Still Turnbull’s Mark 40 Years Later

TORONTO (Feb. 1) — On Nov. 11, 1981, just more than eight years after breaking into the National Hockey League, Ian Turnbull left Toronto in a trade with the reputation, among local media, of being irascible, sardonic and uncooperative. If so, four decades has somewhat mellowed the record–setting Maple Leafs defenseman — now 63 and living happily in Torrance, Calif., south of Los Angeles. An enjoyable telephone conversation of close to 40 minutes this week revealed an accomplished story–teller with a sharp wit; a sharper tongue, and an inclination to look at his checkered Toronto career with a dollop of humor.

Though he continues to hold the Leafs all–time record for points in one season by a defenseman (79); the NHL record for goals in one game by a defenseman (5), and was a component of arguably the best quintet ever deployed by a Toronto coach, Turnbull’s career as a Maple Leaf ended rather gracelessly. “One thing I remember about playing up there is that Leaf fans always needed a whipping boy,” he said. “For my first few years in Toronto, it was ‘Howie’ [fellow defenseman Jim McKenny]. They would boo the sh– out of him. Once he was gone, there was a natural progression toward me [he laughs]. I was the next sacrificial fu–ing lamb.

“But, that said, most of my Leaf memories are pretty good.”

And, none could be bigger, with respect to personal achievement, than 40 years ago this week, when Turnbull inscribed his name in the NHL record book. On Wednesday, Feb. 2, 1977, at Maple Leaf Gardens, he scored five goals as part of a 9–1 rout of the Detroit Red Wings. It broke the league, single–game mark for defensemen that stood for more than 47 years. Not since Nov. 19, 1929 had a blue–liner counted as many as four goals… and in the same game. At the old Duquesne Gardens in Pittsburgh, John McKinnon accomplished the feat for the Pirates; Hap Day for the visiting Maple Leafs, in a 10–5 Pittsburgh victory. The Pirates played in the NHL from 1925–30; became the Philadelphia Quakers for one season, and then folded.

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TORONTO STAR PAGES OF FEB. 3, 1977, RECOUNTING TURNBULL’S BIG GAME THE PREVIOUS NIGHT.

Turnbull’s eruption ended a surreal chain of record–breaking nights at the Gardens in less than one calendar year, which began Feb. 7, 1976 when Leafs captain Darryl Sittler poured in 10 points (six goals, four assists) against Boston for the existing single–game mark. Sittler then tied a Stanley Cup playoff record that still stands with a five–goal effort against Philadelphia on Apr. 22, 1976. Turnbull victimized veteran goalies Ed Giacomin and Jim Rutherford of the Red Wings, as the old building on Carlton St. went bonkers once again.

“Yup, it was Groundhog Day,” Turnbull said. “To have three nights like that in the same building in less than a year was crazy, but it also said something about our team. We had some really high–end talent and could play an exciting, free–wheeling style. We were two or three players shy of a Stanley Cup contender, but ownership was too cheap to fill in the holes. When I think of it, those big night weren’t overly shocking.”

Turnbull has a point. Between December 1975 and March 1978 — when healthy — the Leafs possessed arguably the five best skaters at any juncture in franchise history. When coaches Red Kelly or Roger Neilson sent Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Errol Thompson, Turnbull and Borje Salming over the boards, they could match up against any quintet in the league. In 1975–76, the Sittler–McDonald–Thompson line combined for 121 goals, 149 assists and 270 points. Sittler became the first Maple Leafs player to record 100 points in a season. The following year, Turnbull (79 points) and Salming (78) formed the most prolific blue–line tandem in club history. Turnbull’s 1976–77 accumulation is still a franchise, single–season mark for defensemen.

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TURNBULL AS A LEAF IN 1976… AND IN A “SELFIE” FROM CALIFORNIA ON TUESDAY.

THE FIVE–GOAL NIGHT
Wednesday, February 2, 1977
DETROIT 1 at TORONTO 9
First Period–
No Scoring.
Second Period–
1. Toronto, Turnbull 12 (McDonald, Salming) 1:55.
2. Toronto, Boutette 12 (Weir) 2:35.
3. Toronto, Ashby 14 (Thompson) 4:12.
4. Toronto, Williams 14 (Alexander, Glennie) 8:15.
5. Toronto, Turnbull 13 10:26.
Third Period–
6. Toronto, Turnbull 14 4:48.
7. Toronto, McDonald 33 (Ashby, Alexander) 8:13.
8. Detroit, Grant 2 (Hextall, Harper) 16:18.
9. Toronto, Turnbull 15 (Weir, Salming) 17:10.
10. Toronto, Turnbull 16 (Salming, Valiquette) 18:30.
SHOTS ON GOAL      1           2           3          T
Detroit                         9          12        10        31
Toronto                       5          18        14        37
Goalies– Giacomin, Rutherford Detroit; Thomas Toronto.
Attendance– 16,472.

Having tied the NHL mark for goals by a defenseman with 3:50 remaining in the game, Turnbull looked for the record–breaker. “On our next shift, with a face–off near center–ice, B.J. [Salming] and I had a little chat,” Ian recalled. “He said ‘if the puck comes to me, you head straight up the middle and I’ll find you.’ So, that’s exactly what I did. [Jack Valiquette] won the draw back to Borje and I took off like a sprinter. He hit me with a perfect pass and I scored on a breakaway (with 1:30 left). When I turned the corner [beside the Detroit net], Salming and I were laughing like hell. How often are two defensemen able to script a play like that?”

There is current–day coincidence in Turnbull’s life. He works as a computer expert for Martin Chevrolet in Torrance, riding his bicycle three blocks to and from the dealership. It is owned by Sudbury, Ont. native Joe Giacomin, the nephew of the Red Wings’ starting goalie on Feb. 2, 1977. Ed Giacomin was replaced by Jim Rutherford after giving up four goals in the opening 8:15 of the second period. “Joe Giacomin was actually at my five–goal game,” Turnbull said. “I met him out here through [ex–NHLer] Billy Harris. Billy and I were traded for one another (in November 1981); he went to the Leafs; I came to the Kings. A couple of years ago, Joe and me were on the telephone with Eddie and he was still pissed off over that night [Turnbull laughs out loud]. Eddie is old–school, like me. If you didn’t like a guy on the ice, you didn’t like him in the bar.”

Also of note is that Detroit was coached — on Feb. 2, 1977 — by the late Larry Wilson, whose son, Ron, would hold the same position with the Maple Leafs between October 2008 and March 2012.

Turnbull came close to matching his record outburst while playing for the Los Angeles Kings. He scored four goals at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif. on Dec. 12, 1981 in a 7–5 victory over the Vancouver Canucks.

The other defensemen to score four goals since Turnbull’s record night are Tom Bladon of Philadelphia (vs. Cleveland, Dec. 11, 1977) and Hall–of–Famer Paul Coffey of Edmonton (at Calgary, Dec. 26, 1984).

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THE TWO “HISTORIC” MAPLE LEAF GARDENS PROGRAMS THAT I DE–FACED IN EXCITEMENT. AT LEFT, THE TORONTO–BOSTON ISSUE FROM DARRYL SITTLER’S 10–POINT GAME ON FEB. 7, 1976. AND, INCREDIBLY, TURNBULL WAS ON THE PROGRAM–COVER THE NIGHT OF HIS FIVE–GOAL ERUPTION.

MY PHOTOS FROM FEB. 2, 1977

Yes, I had an old Pentax camera with me at the Gardens for Turnbull’s big game.

It was the night before my 18th birthday.

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PERHAPS IAN TURNBULL KNEW HE WAS IN FOR SOMETHING BIG WHEN HE LAUGHED DURING THE PRE–GAME WARM–UP NEXT TO TEAMMATES DON ASHBY (9) AND STAN WEIR (14). IN UPPER–LEFT OF THE PHOTO IS THE EMPTY “BUNKER” FROM WHICH OWNER HAROLD BALLARD WOULD WATCH GAMES.

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JIM RUTHERFORD, CURRENT G.M. OF THE STANLEY CUP–CHAMPION PITTSBURGH PENGUINS, WARMED UP AT THE NORTH END OF MAPLE LEAF GARDENS. LESS THAN THREE HOURS LATER — IN THAT SAME NET — RUTHERFORD WOULD YIELD TURNBULL’S RECORD–TYING AND BREAKING GOALS.

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GOALIE ED GIACOMIN WAS CONSOLED BY TEAMMATE MIKE BLOOM, AS RUTHERFORD PREPARED TO ENTER THE GAME. GIACOMIN HAD GIVEN UP FOUR GOALS IN THE FIRST 8:15 OF THE SECOND PERIOD. TURNBULL NOW WORKS FOR GIACOMIN’S NEPHEW, JOE, AT A CAR DEALERSHIP IN TORRANCE, CALIF.

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THE FINAL TALLY ON THE OLD MAPLE LEAF GARDENS SCORE–CLOCK ABOVE CENTER–ICE. AND, TURNBULL TAKES A BOW AS THE GAME’S NO. 1 STAR.

FROM THE PROGRAM — Feb. 2, 1977

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QUITE THE PROPHETIC QUOTE IN THE COVER STORY THAT NIGHT.

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THE FOLLOWING YEAR…

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TURNBULL’S BIO IN THE 1977–78 LEAFS MEDIA GUIDE MADE QUICK MENTION OF HIS BIG NIGHT.

AND, TODAY…

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ON PAGE 171 OF THE 2016–17 NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE OFFICIAL GUIDE & RECORD BOOK, TURNBULL IS PICTURED (TOP–RIGHT) ALONGSIDE THE RECORD HE STILL OWNS (BELOW).

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STARS “NEILSON” THE LEAFS

Tuesday night’s game at the American Airlines Center in Dallas took me back to the cross–road of Ian Turnbull’s career with the Maple Leafs — his unholy alliance with coach Roger Neilson. The Stars bolted to a 5–1 lead over visiting Toronto after 20 minutes and then shifted to neutral, getting out–shot 29–8 over the last two periods; 13–1 in the final frame. This was a Neilson ploy in his early–NHL coaching days with the Leafs. A two–goal lead midway through the game would have the Toronto players repeatedly icing the puck whenever danger approached. In the late–70’s, of course, you could do so and make a line change. Today, teams are “penalized” by having to keep the same five skaters on the ice for the ensuing face–off.

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SPORTSNET IMAGES

After a terrific 11–2–2 run, the Leafs have lost consecutive road games in regulation time (at Philadelphia and Dallas). The club is now three points behind Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division and an automatic playoff berth. Toronto still has five games–in–hand on the Bruins and a big four–pointer coming up on Saturday night at the TD Garden. But, the games–in–hand accumulated during the club’s bye–week in early–January won’t mean much if the Leafs fail to pick up regulation points. Next up on the current six–game road trip is St. Louis Thursday night. The Blues are struggling right now with a 3–7–0 mark in their past 10 games. While the Leafs were losing in Dallas, the Blues were defeated, 5–3, by Winnipeg at the Scottrade Center. St. Louis is now 16–8–4 at home this season; the Leafs 11–8–6 on the road.

Toronto won its road game in St. Louis last season (Dec. 5) by a 4–1 count.

NOTE: The Blues fired Ken Hitchcock today. He’ll be replaced by ex–Minnesota coach Mike Yeo.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

5 comments on “Still Turnbull’s Mark 40 Years Later

  1. Thanks Howard for the great read on Ian Turnbull.
    I was likewise at the 5 point game night in the north end blues (as they were at the time as I recall) of MLG. The combo of that game plus attending the Sittler 10 point night the year earlier (Feb 7/76) and going to some decent playoff games in ’76 and in ’77 against Philadelphia(2 straight OT losses by Leafs in games 3 and 4)- makes me wonder if Leafs can ever get to the heights of excitement that era brought? I still to this day feel absolutely blessed and lucky to have attended those games back then with my dear Dad who has now departed.

    In retrospect- I also now have some perspective as to why I perhaps under performed in university final exams those 2 seasons although it was eventually sorted out by myself in subsequent school years. Watching those Leafs in playoffs in mid to late seventies and being fortunate enough to attend some occasional games was a full time evening activity!

    Thanks again Howard. Your columns are meaningful and relevant.

  2. Howard, I remember that night very well, thank you for the nice update. Looking way back now I believe you are correct about Turnbull and his “caring” and the Leafs getting worse. But boy, at the time, and without the benefit of all the now available sports media, it seemed like he took nights off and didn’t care.

    That said, I have nothing but fond memories of those teams and those players.

  3. Howard, I always felt he could have been a great player. He had all the tools, some nights he was outstanding and others he was just average and then some , it was like he didn’t care. A little like Gardiner with the present day Leafs.

    John Smit
    Delhi, ON

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