus of +48. He even got some consideration for the Frank Selke Trophy. He didn’t win it, mind you. But he did get some votes for the award.
By the spring of 1993, the Kings were prepared for a run to the Stanley Cup. They started their road to the Campbell Conference Final by defeating the Calgary Flames in six games in the first round and in the second round, they knocked off the Vancouver Canucks in six as well. Meanwhile, over in the Wales Conference, the Montreal Canadiens were creating a little magic of their own.
The Habs took the Quebec Nordiques out in six games and then swept the Buffalo Sabres in the second round. The Sabres had done Montreal a bit of a favour in the first round by defeating the Boston Bruins. In the third round, everyone expected the Canadiens to have to face the defending Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, but they were dismissed by the upstart New York Islanders in seven games in Round 2. The Isles lost their magic in the third round losing in five games to Montreal.
Over in the Campbell Conference Final, the Kings were set to face the Toronto Maple Leafs. Pat Burns had his Leafs firing on all cylinders and Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark and the Blue And White were rolling as they had first defeated Detroit in seven games and then they edged the St. Louis Blues in seven. Burns and his bunch came into this series with a swagger, and with good reason.
During the regular season, the Kings had been Top 5 in goals scored while the Leafs were second-best in the league in goals against. It shaped up to be an interesting meeting of strength against strength. Toronto had the home ice advantage and the series began with the first two games being played at Maple Leaf Gardens.
The teams split those contests with the Leafs taking Game 1 and Los Angeles winning the second game. Back in LaLaLand, the Kings doubled the Leafs 4-2 in Game 3 and Toronto took Game 4 by an identical 4-2 score. The teams then headed back East for Game 5. There was no scoring in the first period but the Kings got a pair to take a 2-0 lead in the second. A late second period goal by Mike Krushelnyski made it 2-1 going into the intermission.
Just under nine minutes into the third period, Sylvain Lefebvre scored to tie the game. It went into overtime and the teams each put their respective feet on the pedal. After three periods, the Kings had outshot the Leafs 33-22, but Felix Potvin was outstanding in the Toronto goal. The Leafs outshot Los Angeles 12-10 in overtime and Glenn Anderson scored the winner just 40 seconds before the end of that first extra period. Potvin stopped 41 of 43 shots in the game.
By this time, the Canadiens were into the Cup final series and were awaiting the winner of this Lefs-Kings set. All over Canada, hockey fans were dreaming of a Toronto-Montreal championship series. Cue the drama.
Back in Los Angeles for Game 6, Glenn Anderson scored in the first minute of the game and put the Leafs up quickly. Before the opening period was over though, the Kings tied it up on a goal by Tony Granato. Before the middle frame was four minutes old, Toronto was back up after Wendel Clark scored. Marty McSorley got a power play marker though and by the halfway point of the second period, it was tied 2-2.
Darryl Sydor and Luc Robitaille added power play goals before the second period ended and the Kings went into the intermission with a 4-2 lead. But Felix Potvin was amazing once again and Wendel Clark was not going to allow his team to quit. He scored a pair in the third period and extra time would be needed once again in this series. It didn’t last long though as Wayne Gretzky scored at 1:41 of overtime to send the series back to Toronto for a seventh game.
Toronto’s Glenn Anderson was in the penalty box when Gretzky scored. Of course, Gretzky and Anderson played together with the Oilers in the 1980s. Anderson wasn’t surprised to see his former teammate play the way he did in Game 6. “After playing with him for ten years, you know what kind of spirit and soul he’s got,” Anderson told the media after the game. “You knew he’d come out and play the way he did.”
Controversy reared its ugly head in this game though. Early in the overtime period, the Kings had the puck in the Toronto zone and Gretzky took a shot. After his follow-through, his stick caught Gilmour under the chin, cutting him. As per the rules of the time, if it was ruled a high-sticking penalty that drew blood, Gretzky would have been kicked out of the game. Referee Kerry Fraser didn’t see the play and couldn’t call a penalty. There was no video replay at that time.
Looking at it later from about five different angles, Fraser admitted that it should have been a penalty and Gretzky would have been ejected from the match. No penalty was called and less than a minute later, Gretzky scored the overtime winner and the Kings had tied the series. Leaf fans, to this day, believe that their team would have won the Stanley Cup had they advanced against the Canadiens. Alas, we shall never know.
Game 7 would be played at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and the Gardens’ crowd would show up in strong voice for their team. Whether they won or lost, this would be the third straight seven-game series for the Leafs. Oh, and Glenn Anderson would prove to be prescient with his previous comments about his ex-teammate, Gretzky.
Halfway through the opening period, the Leafs went on the power play after the Kings were called for a too-many-men penalty. Not only did they fail to capitalize, but Gretzky managed to score a shorthanded goal on a beautiful 2-on-1 with McSorley during that penalty kill. Tomas Sandstrom scored to make it 2-0 on an assist from The Great One and McSorley about eight minutes later. After twenty minutes, it was 2-0 for Los Angeles.
At the end of that first period, Tony Granato went off for tripping and Wendel Clark’s hot streak continued when he scored a second period power play marker on a nice setup from Dave Andreychuk. About six minutes later, Anderson tied the game up at 2-2. But Gretzky scored his twelfth postseason goal on a slapper from the high slot just past the halfway mark of the second to give the Kings a 3-2 lead. That score would hold as the teams went into the final period of regulation time.
With the ice still somewhat smooth after the second intermission, Clark took a feed from Doug Gilmour and pounded the puck past Kelly Hrudey to tie the game at 3-3 1:25 into the third period. The Gardens crowd erupted and visions of their Leafs in the Cup were doubtlessly dancing in their heads. The game would remain deadlocked as time ticked down in regulation time. Elation would be replaced by tension.
The teams would go back and forth and with four minutes left, the Kings entered the Leafs’ zone on a 3-on-2. Toronto defended it reasonably well, and disrupted the Kings rush, but the puck squirted to Potvin’s left on a broken play and Mike Donnelly was all alone to deposit the puck into the open side of the Toronto net and just like that, it was 4-3 for the visitors with 3:51 left in the third.
Thirty-seven seconds later, Gretzky skated down the right side and Todd Gill took him wide and into the corner and then around the net. As he was coming to the other side of the net, Dave Ellett was pivoting to look for any Kings’ skater who might be coming toward the goal. Gretzky centered the puck and it hit Ellett’s skate and deflected into the far side of the net past Potvin. It was now 5-3 for Los Angeles.
But with 1:07 remaining in the third, Ellett redeemed himself somewhat when he got a puck past Hrudey to make it a one-goal game once again. But that was how the game would end. And the series would end as well. Los Angeles would move on to the Stanley Cup Final series against Montreal. Marty McSorley would play a central role, perhaps not one he would have preferred.
The Canadiens enjoyed the home ice advantage in this series and the first two games were held in the Forum in Montreal. The Kings came out and surprised the Habs by taking Game 1 by a score of 4-1. Wayne Gretzky had a goal and three assists in the game. Things were looking quite rosy for Los Angeles after this first game.
Eric Desjardins got the crowd up on their feet late in the first period when he scored to give Montreal a 1-0 lead in the second game of the series. Dave Taylor scored a shorty just past the five-minute mark of the middle frame and the game was tied. 8 ½ minutes into the third period, Pat Conacher scored for the Kings to give the visitors a 2-1 lead. Time ticked down. Shift after shift. Minute after minute. The Forum crowd was on the edge of their respective seats.
With 1:45 remaining in regulation time, Montreal coach Jacques Demers asked Kerry Fraser to check McSorley’s stick for an illegal curve. Time seemed to stand still. It felt like it took forever for Fraser to examine the blade. The gravity of the situation seemed to hang in the air. Finally, Fraser made a decision. McSorley’s curve was illegal. Harry Neale was doing the colour commentary for Hockey Night in Canada and he was apoplectic!
Of course, the Habs would score to tie the game before the end of regulation time. And of course, Montreal would win the game in overtime. Also....of course, Eric Desjardins would score the tying goal and the winner as well for the hat trick. That penalty would stick with McSorley for years. Until one other thing happened.
The Canadiens would win Games 3 and 4 in Los Angeles. They would come home to the Forum for Game 5 and, on June 9, 1993, win the Stanley Cup in front of their home fans. Patrick Roy would raise the Cup over his head and shout, obviously for certain cameras and commercials, “I’m going to Disney’s World!” I was there. That game is one of those indelible memories etched firmly into my mind.
The Kings were never able to rebound from the consequences of that illegal curve stick penalty in Game 2. It’s kind of unfair but it happened. The other thing that, like it or not, sticks with McSorley happened in the final year of his career. It’s now what most people think of when they hear his name.
On February 21, 2000, the Boston Bruins were in Vancouver to play the Canucks. McSorley was playing for the Bruins and early in the game, he and the Canucks’ Donald Brashear became engaged and had a fight. Brashear managed to land some hard lefts on McSorley and, by all accounts, won the fight decisively. Then, as he was skating to the penalty box, he made a gesture like he was dusting off his hands. This infuriated McSorley.
The rest of the game, McSorley was intent on picking another fight with Brashear. The Canuck enforcer would not oblige, which caused the Bruin to become more enraged. Later in the first period, McSorley cross-checked Brashear a couple of times in an attempt to goad him into another altercation, but he wouldn’t bite. Instead, McSorley was assessed a double minor and a ten-minute misconduct.
While McSorley was in the box, Brashear was in front of the Boston net and was battling for position. He fell on Bruins’ goalie Byron Dafoe and injured Dafoe’s knee. In the third period, Brashear skated by the Bruins’ bench and taunted them by flexing his muscles. A Boston player shouted “Are we gonna take that or are we gonna stand up for ourselves?”
As time was winding down in the game, Brashear leapt from the bench on to the ice. Bruins assistant coach Jacques Laperriere tapped McSorley on the back and said “Mac, Mac. You’re up. You’re going, you’re going.” McSorley knew his objective but it takes two to fight and Brashear would not give him the matchup he wanted.
Less than ten seconds remained and McSorley came up behind Brashear in the neutral zone. He wanted to get his attention. He swung his stick at the 6’2” Brashear’s shoulder. “Yes, I meant to slash him,” McSorley told Kostya Kennedy in an interview that appeared in Sports Illustrated in November of 2000. “Did I mean to hurt him with my stick? No.”
In video of the incident, it looks like McSorley’s stick brushes Brashear’s shoulder before the heel of his stick hits his opponent in the temple, just under the helmet. Brashear falls to the ice immediately. The back of his head hits the ice and his helmet falls off. Blood begins coming out of his nose and soon after, he is convulsing as he lays on the rink surface.
There were 2.7 seconds left on the clock. Referee Brad Watson declared the game over as medical professionals attended to Brashear. After the game, McSorley was immediately contrite. “I apologize to Donald Brashear and all the fans who had to watch that,” he told the media who encircled him after the game.
“I embarrassed my hockey team. I got way too carried away. It was a real dumb play. I’m still in shock at what I did. I have to come to terms with what I did. There’s no excuse. It was so stupid. I can’t believe I did that.”
Immediately, Vancouver Police began an investigation and, if warranted, their findings would be forwarded to a prosecutor. Brian Burke was the Canucks’ general manager at that time. He was not in favour of a police investigation. He spoke to Vancouver radio station CKNW the next day. “Leave this stuff on the ice. Leave it to the National Hockey League. We don’t need the Vancouver Police Department or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police involved in this.”
Gary Bettman immediately suspended McSorley for a full calendar year. The criminal case eventually did go to court though and he was charged with assault with a weapon. After a non-jury trial, a decision was rendered by Judge William Kitchen. On October 6, 2000, he ruled that McSorley was guilty of “assaulting Donald Brashear with a weapon, a hockey stick”.
There was no jail time, nor was there any probation. McSorley was given a conditional discharge, the condition being that he could not “engage in any sporting event where Donald Brashear was on the opposition”. If that condition was not violated, then McSorley’s record would be rendered clean in the spring of 2002.
McSorley never played another NHL game. He became persona non grata in the league. Even though, he still contended that he never meant to hurt Brashear. “Look, I take responsibility for what happened,” he told SI’s Kennedy. “I feel badly that Donald got hurt. But when somebody says that I intentionally struck him in the head with my stick, I have an issue with that, because that goes to the core of who I am and the player I’ve been over the years.”
McSorley has told a story about a night in November of 1995 when he got into an altercation with Eric Lindros. He had never been able to get Lindros to engage with him in a fight and had always wanted to. But one night after Mikael Renberg had scored a goal, McSorley gave the Big #88 a shove from behind. Lindros reacted swiftly and dropped his gloves ready to fight, not realizing who it was that he was dropping his gloves with.
Once he saw that it was one of the toughest fighters in the league, Lindros knew that he couldn’t back out now, so he did what a lot of players do when they realize they are in over their head. They pull the superior fighter in real tight so they can’t get any leverage and throw a full punch. McSorley said that after the fight, he realized that Lindros had bitten him.
News of the bite got out and it went to the league offices. McSorley got a call the next day from Brian Burke, who at that time was the league’s executive vice-president and director of hockey operations. In his capacity in that job, he served as the league’s chief disciplinarian. He wanted to get to the bottom of what happened in the altercation between McSorley and Lindros.
“Marty, it’s Burkie, did Eric bite you during that fight last night?” McSorley replied, “Well, you know...it was a hockey fight and I don’t know. Things happen in fights. I can’t say really.” Burke came back. “Marty, I’m going to ask you again, did Eric bite you last night?” “I don’t know, Burkie, you know...things happen in hockey fights. I can’t really say.”
Burke was exasperated by this point. “Marty, I’m going to ask you ONE MORE TIME. Did Eric bite you last night during the fight you had with him?” McSorley replied, “Burkie, I’m going to tell you this. Eric did NOT BITE ME last night. And after this call, you call Bobby Clarke (GM of the Flyers), and you tell him that he owes me one!”
When it comes to those players that “you hate to play against, but would love to have them on your team”, some people talk about Tom Wilson, but, really...was there ever a more quintessential example of that than Dale Hunter? Hunter could play the game well. He is the only player in NHL history to amass 1,000 points AND 3,000 penalty minutes. That is a record that some say will never be broken.
But, oh my goodness, was there ever a player that could generate more hatred and more venom than Hunter? When he played for the Quebec Nordiques, he was a thorn in the side of the Montreal Canadiens from the time he entered the league in the 1980-81 season. His style of play was aided and abetted by his coach, Michel Bergeron.
The 1981-82 season was one in which the Habs and Nordiques were pretty evenly matched. Montreal was on their way down from the heights of winning four straight Stanley Cups to end the 1970s. Quebec, on the other hand, was on their way up the competitive ladder. By the spring of 1982, when the season ended, the teams had played each other eight times. Each team had won three, lost three and they tied each other twice.
They met in the first round of the postseason. Back then, the first playoff round was a best-of-five series. After four games, the teams were tied at two games apiece. The fifth game went to overtime and soon after the puck drop in extra time, Hunter scored the series winning goal to get his team to the second round.
Hunter’s effectiveness was never questioned, although a lot of that credit was given grudgingly. In five of his first six seasons, and nine times in his career, he received votes for the Selke Trophy. In the 1991-92 season, he got votes for the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player. He played seven years in Quebec with the Nordiques and was close to a point-per-game player and in each of the first six seasons he played there, he was assessed more than 200 penalty minutes.
In June of 1987, Hunter was traded to the Washington Capitals along with Clint Malarchuk in exchange for Alan Haworth, Gaetan Duchesne and the Caps’ first pick in the 1987 draft which turned out to be Joe Sakic. In his first five years in Washington, Hunter averaged more than 60 points and more than 225 minutes in the sin bin. But there was one night in particular that earned him a lot of scorn throughout the league.
On the night of February 10, 1991, the Philadelphia Flyers were in the Capital Center for a Sunday night game. It degenerated early and the first period game sheet was littered with fighting majors. It continued into the second and the final period was a gong show. Fighting majors, ten-minute misconducts, gross misconducts, game misconducts...and on and on. The worst thing in the second period was the Caps’ Mikhail Tatarinov spitting on Flyers’ Ron Hextall.
Washington won the game 5-2 but what most people remember from that game was a hit that Hunter put on Gord Murphy a little more than five minutes into the third. Murphy had the puck and was carrying it around the Capitals’ net when he lost it. Hunter had been skating back hard and a few seconds after Murphy had given up possession of the puck, he plastered the Flyer from behind and elbowed him in the head.
On the Flyers’ bench, coach Paul Holmgren was beside himself. He was screaming at Hunter, he was screaming at Caps’ coach Terry Murray and at one point, her grabbed a stick and was smashing it against the plexiglass behind the bench as he was screaming at the Caps’ bench. Then he opened the bench door and was screaming at the linesmen to get their attention.
The Capitals’ Alan May skated by and said something to Holmgren and was subsequently jumped by Scott Mellanby. Players were jawing at each other and emotions were very raw. The game saw a total of 294 penalty minutes assessed and the league immediately began reviewing everything that went on in the game.
Hunter was suspended for four games for the elbow on Murphy. NHL Executive Vice President Brian O’Neill said in his statement, “There is no dispute that Hunter deliberately struck his opponent with an elbow that must be characterized as vicious and that he was fully aware of what he was doing. It is also clear that he did not show any restraint at the time he administered the blow.”
That hit was bad, but there was a hit he put on another divisional rival two years later that was quite egregious. In the 1993 postseason, the first round saw the Capitals facing off against the New York Islanders. The Caps finished in second in the Patrick Division with 93 points. The Islanders ended the regular season six points behind Washington.
Peter Bondra was the Capitals leading point-getter. He finished the season with 37 goals and 85 points. For the Isles, Pierre Turgeon scored 58 goals and had 132 points. Turgeon’s teammate, Steve Thomas, finished with 87 points. The Islanders finished sixth overall when it came to goals scored. The Capitals were the tenth highest scoring team.
The first two games of the series took place at the Capital Center and the teams split them. Washington won Game 1 and the Isles took the second contest with Brian Mullen scoring the winning goal in the second overtime period. The teams went back to the Island and both games there went into extra time as well.
Ray Ferraro had assisted on Mullen’s game winning goal in Game 2 and he was the one to score the winner in the third match to give his team a 2-1 series lead. Ferraro was the hero once again in the fourth game of the series. His goal in the second extra frame doubled the Islanders’ series margin over the stunned Capitals.
They were hoping that going back home would change their luck and it did. Five minutes into the first period, the game was tied 1-1, but the Caps scored the next four goals and led 5-1 with 11:11 remaining in regulation time. But Ferraro was determined to make life difficult for Washington and he scored a natural hat trick to bring the Isles back to within a goal with 2:15 left.
However, with Tom Fitzgerald taking a slashing penalty nineteen seconds later, the Caps went on a power play and the Isles net went unoccupied. Hunter scored the empty netter to ice the victory and allow his team to stay alive. The two clubs would head back to the Nassau County Coliseum for Game 6.
Hunter opened the scoring back on the Island at the halfway mark of the opening period. But Steve Thomas tied the game with 4:14 remaining in the first. Benoit Hogue and Brad Dalgarno scored for the Isles in the second period and Travis Green put one past Don Beaupre halfway through the third. The Caps were down 4-1 and it was possible that just ten minutes remained in their season.
A minute and a half later, when Pierre Turgeon intercepted an errant Hunter pass in the Washington zone and scored on Beaupre, it immediately put the dagger into the hearts of the Capitals to make it 5-1, and it seemed like that was it. That was when all hell broke loose.
Turgeon skated over to the side boards to celebrate with his teammates. As he did, Hunter skated hard at the unsuspecting Islander and stapled him to the glass. Fights broke out all over the place. When everyone was separated, Hunter was ejected, but the arena was absolute bedlam. Turgeon was left with a shoulder injury that would keep him out of the rest of the playoffs.
Islanders’ fans were so upset with the actions of Hunter that they waited outside the arena for the visitors and pelted the Capitals’ bus with rocks. Gary Bettman had been in his position as Commissioner for about two months and it was up to him to decide what would be done with Hunter. He announced it quickly. The Caps’ player received a 21-game suspension for the hit on Turgeon. At that time, it was the most severe penalty imposed on a player in league history. Marty McSorley’s year-long suspension for the slash on Brashear would pass that in 2000.
That Hunter hit on Turgeon was an example of how he played on that edge, but it was also one of the things that hockey fans always remember about him when his name is mentioned. Scott Mellanby summed up the way a lot of people feel about Hunter after he put the hit on Gord Murphy back in 1991.
“You’ve got a guy like him (Hunter) who carries his stick (up high) like that, gets 200 penalty minutes a year and he’s not really in a fight. He starts everything but then everyone else fights his fights for him. We wouldn’t have had that problem if he didn’t do what he did.”
Anytime a player’s nickname is ‘The Rat’, you’ve got to figure that there’s going to be a story there and it may not be a pleasant one. That would be the case with Ken Linseman.
Linseman was born and grew up in Kingston, Ontario. He played his hockey there and even was able to play for the hometown Junior ‘A’ team, the Kingston Canadians. It was there that his reputation began to grow as an agitator. That reputation was cemented one night in a playoff game in Ottawa.
On April 10, 1977, Game 3 of the Leyden Division final between the Canadians and the Ottawa 67s was being played at the Civic Centre in the nation’s capital. The referee was letting a lot of the cheap stuff go and the play was becoming chippy. Stickwork was going uncalled and tempers were beginning to flare on both teams.
Eddie MacCabe was a columnist for the Ottawa Journal at that time 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.”
The temperature of the game eventually reached a boiling point by the third period. 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 versatile player for the 67s. He could play defense or he could play on any of the forward lines. In Game 3, he was back on the blue line and was partnered with Geiger. Here’s his version of what went on at that moment.
“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.
The Canadian Press story on the game noted that, “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 to get at Linseman. When he finally did get at him, Linseman turtled. Later Geiger was said to have told reporters, “he kicked me...I tried to kick him back.”
That was certainly an auspicious way to end one’s junior hockey career. Linseman was drafted that summer as an 18-year-old by the Birmingham Bulls of the World Hockey Association. Many people, at the time, questioned whether or not drafting players at 18 was a good idea. The NHL was drafting players at the age of 20.
“I was aware of the ramifications of what we were doing,” Linseman told Sports Illustrated’s Bob Kravitz in a 1985 interview. “For me, it made sense. On the other hand, so many of these kids come in so young and they’re not ready to handle professional hockey.”
Linseman put up 38 goals and 76 points that year with the Bulls. And he felt free to play his provocative style due to the fact that he had teammates that would be there to defend him from harm if it arose. With guys like Steve Durbano, Gilles “Bad News” Bilodeau and Dave “Killer” Hanson on your side, you can pretty much play with impunity.
The next year, he was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers. They had to pay the Bulls $500,000 to get him though. Their Broad Street Bullies era was not quite yet over and Linseman fit in well with that group. Players on other teams hated him but his teammates were quite happy to have him.
Paul Holmgren used to tell a story. “Guys on other teams used to ask me, ‘What’s it like playing with that little jerk, Linseman?’ I said ‘Great! He got me 30 goals.’ When you play with him, you love him.” They may have loved him, but sometimes his antics would grate on even his own organizations.
Off the ice, there were little things here and there. Speeding tickets, arguments with fans and reporters, posing for a magazine cover with a rat on his shoulder and subsequently getting a rat tattoo on his calf were all disconcerting enough. Then, in the 1981-82 season, he racked up 275 penalty minutes.
After the season was done, Linseman was put into a package with Greg Adams and a couple of draft picks and dealt to Hartford for defenseman Mark Howe. The Whalers then sent him and Don Nachbaur to Edmonton for Brent Loney and Risto Siltanen. He played with the Oilers until the end of the 1983-84 season. He was subsequently traded to Boston for Mike Krushelnyski.
Early in the ’84-85 campaign, in a Bruins game against the Oilers, Linseman got into an altercation with his former teammate, Lee Fogolin, in front of the Edmonton goal. He eventually bit Fogolin on the cheek! The bite was bad enough to require Fogolin to get a tetanus shot. Linseman was unrepentant. “If the league is going to let us fight, I don’t see where there are any rules about how we should fight.”
Back in 1982, Linseman gouged the eyes of Toronto Maple Leafs’ centreman Russ Adam. Holmgren attempted to defend his former teammate. “If you look at the truly great players in this game – Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Bobby Clarke, they all had a mean streak in them.” That may be true, but biting and eye gouging might be seen by many as crossing the line.
During the 1987-88 year, in a game against the Winnipeg Jets, he speared Iain Duncan in the groin and as he was standing over him, he spat at him. That same season, the Bruins were playing Montreal. In the old Boston Garden, the visiting team had to walk past the Bruins’ bench to get under the stands to get to their dressing room.
Chris Nilan was being escorted off the ice by a linesman, and as he was passing the bench, Linseman was there to give him some kind of verbal jab. Whatever he said incensed Nilan to the point that he wanted to get at the Bruins’ pest. That ignited an ugly stick-swinging melee that spread from the bench and under the stands with both teams participating.
The legend of Linseman is filled with little stories like these. And they have only fueled the hatred and disdain for the man they called ‘The Rat’. There are a ton of men who have played the game who have also earned the hate of opposing fans and players, but Linseman seems to have developed a special place in that pantheon.
Are there other hockey players who could be considered for the list of the most reviled men to have participated in the game? Of course there are. But when it comes to the dislike of the public, these guys seem too have struck a foul chord with many who watch and enjoy the game. And we’ll just leave it at that.
You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 182 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa.