TORONTO (Mar. 28) — Given the multitudes under house arrest during the COVID–19 pandemic, I posted a question on Facebook and Twitter last week asking social media friends to name the most–memorable sports event they have attended. It generated nearly 200 vivid recollections. My own choice dates to nearly 4½ decades and is likely not to change — Darryl Sittler’s 10–point eruption (six goals, four assists) against Boston, at Maple Leaf Gardens, on Feb. 7, 1976… four days after my 17th birthday. Here’s why:
DOPEY AND COMFORTABLE: What I remember most is the fog. Not as it pertains to the weather — February is incessantly cold around here — but, rather, my emotional state. Exactly one month earlier, on Jan. 7, 1976, I had been diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease at Toronto General Hospital, arriving sick and skinny after more than three months of disconcerting malaise. My weight had plummeted from 150 to 115 pounds; I was essentially skin and bones. Though too young to comprehend the possibility of cancer, that dreaded notion had consumed my late mother, Sandee. When Dr. Khursheed Jeejeebhoy — after rolling his fingers back–and–forth on my lower abdomen — went into the hallway at TGH, Mom said “please tell me he hasn’t got the big ‘C’.” To which the doctor, rather perversely, replied, “well… he does. But, it’s not what you’re thinking. He has Crohn’s Disease, an inflammation of the intestine. We’ll treat him here and get him feeling better.” Mom later told me she had never wanted, as desperately, to slap and hug a person at the same time.
So, yes, the fog. After an array of unpleasant tests, I was released from hospital on Jan. 17, consuming fist–fulls of a powerful corticosteroid called Prednisone. Mixed with other anti-inflammatory drugs, my medicinal compound left me semi–catatonic. Comfortable, for sure, yet dopey. I remember sitting near the back of Grade 11 history class and watching, with a blend of fear and amazement, as my teacher’s head moved side–to–side… while he stood perfectly motionless. I began to tolerate food for the first time since late–October. My sole diversion from all of the anxiety was the Leafs. One afternoon back in early September, Dad had driven me to Maple Leaf Gardens. We went up a winding stairwell off the main lobby known as the “Special Ticket Office” and a man showed us a seating map of the fabled arena. In the last row of Sec. 30 — in the south–mezzanine (or upper–balcony) Blues, behind and to the left of the goal the Leafs defended in the first and third periods — was a pair of unclaimed season tickets (for all 40 home games of the regular schedule and three pre–season matches). At $6.60 per ticket, Dad wrote the Gardens a check for $567.60… the rough equivalent, today, of one Platinum seat, and parking, for a single game at Scotiabank Arena.
The 1975–76 Maple Leafs were essentially a .500 team. While in hospital, I received a night “pass” (Jan. 10) to attend at 4–3 win over Los Angeles; Dad returned me to Toronto General (three blocks west of the Gardens) after the game. The Leafs then embarked on their longest road trip of the season — to Montreal, Minnesota, Kansas City, Detroit, Los Angeles, Vancouver and California — from Jan. 11–25 (beating only the North Stars and Scouts). A 6–4 win at home over the New York Rangers (Jan. 31) was followed by a 7–1 pounding, at Pittsburgh, 24 hours later. When the Leafs played the atrocious Washington Capitals (5–42–5) to a Wednesday night draw at the Gardens, Feb. 4, owner Harold Ballard wryly suggested that wingers Lanny McDonald and Errol Thompson would ignite if somehow flanked by a front–line center–man; for Sittler, a verbal wallop to the solar–plexus. The 25–year–old captain would respond like no player, before or since.
Let’s pause for a moment and place into context the Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins prior to the Gardens clash of Feb. 7, 1976. Toronto sat but a game over .500 (21–20–11 for 53 points); with a 1–4–3 record in its previous eight matches. Boston, coached by Don Cherry, was soaring at 32–10–9 for 73 points; 15–1–1 in its prior 17 games. Veteran goalie Gerry Cheevers had just returned after a 3½–year stint with Cleveland of the World Hockey Association, but Cherry (in his second season behind the Bruins bench) felt no urgency to deploy him. A rookie named Dave Reece crafted a 4–1–1 mark in six games (dating to Dec. 17) and was coming off a 5–1 victory at Boston Garden, two nights earlier, over the high–scoring Pittsburgh Penguins. All things considered, a lop–sided result would not have surprised any of the 16,485 people that gathered at Maple Leaf Gardens on that Saturday. And, the rout materialized… in a way no one could have imagined.
I DEFACED, AND LIKELY DEVALUED, THE MAPLE LEAF GARDENS PROGRAM OF FEB. 7, 1976 (TOP–LEFT AND BELOW). TORONTO GOALIE WAYNE THOMAS (WHO PLAYED THAT NIGHT) WAS ON THE COVER. STILL, A NICE KEEPSAKE… AS IS MY TICKET–STUB (TOP–RIGHT) FROM THE HISTORIC MATCH.
For reasons I’ve long–since forgotten, I had Red tickets in the northwest corner of the Gardens, two rows in back of Box 8 (Golds) and nine rows from the glass. I went to the game with my life–long pal, Jeffrey Spiegelman. Two other friends, David Silverman and the late Mark Belzberg, sat up behind me in our season tickets in the south–mezzanine Blues. It was three months to the day that Boston had traded Phil Esposito to New York and I remember, during the warm–up, thinking how strange it looked to see long–time Rangers Jean Ratelle (10) and Brad Park (22) wearing the black–and–gold Bruins jersey. Boston’s No. 1 goalie, Gilles Gilbert, was injured and Cheevers — in his first game back from the WHA — skated about wearing No. 31. Gerry had been a significant factor in the Bruins Stanley Cup wins of 1970 and 1972 before signing with Cleveland of the rival league. As the Leafs built their enormous, unanticipated lead during the game that night, he would sit at the end of the visitors’ bench with a white towel over his head — a wordless, yet clamorous, signal to Cherry that he had no interest in replacing poor Dave Reece. Grapes got the message.
Again, I can recall the offbeat sensation resulting from my medicine cocktail. Though difficult to explain, it’s as if I were alone amid the tumult of 16,000 others at the Gardens. The familiar sound of a hockey crowd seemed elsewhere; miles away rather than surrounding me. I vividly remember the goal that put the Leafs up, 2–0, at 7:01 of the first period. Ian Turnbull took Sittler’s pass and raced away down the left–wing boards. From my perspective, in the southwest corner of the arena and close to ice level, Turnbull was in direct line–of–sight at the opposite (north) end. Though Reece ventured far out of his net, he assumed the improper angle and Turnbull blew a slapshot past him on the glove side. It wasn’t until midway through the second period that Sittler’s remarkable night began to intrigue. Until then, fans were merely astonished that the Leafs were leading the mighty Bruins, 6–2. Yet, the frequency of Sittler’s name being called out by public–address announcer Paul Morris, and that the Toronto captain had scored twice in a 2:15 span to complete a hattrick, altered the focus. By the end of the middle frame, it was clear Sittler stood on the cusp of history.
Beginning in 1967, and throughout the 70’s, there existed a pair of teletype–message boards, atop the mezzanine Blues at each end of the Gardens. Messages flowed in a horizontal frame near the bottom of an enormous red curtain. When dormant, “Export Cigarettes” held steady within the frame and illuminated, square signs at either end connoted the message–board sponsor (Export Cigarettes had also sponsored the barber–shop calendars produced by the Gardens each year). As Sittler began his push toward breaking the NHL single–game points record of eight — accomplished a decade apart by Maurice (Rocket) Richard (1944) and Bert Olmstead (1954) of Montreal — the message–board was in constant motion. As such, fans at MLG, long before the advent of mobile devices, were aware of the record chase heading into the third period. This was all the conversation, as I remember, in the smoky corridor of the west Reds during the intermission.
The record–tying point came early in the final frame, at 44 seconds, as Sittler maneuvered around former London Knights (junior) teammate Darryl Edestrand and beat Reece to the far side along the ice. As you might imagine, the Gardens erupted. At this juncture, a trumpet playing the cavalry–charge could be heard repeatedly, through loudspeakers, over the din. This had never–before (or afterward) been a pattern at the Gardens and it was only later that we learned the button to control the recording was at the finger–tip of Ballard, watching from his “bunker” amid the Gold seats at the northeast corner of the arena. It can be heard in the background of the scoring highlights from the game (here: https://bit.ly/3dFfa98) as called on Hockey Night In Canada by Bill Hewitt and Brian McFarlane (video produced by Sportsnet). Sittler and McFarlane share their memories in another video (here: https://bit.ly/3aqYn7t) put together by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment during the hockey club’s centennial celebration (in 2017). Precisely why Ballard installed the trumpet recording for the Feb. 7 visit by Boston — and never thereafter — remains a mystery.
THE GARDENS’ TELETYPE BOARDS (LEFT) — WITHIN A RED CURTAIN AND SPONSORED BY EXPORT CIGARETTES — WERE PERCHED ABOVE THE MEZZANIE BLUES AT EACH END OF THE ARENA. ERROL THOMPSON (12) CONGRATULATES SITTLER (RIGHT) AFTER HIS RECORD–TYING EIGHTH POINT.
When Sittler fooled Reece with a shot from the left–wing circle that most of our grandparents could have stopped, the party reached full bore. It was 9:27 of the third period and the Richard/Olmstead records had been eclipsed. To imply the Gardens went kooky is an understatement. I will always remember two men, directly in front of me, somehow dislodging the chair portions of their Gold seats and dancing with them raised over their heads. Apparently, this happened in other parts of the arena. Ballard kept pushing the trumpet button. The teletype board couldn’t stop. It was bedlam; absolute, unvarnished pandemonium.
No instant of the entire, ethereal night, however, resonates to this day as brilliantly as Sittler’s 10th and final point — his sixth goal of the game, tying the modern–day NHL marks held by Syd Howe of Detroit (1944) and Red Berenson of St. Louis (1968). If you’re a veteran Leafs observer, you’ve seen it on video… likely several times. While standing behind and to the left of Reece at the north end of the Gardens, Sittler attempted a centering pass to line–mate Errol Thompson. Instead, the puck caromed off the inside of defenseman Brad Park’s right skate; off the inside off Reece’s right blade, and into the net. As I’ve written before, if you re–positioned the three men, it would take 39 years to execute the same double–deflection. That’s how goofy the moment played out. Smiling broadly, Sittler could only shake his head. Ballard, seated 30 feet away, could merely poke the trumpet button. The message–board had innumerable typos. Just ridiculous!
THE SUMMARY — SITTLER IN ON EVERY GOAL EXCEPT GEORGE FERGUSON’S IN THE SECOND PERIOD.
During my radio career at The FAN–590 (1988–2011), I had the privilege of getting to know Darryl Sittler. The curmudgeonly Ballard, late in life, had disparaged and maligned virtually all those who represented the history of the franchise. Once he died (Apr. 11, 1990), recovery began. Cliff Fletcher, hired from the Calgary Flames in June 1991 to generally manage the Leafs, re–opened doors to the alumni. He brought in Sittler as a spokesperson and community representative; a role the Hall–of–Fame center embraces nearly three decades down the line and less than half–a–year shy of his 70th birthday (Sep. 18). The Sittler–McDonald–Thompson forward unit, among the most–prolific in Maple Leaf annals, combined for 15 points in the bizarre, 11–4 rout. Buried by Sittler’s accomplishment was a four–point night from classy Jean Ratelle (now 79); the veteran center would finish his first year as a Bruin with 105 points, second–most in a 20–season, Hall–of–Fame career (he had 109 points in 1971–72 as pivot of the Rangers “GAG” line, alongside Vic Hadfield and Rod Gilbert; the initials standing for Goal–a–Game). Winger Bobby Schmautz — he turns 75 today and was forever among Don Cherry’s favorite Bruin chattels — had a goal and three assists in the defeat.
As for the foggy, dopey kid in Sec. 42 of the Gardens, he lasted another fortnight before ending up back at Toronto General Hospital — this time for more than six weeks. I had surgery on Mar. 29, 1976 to remove my ascending colon (first portion of the large bowel) and roughly five feet of small intestine. I’ve visited the O.R. several more times in the ensuing years… but, thankfully, not since December 2006; the longest–such interval in my 44–year occupancy of Crohn’s Disease. That episode marked the lone interruption in my 17 seasons (1993–2009) covering the Maple Leafs, home and away, for The FAN–590. I had somehow chosen to stay at a hotel directly opposite the Boston Medical Center and merely had to sprint across the street (in teaming rain) several hours after a Leafs–Bruins match at the TD Garden. Through the ups and downs, however, Sittler’s 10–point game remains atop my most–memorable sporting nights. And, forever will.
DAVE REECE PROVED TO BE A GREAT SPORT BY JOINING SITTLER IN A 40th ANNIVERSARY COMMEMORATION OF THE 10–POINT GAME — FEB. 4, 2016 AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE BEFORE A MATCH BETWEEN THE LEAFS AND NEW JERSEY. STANDING BEHIND REECE AND SITTLER WERE (LEFT–TO–RIGHT) FELLOW MEMBERS OF THE 1975–76 LEAFS: WINGER DAVE (TIGER) WILLIAMS; COACH RED KELLY AND GENERAL MANAGER JIM GREGORY. KELLY AND GREGORY HAVE SINCE PASSED AWAY.