The Flyers did notice, and were so impressed that they drafted him and paid $500,000 to the Bulls for his rights. In 1979-80 he was a key figure in the team's NHL-record 35-game unbeaten streak, and he established himself as a money performer in the playoffs with 22 points in 17 games. "Guys on other teams used to ask me, 'What's it like playing with that little jerk Linseman?' " says Paul Holmgren, who was right wing on Linseman's line and now is a Flyers assistant coach. "I said, 'Great. He got me 30 goals.' When you play with him, you love him."
But as Linseman's penalty minutes piled up—he had 275 in 1981-82—the Flyers brass tired of his chippy excesses. In the summer of 1982 Linseman was part of a three-team deal that sent him to Edmonton and brought much-needed defenseman Mark Howe from Hartford to the Flyers.
At the time, Linseman was 24, well-off and ready for anything. There were mistakes: a number of speeding tickets, some arguments with fans and reporters, and the time he posed with a rat for a magazine—or worse, his having a rat tattooed on his right calf even though he dislikes the nickname. "I'm trying, and I think I'm getting better all the time," Linseman says now, referring to his office difficulties. "But I'm still probably worse than 95 percent of the population."
But Linseman expresses no remorse over such incidents as the October 1984 "Rat Bites Man" episode with former Oiler teammate Lee Fogolin. During a game in Edmonton, Linseman was drilled in the crease in front of Oilers goalie Andy Moog. A fight broke out and Linseman bit Fogolin so severely on the cheek that the Edmonton player required a tetanus shot. "If the league is going to let us fight, I don't see where there are any rules about how we should fight," Linseman says. In 1982, Linseman was suspended for four games for gouging former Toronto Maple Leaf center Russ Adam. "If you look at the truly great players in this game—Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Bob Clarke, they all had a mean streak in them," says Holmgren. That doesn't mean Linseman has been scratched from any hit lists, though.
Linseman's playing style has evolved as NHL hockey has evolved—into the type of freewheeling skating game practiced by the Oilers. In 1982-83 he scored a career-high 33 goals and helped line-mates Glenn Anderson and Mark Messier to 100-point-plus seasons. The following season he scored the Stanley Cup winning goal for the Oilers, and his penalty minutes have been dropping—to 119 and 126 the last two seasons. "Kenny really benefited from his time in Edmonton," says Boston defenseman Mike O'Connell. "Playing with that caliber of talent, I think he proved to himself just how good he is."
Yet, the summer after he had sealed the Oilers' first Cup win, Linseman was dealt to the Bruins for forward Mike Krushelnyski. There were good reasons for the deal. One, Linseman was in the last year of his contract, and the Oilers figured he would pressure them for a raise—as usual, payable in American dollars, then worth almost one-third more than Canadian dollars. Two, Messier had been moved to center, leaving Linseman as a third- or fourth-line center. Three, the Bruins badly needed a speedy game-breaker to center a second line and take some of the scoring pressure off Barry Pederson and Rick Middleton.
When you think about it, is there a more appropriate place for the Rat than Boston, where the fans truly appreciate blue-collar hockey? "I'm very comfortable here," he says.
"Kenny's his own man," says Wilson. "If you try and tie him down, you take away what makes him special." He is moving, always moving. Traffic in Boston's Sumner Tunnel makes his palms sweat, neckties are too constricting ("I think I was hung in a previous life," Linseman says). While Bruins teammates listen to Prince blasting over the stereo, Linseman prefers the mellower sounds of the Spencer Davis Group live at a Cambridge nightspot. In a sport of superstitions, Linseman wears No. 13; in an age of curved sticks, Linseman's are nearly straight, the better to practice the lost art of the backhand. On the ice Linseman is recklessly distinctive—forever crouched low over his stick, tugging at his gloves, pawing at his shin guards. Says Holmgren, "This is Kenny: Tell him he needs a haircut and even if he's planning to get one, he won't because someone told him to."
He has been a rebel with, or without, a cause since he was a kid in Kingston. His father, Ken, an engineer with the city, played junior hockey in Toronto with NHL stars-to-be Frank Mahovlich and Dick Duff. Linseman is the oldest of six kids; he has four brothers and a sister. "I think I was born to ask 'Why?' I won't do anything unless I understand the logic behind it," he says. "My mom and I were very much alike. We would have these incredible fights that would go on and on and on, and nobody would win. But we were made to believe that it was best to show how you felt, get things out in the open."
Linseman wasn't keeping anything hidden the day his former teammate, Flyers goalie Pelle Lindbergh, was declared brain dead as the result of injuries suffered in a car crash. All day long Linseman shook his head and muttered, lost in a shroud of whys and what ifs. "How can you ask a stupid question like that?" he snapped at a reporter who posed a "drugs-and-alcohol-in-sports" question prompted by blood test results indicating that Lindbergh had been legally drunk at the time of the accident. With Lindbergh's death, Simmer's knee injury and a chill wind blowing freezing rain, it had been a bleak and brutal day.