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 Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - JOSH BROWN Water­loo Re­gion Record

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.”

MATHEW MCCARTHY, RECORD STAFF

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.

SUP­PLIED PHOTO,

Jim McGeachie

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