BY JIM AMODEO
There are games a hockey fan simply cannot forget. Ask anyone who witnessed game eight between Team Canada and Russia in 1972 and they can tell you exactly where they were when Paul Henderson scored his series clinging goal for Canada.
Many people remember New Year’s Eve 1975 when the Montreal Canadiens and Russia skated to a 3-3 draw. A close and exciting contest from beginning to end this epic battle was more important than the ball drop at midnight.
Several months after the New Year’s Eve classic another unforgettable game took place.
On Saturday February 7, 1976, the Toronto Maple Leafs hosted the Boston Bruins and the encounter was televised across the entire country on Hockey Night In Canada.
The Bruins were on a seven game winning streak and led the Adams Division with 73 points.
Prior to meeting the Leafs, Don Cherry’s club defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-1 at Boston Garden. Their starting goalie, Gilles Gilbert, missed the contest due to a knee injury suffered in practice the previous day.
Cherry turned to netminder Dave Reece to face the Penguins. The lone goal scored against Reece in Boston’s victory came off Lowell MacDonald’s stick.
Still sidelined for the tilt in Toronto, Gilbert was again replaced between the pipes by Reece.
In addition to Gilbert and Reece, the Bruins signed their former puck-stopper, Gerry Cheever’s to a contract on January 27, 1976. Cheever’s obtained his release from the WHA Cleveland Crusaders. He served as Reece’s back-up against Toronto.
The Maple Leafs last action before they hosted the Bruins was a mid-week confrontation with Washington at Maple Leaf Gardens.
This match-up was significant as Leaf coach, Red Kelly, juggled his forward combinations. His top line included a new centre, team captain Darryl Sittler.
Motivation to find a productive middleman for wingers Lanny McDonald and Errol Thompson was partially provided by Leaf owner Harold Ballard.
“We’d set off a time bomb if we had a sensational centre,” Ballard was quoted as saying.
At the time, Darryl Sittler was in a mini-slump. In 17 prior games, he scored 5 goals and 10 assists. Also, Sittler was hampered with a shoulder injury.
Another factor, which contributed to Darryl Sittler’s lack of production, was the constant changing of his linemates.
On the west coast for a late January date with Oakland, Darryl Sittler skated between four different players. In Pittsburgh on February 1, Darryl Sittler worked with six different teammates on his line. Hardly, the ideal circumstances for establishing chemistry.
All these factors were considered before Red Kelly formed the trio of Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Errol Thompson.
“I’m thinking seriously of giving that line a try,” the Leaf coach told reporters prior to the Washington game. “I used it late in the game against Pittsburgh. Sittler creates many scoring chances for his wingers through his strong forechecking and he needs some scorers with him for maximum effectiveness.”
Red Kelly wasted little time keeping his new line intact for an entire game. In their next outing both Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald scored on Washington Capitals goalie Ron Low. Also, Sittler gained an assist on McDonald’s first period goal.
The reconstructed number one line clicked as a unit, but the Leafs could only muster up a 4-4 tie with the dreadful Capitals. The visitors one point only gave them 16 on the season.
A true measurement of what Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Errol Thompson could accomplish as a threesome could be more accurately determined against their next opponent.
And all expectations were shattered when the Boston Bruins came calling on February 7, 1976.
One player took command on hockey’s biggest stage and gave the performance of his professional life. Like a leading-man in a Broadway production, Darryl Sittler slowly let the drama build, then in the final act, brought the audience out of their seats.
John Iaboni worked the Leaf beat for the Toronto Sun and his review the next morning placed Darryl Sittler with hockey’s all-time elite. Iaboni opened with the following paragraph:
“No player in the history of professional hockey – not Gordie Howe, not Maurice (Rocket) Richard, not Bobby Hull, not Bobby Orr, not even Phil Esposito – did what Darryl Sittler accomplished last night at Maple Leaf Gardens.”
When the curtain fell on Saturday February 7, 1976, Darryl Sittler had taken his place in hockey history by setting a new record for most points in 60-minutes of play. His 10-point game against Boston broke the previous mark of 8 points shared by Maurice Richard (1944) and Bert Olmstead (1954).
Totally unscripted, Darryl Sittler improvised from beginning to end.
ACT ONE: (Starting Slowly) Darryl Sittler concentrated on his role as a playmaker, setting up goals by Lanny McDonald and Ian Turnbull.
ACT TWO: (The Suspense Builds) Darryl Sittler scored his first of three goals in period two. On the play he knocked in a pass from Borje Salming.
Then, on a power play, Darryl Sittler and Salming once again joined forces. After winning the draw, Sittler moved the puck to his defenceman and Salming’s shot from the blueline found the back of the net.
Point number 5 came when Darryl Sittler picked-off a pass at centre ice and moved into Boston’s zone. He fired a shot, which Reece was unable to stop.
Darryl Sittler completed his hat trick when he converted George Ferguson’s pass into a goal.
Darryl Sittler’s final point in the middle frame resulted from a goal by Salming at the 13:57 mark.
ACT THREE: (High Drama) Darryl Sittler tied the record very early in period three. Point number 8 was collected 44-seconds after the drop of the puck to begin play. Positioned just outside of the crease, Darryl Sittler banged in a pass, which was delivered by Borje Salming.
Darryl Sittler’s crowning moment, point number 9, officially came at 9:27, when his wrist shot eluded Dave Reece.
He completed his show with a move usually associated with the game of pool. Darryl Sittler, anchored behind the Boston cage, sent the puck in front of the net, which triggered the trick shot. First, the puck banked-off Brad Park’s skate and went towards Reece. Then, it banked-off the goalies skate and crossed the goal line.
At 16:35 of the third period Darryl Sittler completed his 10-point game. His work was done.
Post-game quotes secured by reporters provide insight into Darryl Sittler’s thoughts and reflections on his 10-point game.
“When you play with guys like Thompson and McDonald, they create openings for their centre because they skate and move the puck so well. If you give either of them a good pass, you have the chance for an assist.”
When asked if he changed his game-day routine in any fashion, Darryl Sittler replied, “well my son fell in the mud when I was baby sitting him, other than that, nothing different.”
Reflecting on his 10-point game performance, he said, “It was one of those nights when everything happened. Some nights you have the puck and nothing happens.”
On when he became aware his game against the Bruins was about to enter unchartered waters, Darryl Sittler spoke of his teammates and their encouragement in his 10-point game.
“Lanny told me at the end of the second period there was a Leaf record I’d beaten, then in the third, they flashed things across the (electronic) board and I was aware of the record. And the guys kept informing me about it.”
In response to Harold Ballard’s quest to find “a sensational centre,” Darryl Sittler offered his boss some advice.
“Maybe now he won’t have to hunt so hard for that centre he wants,” Sittler said following the 10-point game.
On the 40th anniversary of his 10-point game, Darryl Sittler looked back on February 7, 1976, during an interview for this story.
“It was a Saturday night with an Original Six team (Boston) on Hockey Night In Canada from coast to coast and that added an dimension of excitement,” Darryl Sittler recalled as I asked him about his memories of the 10-point game.
“The game started out and we were doing pretty well, which didn’t always happen against Boston. During the second period it sort of all broke loose when I got the 5 points. I went out in the third period and got a goal to tie the record. The record breaking point was an exciting goal as I got it coming down the wing. The 10th point resulted from a fluke goal. I was behind the net and tried to pass the puck out and it ended up in the net. I put my hands in the air and shook my head. I couldn’t believe it was happening.”
I asked Darryl Sittler how long it took him to realize he had strung together a 10-point game and its historical importance.
“Here is the thing, I didn’t realize it at the time. It was great and we won, but I never realized the magnitude of it all until 2 years later.”
Having surpassed the single game point production of Rocket Richard and Bert Olmstead, I wondered if Sittler ever had the chance to speak with either of them. “I spent sometime with Rocket, but we never talked about it.”
When asked if Harold Ballard’s comments lit a fire under him, Darryl Sittler’s reply started with, “No.” He went on to state, “You just go out and try the best you can every night. There were other nights I felt I played as good or better than the 10-point game and I didn’t get as many points. Harold was Harold and he did what he did and you tried not to let that bother you.”
A team leader on and off the ice, Darryl Sittler gave credit to his teammates for the contribution they made on his 10-point game.
“I was fortunate to play with great wingers like Lanny and Errol Thompson. They were very skilled players with great speed and they could score. We also had Borje Salming and Ian Turnbull. When you put the five of us out on the ice, we had an awesome offensive combination.”
Besides his 10-point game record, Darryl Sittler had an amazing run in 1975-76. He was named team captain and later in the schedule on March 17, 1976, against Chicago, he broke the franchise record for most assists (51) and points (85) in one season. Former Maple Leaf Norm Ullman held the previous mark. In a playoff game on April 22, 1976, Darryl Sittler scored 5 goals against Philadelphia and recorded 6 points. This tied Rocket Richard for most goals and points in a post-season contest.
Darryl Sittler didn’t rest on the 10-point game or his other feats when the next hockey season rolled around. He was selected to play for his country in the 1976 Canada Cup tournament. In the championship game, he scored the winning goal in the first overtime session against Czech goalie Vladimir Dzurilla.
I asked Darryl Sittler to name the highlight of his body of work from that time. His reply is surprising taking into account he is the only player to have a 10-point game in the history books.
“The 10-point game is something that is brought up every year,” Darryl Sittler noted. “The overtime goal in the Canada Cup is more special because we won the championship. I wasn’t fortunate enough to be on a Stanley Cup team. To be part of Team Canada and scoring that goal, to me that was the highlight of them all.”
On the subject of his 10-point game record being broken in the future, Darryl Sittler takes a never-say-never approach.
“They could change the size of the goal nets or the goaltenders equipment and maybe 15 or 20 years from now the game may not be like it is today. I’d be happy for the guy that broke the 10-point game record, but at the same time I want to hold the record.”
One might think Darryl Sittler’s 10-point game on February 7, 1976, filled him with enough confidence to last until he hung-up his skates for good. But that wasn’t the case.
“I went out every game and tried to play as hard as I could. It had nothing to do with confidence. It was nice to get the goals and points,” Darryl Sittler said in reference to his 10-point game performance. “The next night I don’t think I even got a point (he registered one point, an assist, on a goal by Lanny McDonald). You go out and play the best you can and that’s what makes a successful career.”
Just as important to Darryl Sittler was the fact he remained, thanks to his 10-point game, between McDonald and Thompson.
“The 10-point game kept our line together and if we didn’t have a great outing against Boston, the coach may have decided to change the lines around.”
Darryl Sittler acknowledged to the press in the Leaf dressing room, “it’ll be hard to forget something like this.” And for those who watched in-person or on television, the Darryl Sittler 10-point game is one they will never forget.