He had it all, and then it was gone
Hamilton’s Jim McGeachie’s life cut short after tragic car crash 37 years ago
The phone rang early in the morning. Too early. “It was one of those things where I was wondering, who was calling me?” said Mike Penny. It was the Ontario Provincial Police. They had some horrific news for the Kitchener Rangers general manager during that midMay day back in 1980. Winger Jim McGeachie’s red Ford Pinto had been broadsided by an oncoming vehicle along Highway 9 near Teviotdale, and the 19-year-old was dead. “I was stunned,” recalls Penny, now a pro scout with the Toronto Maple Leafs. “He had Kitchener Rangers stuff on, so I guess that’s part of how they figured it out. You hang up the phone and think, ‘Oh my God.’ Then it kind of settles in.” The Rangers finished last with a record of 17-51 that season, and players had already returned home for the summer. Now it was Penny’s turn to start dialing. The distraught GM picked up the phone and delivered the devastating news to every player on the roster, one by one. The reaction was the same — tears, silence and disbelief. “I was in shock,” said former Rangers forward Mike Moher. “Like any kid at 18 years old, you can’t believe it. You think you’re going to last forever.” It was 37 years Sunday since McGeachie died while heading to the shores of Lake Huron with four of his close friends. A banner with his No. 22 still dangles from the rafters at the Aud to honour the fallen forward. No player has worn the number since. But few fans know the story behind it. The story of blue-collar kid from Hamilton that seemingly had everything — looks, personality, skill and a future in the NHL — taken away in a heartbeat on a lonely stretch of highway just outside Palmerston. “Jimmy was a nice kid,” said Penny. “He was no trouble. He was competitive, gritty. He was a player a lot of NHL teams were looking for.” Playing sports was a way of life for McGeachie while growing up on Hamilton’s East Mountain. The son of a steel factory worker was always at the centre of any pickup game in his Inch Park neighbourhood, near East 13th Street and Brucedale Avenue. “He was the consummate athlete,” recalls childhood friend Claudio Marchetti. “It was effortless for him. He just had this gift.” Even hockey games in his basement with souvenir mini-sticks were competitive. “It would just be bloodthirsty down there, but we’d have a hoot,” said Marchetti, who grew up two doors down from the McGeachies. “He was tough. He would not back away from anything.” McGeachie also wielded a vicious lacrosse stick and starred for the Hamilton Bengals, but hockey was in his heart. And it didn’t take long for scouts to notice the burgeoning power forward with the Hamilton Kilty B’s on the Golden Horseshoe Jr. B loop. He was a perfect fit for the rebuilding Rangers, who snapped him up in the fourth round of the 1978 Ontario Major Junior Hockey League draft. “He was so happy,” said friend Scott Abbott, 56. “Kitchener was a great place for him and close to friends and family.” When dad Len got a shift off from Stelco and mom Karen wasn’t working at Sears, they’d take youngest son Lenny and drive to Kitchener to cheer on the Rangers. After a solid rookie season, he scored 22 goals and had 27 assists while adding 164 penalty minutes during his sophomore campaign. The combination of size, skill and strength had NHL scouts on alert. Sadly, McGeachie never got his shot. It was a day full of fishing and frivolity on May 14, 1980. McGeachie and four buddies from Hamilton spent the afternoon casting lines in Bronte Creek. They talked about girls, sports and the upcoming NHL draft — which was less than a month away — before heading northwest to Port Elgin. “Geach,” as he was known to friends, was driving his parents’ car at dusk when it collided with another vehicle about an hour shy of their destination. “It was a freak thing,” said Jim Jenkins, who was in the car. “We were all injured, two quite bad. Jim was the only one who passed away.” Penny headed straight to Hamilton to be with the McGeachies hours after hearing the news from the police. “That half an hour or so I spent in their home … I don’t quite have the words to explain it,” he said. “Looking across at his mom and dad … I got back in my car and, Christ, I went about two blocks and had to stop the car. It was devastating.” For McGeachie’s parents, who have since passed away, there was just a feeling of emptiness. “It tore them apart,” said Marchetti. “They had to move. It was just too much for them to stay in the home that he was raised in. “I still live in the neighbourhood. I pass by the house and I remember hockey in his driveway. It just does not get away from you. You just see him.” Friends from Hamilton’s Hill Park Secondary School have lost touch with McGeachie’s brother Lenny but make an effort to remember their pal. Two years ago they had a “gone but not forgotten” gathering with a bonfire and live music. “Any time the NHL draft comes around and you hear guys talk about diamonds in the rough, that’s what they said about Jimmy,” said Abbott, who played hockey with McGeachie all the way up to Jr. B. “I hope the kids on the team (Rangers) know that life is fragile. Don’t take it for granted. You can be playing one day and all of a sudden it’s all over.”
A banner honouring former Kitchener Ranger Jim McGeachie hangs from the ceiling at the Kitchener Aud. The talented player from Hamilton died in a car accident in 1980.