Ken Linseman challenged the pro draft age

What’s the appropriate age for hockey players to turn pro? Back in 1977, Kingston’s Ken Linseman challenged the WHA/NHL’s rule that players had to be 20 years old to be drafted. He filed a lawsuit that was eventually dropped when he signed with the World Hockey Association’s Birmingham Bulls at the age of 19.

Prior to that, Linseman played three years of junior for the Kingston Canadians from 1974-1977, racking up 127 points in his final season. He was known for his aggressive and agitating style of play. In fact, this was the reason that he wanted to move on from the Canadians. During a playoff game in 1977 against Ottawa, his skate struck Jeff Geiger in the head, causing an uproar at the Ottawa rink and throughout the league.

“My Dad and I felt it was time to turn pro if possible,” he says over the phone from New Hampshire, where he now works in real estate development. “He thought that there was a risk of getting hurt.”

His father, Ken Linseman Sr., a former junior player himself and the city’s longtime public works commissioner, groomed him from birth to play hockey. Ken Jr. was on skates at 18 months and participating in organized hockey at three years old. “Dad always had me playing with older players where I wasn’t the best player on the ice so I would always be challenged and never complacent.”

In fact, the Linseman family holds an OHL record as the only family to have five brothers play in the league: John, Mike, Steve, Ted and Ken. Sister Sheila was also an accomplished figure skater.

In his first year of pro hockey with Birmingham, Ken had an outstanding year and collected 76 points.  After a year with Birmingham, teams in the NHL were pursuing him and the Flyers agreed to buy his rights from the Bulls and drafted him in the first round. Linseman joined Philadelphia the next year.

Linseman’s career took him to four Stanley Cup finals with Philadelphia, Edmonton (twice) and Boston. He eventually won the Cup in 1984 in Edmonton, with Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier leading the way. Linseman scored the Cup winning goal in a 5-2 victory in the fifth game of the series. He also had the winner in the clinching game in two of the other series. He is one of five Kingston players to score the deciding goal in the history of the Cup.

“I was lucky enough to play with three great organizations that were outstanding and did very well,” he says. “I learned what it takes to win as a team, which I think helped me be successful in business.”

As to where the NHL draft age should be set, speaking only about the best interests of a young player, he says: “It really comes down to the maturity level of the player. Many boys, myself included, don’t mature physically or mentally until their mid-twenties or even later. So changing the age by one year will not have a huge impact on them being ready.”

“There are of course plenty of exceptions and the teams can take steps to protect a young player, having them stay with a player and their family for example. On the financial side, if a young player is considered ready to play and a team wants to draft him in the first rounds I feel he should have that right. He could have a bad year or get injured staying another year in junior or college and have lost a great financial opportunity. At age 18 we are considered adults and can be drafted into the military or go to jail if we commit a crime. We should have the right to work/play hockey if somebody is willing to pay us.”

For Linseman, making the decision to become a pro early “turned out great for sure but there were plenty of land mines along the way that without a little luck could have derailed my career.”