Darryl Sittler is one of the greatest players to ever wear the Toronto Maple Leaf uniform. An inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and voted by fans as the centreman on the All-Time Leafs Team, Sittler has an incredible wealth of stories to share from the course of his outstanding career, as well as the lessons he’s learned working in charitable endeavors. The recent anniversary of Darryl’s legendary 10-point game just passed, and Darryl sat down with The Toronto Star to reminisce about it:
Never is a long time. Maybe once-in-a-lifetime is enough.
These are some of the things Darryl Sittler thinks about when he ponders his historic 10-point game, which happened 40 years ago Sunday, on Feb. 7, 1976.
It was an 11-4 Leafs’ win over the Boston Bruins at Maple Leaf Gardens.
“The Bruins were a good team,” the then-Leafs captain says. “For us to score a lot of goals made it a lot of fun . . . I just happened to be in on 10 of them. Why it happened? I don’t know.”
It had never happened before that a player scored 10 points in one NHL game (Sittler’s effort included hat-tricks in consecutive periods).
It hasn’t happened since, although 13 times players put up eight points in one game, most recently by Sam Gagner as an Edmonton Oiler in 2012.
“I can honestly say there are games I felt I played as good or better,” Sittler says. “You have good chances and you don’t score. You make a great pass to a guy and he doesn’t put it in. That night, it all ended up on the scoreboard.”
But what saddens him is the lack of memorabilia from that game. The puck and his jersey were simply reused, now long gone. The stick was lost in a fire. And any video of the complete game has been lost.
“You can go on YouTube and get all the highlights but the whole game — I know I had it on a VHS tape but I don’t know where it is,” Sittler says. “We have the memories. That’s it.”
Oh, the memories. It’s one of the few fond memories Leaf Nation can point to during this 49-years-and-counting Stanley Cup drought.
“It’s 40 years ago, but all the time people come up to me and say ‘I was 12’ or ‘I was eight’ or ‘I was at the game,’ ” Sittler recalls. “There’s always somebody who has a story about remembering, which is kind of cool.”
He remembers eating chicken and french fries in his car on the way to the rink. He also remembers cantankerous owner Harold Ballard blasting his captain for not being a No. 1 centre for Lanny McDonald and Errol Thompson.
“We’d set off a time bomb if we had a hell of a centre in there,” Ballard told the Star before the game.
“I don’t think there was anything that got me going,” Sittler said. “I was the kind of player that came prepared every night. Do what you can to help your team win. There was nothing different that night. Having said that, there was a different buzz in the city when an Original Six team was in town.”
The Bruins came to town having won seven in a row. This would be their only loss over a 16-game stretch. The Leafs had won once in their previous seven (1-4-2).
Sittler started relatively slowly, with two assists in the first period. Then three goals and two assists in the second period. Then three more goals in the third.
“That was a pretty outstanding thing Sittler did, because we were a first-place club,” remembers Don Cherry, then-coach of the Bruins.
His goalie that night was Dave Reece. He made 29 saves — one more than Leaf goalie Wayne Thomas. But Reece was sent to the minors after that game, never to be seen in the NHL again. The Bruins had re-signed Gerry Cheevers, who backed up that night, after having lost him for a couple of years to the WHA.
“It wasn’t his fault,” Cherry said of Reece. “Sittler was just hot. One goal went in from behind the net. Everything went wrong. There was no way I was putting Cheevers in. I never, ever pulled my goalies. I figured it this way: ‘You put us into this mess, now you get us out.’ ”
Reece laughs about it all now, joking that his teammates “backchecked harder to the bench than to their own end. They didn’t want the minus.”
The smile doesn’t come off his face as he continues.
“Everyone had those games where nothing is going right. There is nothing you can do stop the magical momentum. You just have to eat it,” says Reece. “It was one of those nights where we were out to lunch and they were hot as hell. It was fantastic what Sittler was doing. I didn’t realize until after the game what he had done. I just knew this is going to take a long, long time to get over.”
Sittler’s teammate, Tiger Williams, watched in awe.
“I don’t think a lot of us on the bench realized what was going on in terms of records,” Williams said. “But it’s great for hockey and great for Leaf Nation. Good things happen to good people.
“I think this stuff only happens to really good people. I think the hockey gods stop everybody at eight because they’re not the same quality of person as Sittler. He’s just one of those unique, high-end athletes.”
It could be argued that in 1976, Darryl Sittler was the game’s best player. It was certainly a career season. In addition to the 10-point night, Sittler set a record in the playoffs, scoring five goals in one game, a feat never before accomplished.
Then, begging for a role as a checker on Team Canada in the inaugural Canada Cup, Sittler scored the golden goal in overtime for Canada in the final against Czechoslovakia.
“That is more meaningful to me as a player, winning the Canada Cup in 1976, than the 10-point game,” Sittler says. “But the 10-point game comes up every year.”
So just how much longer will Sittler hold the record?
Montreal’s Maurice (Rocket) Richard had scored five goals, three assists for an NHL-record eight points on Dec. 28, 1944, meaning 9,446 regular-season and 697 playoff games had passed without anyone equalling his mark.
Then Sittler went on his tear. Another 42,070 games — 38,977 regular season and 3,073 playoffs — have been played without anybody tying Sittler.
“I didn’t really understand how big that record is,” says Sittler. “I don’t know if the right word is ‘big.’ Maybe how difficult the record was to beat. I always thought Wayne Gretzky would beat it, or Mario Lemieux. They got to eight. I thought they’d break it.
“I never thought I’d hold it forever. But as time goes by now . . . ”
Sittler didn’t finish the thought.
“I never say never because in sport — just like that — something unusual can happen. The NHL has lots of great skilled players, whether it’s Connor McDavid or Patrick Kane, and some night everything falls into place, the right alignment of stars come together, but it will be difficult.”
Sittler gave the stick he used that night to trainer Joe Sgro, who kept it in his garage. The garage burned down in 1981. The puck and the sweater Sittler wore that night were also lost.
“Back then you didn’t keep things like that,” says Sittler. “The puck? They probably used it next game. The jersey? Probably wore it the next game. That was the nature of the beast back then.”
The Hockey Hall of Fame has very little.
“We do not have any artifacts associated with this milestone moment,” Craig Campbell, manager of the Hall’s Resource Centre and Archives. “I am sure our former curator, Lefty Reid, may have tried to obtain something at that time.”
What little the Hall has: a worn ticket stub, some photographic negatives and a program minus the cover plus newspaper clippings.
A recently donated collection may yield another copy of the program.
“But it is massive and we are just going through that now,” said Campbell.
As for Reece, the joke was he was so distraught after allowing 11 goals he tried to commit suicide by jumping in front of a train but it went through his legs.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Although like some cruel exclamation point, that game was his last in the NHL. Cheevers took over and Gilles Gilbert returned from injury.
Reece went to the minors and played there one more season, representing Team USA at the 1977 world championships. He had also been on Team USA’s 1972 Olympic team.
“I knew I was going to be going to the minors,” says Reece. “I’ve had a good run, time to go on to that next phase after hockey.”
He then moved on to life as an academic as well as hockey and lacrosse coach in New England prep schools. He is now a professional mentor.
“I was able to translate a failure into helping people,” says Reece. “Life goes on. They can fire you, but they can’t eat you. I was lucky enough to teach and use my experiences to mentor.”
His hockey-playing friends treat him to dinner every Feb. 7. “They’d poke fun. It’s a culture, a great club. Hockey players are great. They’re so social, they get it . . . they’re friends.”
His career NHL numbers: seven wins, five losses, two ties, a 3.32 goals-against average, an .877 save percentage.
“I wasn’t bad,” says Reece. “I had five great games coming in. But the sixth? Wow.”
As for any videotape of the game, Sittler had two versions: One original three-quarter-inch video, the other a copy he had made on VHS version. Here’s what he said happened:
“After the game, someone at Hockey Night in Canada gave me the tape. I had that for years. Around 2000, I had the game transferred to VHS. I remember watching it (the VHS version) in the early 2000s. I figured this tape was with all my other tapes. We moved since then.
“When I went to get it a couple of years ago, I couldn’t find it. Maybe somebody put it in a box but I haven’t been able to find it. People thought I was holding it back. That’s not the case. It disappoints me that I can’t find it. I hope it shows up.”
Sittler has no idea where the original HNIC tape — on three-quarter inch video — is either.
“I don’t recall getting the three-quarter inch back,” he said.