27 x 10 (+ 40)

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It’s 40 years tonight that Darryl Sittler, 65 now, went on his famous bonanza at the expense of the Boston Bruins and their permeable goaltender, Dave Reece. Sittler, as Lance Hornby of The Toronto Sun put it so delicately, made Reece “look silly” on the night of February 7, 1976 as he compiled six goals and four assists in an 11-4 Leaf routing.

1970s me, harshly reviewed by the passport office

1970s me, harshly reviewed by the passport office

I was there with my dad that night, a not-quite-ten-year-old. As I’ve written before, here, it was a noisy occasion on which I did not too badly on the quiz in the back of the Maple Leafs program. I don’t remember much more than that. I can recall the general outlook from our seats — reds, maybe? — looking down on the ice from the southwest corner of the rink. There’s no doubt that I would have been thrilled just to be in the building for an NHL game, and that I would have repeated the names of favoured players — Salming, Turnbull, Ratelle — as though to work a spell. I think I remember standing up for all the ovations we gave Sittler and, being small, having my view swamped by all the joyous Leaf-loving adults around us.

The Leafs are the road today, so the team celebrated Sittler’s feat early, in word online and in deed ahead of their home game last Thursday against the New Jersey Devils. Dave Reece was in on the celebrations, invited up from his home in Vermont to pay tribute to the man who tormented him out of the NHL all those years ago. For a man whose NHL fame is fixed on his worst night in the net and who never played another game in the league, he seems to have a kept his sense of humour about him. He told Lance Hornby that he wasn’t aware at the time that a record was in the making. “All I knew was the fans were going berserk and this guy keeps scoring. I’m thinking: How many goals does he need?

A couple of other anniversary notes:

• Bert Olmstead’s name seems to have gotten a little lost in this week’s excitement. Maurice Richard was the first, it’s true, to establish the record that Sittler broke in 1976: the Rocket scored five goals and added three assists in a 9-1 Canadiens win over Detroit on December 28, 1944. But as much of the media coverage has failed to acknowledge, Olmstead, who died in November, matched that mark in a 12-1 Montreal win over Chicago on January 9, 1954. The long, lean winger, The Globe and Mail called him that night: he had four goals and four assists. Richard couldn’t get a goal, but he did contribute five assists, and managed to tint if not entirely overshadow Olmstead’s feat of scoring.

Richard had published a newspaper column that week criticizing NHL president Clarence Campbell and the Forum crowd showed up prepared to voice their support of the beloved winger. Fifteen plainclothes’d policemen were on duty to help keep the peace. When the president showed up (late) to take his regular seat, Dollard St. Laurent had just scored to make it 3-0 Habs, but the cheers turned to boos as fans saw Campbell.

The Canadian Press:

The crowd of 13,930 booed the league president lustily between cheers for goal after goal, gaped at him between periods and at the end gave up a few yells of “go home, Campbell, go home.”

Occupying his usual box-seat in the south end of the Forum, Campbell took it all in stride and didn’t appear in the least flustered. He was not molested personally and the crowd, happy over the mounting score, was not openly belligerent.

• I’ve wondered, as the Februarys have passed, whether my memory had made up or exaggerated the brass blare from the Gardens’ loudspeakers that heralded Sittler’s goals in 1976. Milt Dunnell’s Toronto Star column from the Monday following suggests I didn’t. A great night it may have been in Leafland, but remember who ruled the kingdom: Harold Ballard. Maybe the owner was trying to channel the call-to-arms of British cavalry at the Battle of Waterloo, Dunnell mused:

Ballard’s bugler assaulted the eardrums of friend and foe alike with a canned version of “Charge” that had been wired into the sound system. No one seems to know who the bugler is. Maybe it’s just as well. This town has enough homicides already.

Dunnell also recounts that only that morning, Sittler had invited his parents to the game — Leaf teammate Greg Hubick had extra tickets — and while the Sittlers thought they were busy to make it, they did in the end make the trip from St. Jacobs, Ontario.

It’s not surprising that Harold Ballard was largely scrubbed from this week’s commemorations of Sittler’s big night — why sour the celebrations? — but the Leaf despot’s pre-game rant is worth a mention all these years later. A day before Sittler ran amok, Ballard had told reporters of his determination to find “a sensational centre” to play between wingers Lanny McDonald and Errol Thompson. “We’d set off a time bomb if we had a hell of a centre in there,” he said.

Sittler, of course, was asked about this after the Boston game. The Star’s Frank Orr took down his answer:

“Undoubtedly, Mr. Ballard will figure his little blast inspired me to set the record but it just isn’t that way,” Sittler said.

“Maybe now he won’t have to hunt quite so hard for that centre he wants.”

beside jean béliveau

I’ve stood beside Jean Béliveau, and you know what they say about Jean Béliveau: he would have been governor-general except that he said no when the prime minister asked him, no, thank you, he probably said, if I know Jean Béliveau. I don’t, not really, not so well, we were only together for a minute or two while someone else, your proverbial third party, aimed her Polaroid at us.

A Polaroid — that’s how long ago this was. He’d just written his book and I’d gone ahead and read it, two circumstances that eventually joined into one, which was the taking of the picture, which I got to keep. I was taller, but Jean Béliveau had the whiter hair. I wore an orange shirt, a summer shirt, while the season of Jean Béliveau’s outfit — his more formally fitted blue blazer, his tie of ascending arrows, his grey flannels — was fall or winter. He had a southern tan. The woman with the Polaroid was the publicist. I’m speaking here, of course, of a marketing opportunity at a trade show for booksellers. Between us, Jean Béliveau and me, we held up a Canadiens jersey, home-white. When he autographed my Polaroid his J and his B came out looking like pretty good sketches of butterflies. Continue reading


We put on our skates in the house and clumped out and into the snow and slid a bit but mostly we stayed steady, moving forward, over the bridge with Kohos in hand and the pucks and shovels, and the axe, blazing our own trail as we struggled up the hill, just like Samuel Hearne, if he’d done his bushwhacking on Bauers.

You need at least three pucks if you’re playing on the pond, allowing for slapshots that the snow swallows and strays stolen by the dog. The Kohos and the shovels — well, obviously. If you don’t have an augur, an axe will do, and did, as we stood on the dock and chopped, gingerly — because you can’t be too careful swinging an axe while on you’re on skates — but also manfully, because is there any other way to swing an axe in the forest?

The pond doesn’t have a name. It’s fine without one. This is up north of Toronto, where this year the winter was for a long time slow to take. The pond used to be a farm field and before that I guess probably forest. Most of the trees closest by the pond are new-growth, pine-trees in straight rows, like puzzled fans who don’t know the game they’re watching well enough to comment. People used to skate here, years ago, but the ice has been lying fallow for — I don’t even know. Decades, maybe?

Two years ago I got a rink cleared at Christmas and kept it going through to March — easy. But last year I had slush problems followed by thaw trouble leading to deer traipsing around while the ice was soft and I wasn’t around and then what happened was the hoofprints froze like one of those learn-your-dance-steps diagrams, except three-dimensional and — I gave up. The tiny goal-nets I had out there stayed sunken and stuck until spring, when I lured them in on ropes.    Continue reading

big night

I remember trumpets. Trumpets and cornets, trombones, a sousaphone, various horns — lots of clashing brass. They must have been recorded, played over the sound system: certainly in no accounts that I’ve read of that night is there a mention of a live orchestra playing a fanfare after every Leaf goal. They wouldn’t have blared it for the first few, I don’t think — only after events turned historic would they have started it up. It was very loud — too loud, I remember my dad advising me.

That’s about it. Thirty-six years ago tonight my dad and I were at Maple Leaf Gardens to see the famous game, Leafs and Boston Bruins, wherein Darryl Sittler scored six goals and assisted on four others, setting records that not even Edmonton’s Sam Gagner could break  last Thursday night. It’s not a lot, but that’s what I’ve got.

February 7, 1976. I was nine years old. I do recall we were sitting on the west side of the Gardens, maybe half way up. I think I remember being a kid among adults every time we stood up to cheer Sittler, looking at taller people’s backs and heads, struggling to see. That could be a generic memory from any number of other Leaf games I’ve seen, though — or Toros games, because we went to a lot of WHA games, too, in those years, come to think of it. I was just as happy watching Tom Simpson and Vaclav Nedomansky as I was Lanny McDonald and Borje Salming.

It was a pretty good Bruins team that night: Jean Ratelle, Brad Park, Terry O’Reilly, Johnny Bucyk were all on the ice. Nursing a knee, Bobby Orr wasn’t. The goalie was, of course, Dave Reece, who played the whole game and never another in the NHL. Somewhere today someone will be calling him to ask how it felt, what he recalls. I hope his memory is as dim as mine.

It wasn’t Sittler’s fault. What was he supposed to have done? He has the only known videotape of the game, Joe Bowen was saying on the broadcast of the Leafs-Oilers game last night. I wonder if today at home he’ll take a quick look back? He’s also got a whole February 7 chapter in Sittler (1991), the autobiography he wrote with Chrys Goyens and Allan Turowetz.

Which has been a big help for me. When Sittler recorded his eighth point in the first minute of the third period, tying the record held jointly held by Rocket Richard and Bert Olmstead, he had 19 minutes to break it. “And everyone in the building knew it.” Okay! Good! We went crazy, apparently. Every time he touched the puck after that, our decibels went way up. At teammates of Sittler’s we yelled: pass it!

Errol Thompson finally did and Sittler scored. We went nuts. The ovation went on forever. Sittler got the impression that we wanted to stop the game and have some sort of special ceremony then and there. That’s what Sittler writes in his book. Did we? Sure. Fine. Why not? If you say so, Darryl. As it was, he had to wait a few games, when Harold Ballard and NHL president Clarence Campbell presented him with a silver tea service.

I still have the program from the game to go along with my fanfare memory. I don’t want any of Darryl Sittler’s limelight for myself, I promise you, but just for the record, I did score 8 out of 15 on the backpage NHL Quiz that night, and no-one is ever going to be able to take that away from me.

More on Sittler’s big night here.

the corkscrew rusher

Little Bullet Joe Blue Streak Corkscrew Babe Ruth Simpson

William McBeth was the Windsor sportswriter who decided that New York needed an NHL hockey team — he just didn’t have the money to pay for it. Stan Fischler tells the story in Those Were The Days (1976): how McBeth persuaded the bootlegger Bill Dwyer to bankroll the team and, in 1925, ended up with most of the players from the newly defunct Hamilton Tigers. McBeth, for his part, signed himself up as the Amerks’ publicity director. In aid of advertising the team and building excitement among fans better used to ballplayers, McBeth crowned Billy Burch as hockey’s Babe Ruth. (Burch wasn’t the last to find himself so named.) For Joe Simpson, McBeth (according to Fischler) decided on The Blue Streak From Saskatoon — even though Simpson hailed from Selkirk, Manitoba. Fischler continues:

New Yorkers, unschooled in hockey fundamentals, seized upon the nicknames and immediately goal from them each time Billy or Joe would touch the puck.

Conscious of their newly created audience, Burch and Simpson responded by stressing their individual exploits. “Every time one of them passed to another player,” wrote Frank Graham, Sr., who covered sports for The New York Sun, “the spectators howled in rage and disappointment. Seeking to please the customers, Billy and Joe did as little passing as possible. This resulted in spectacular but futile one-man raids on the enemies’ nets and a rapid disintegration of the team play necessary to insure victories as the other players then all tried to get into the act as individuals.

Which brings us to another nickname of Blue Streak Babe Ruth Bullet Joe’s: Corkscrew Joe. It’s not quite as evocative as Bullet, I don’t think, but close. Jim Coleman says that the Amerks’ first manager was the one who coined it just for Joe in New York. “When he was carrying the puck,” Coleman attested, “Joe skated rapidly on a twisting route and Tommy Gorman publicized Simpson’s unusual tactics as ‘corkscrew rushes.’” Continue reading

gearing up

(Originally published in The National Post, October 28, 2002)

The guy at the hockey store said you have to smell the elbowpads and the shinpads. He said, “You’re welcome to go for new ones, we’ve got these here for an example, CCMs on special, but if you’re buying used, trust me, smell first.” He was wearing track pants and two baseball caps, peaks facing forward and back respectively. He said sometimes it felt like all he did all day was smell hockey equipment. We watched as he took pad after pad to his nose, holding it, inhaling like an asthmatic. “These ones don’t stink so much,” he said, finally.

This was the week we went to buy Zac his hockey equipment. He has his first practice on Saturday. I’ve told him the things a father tells his son as he starts in playing hockey: that if you speak the names of the hockey sticks aloud, Koho, Karhu, Titan, Sherwood, they can sound like a fellowship of adventurers, such as in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings; that I was there at Maple Leaf Gardens the night Darryl Sittler scored ten points. I told him, remember: two hands on the stick and pick up your winger. What I didn’t mention was that according to my dad his — Zac’s — hockey destiny has already been written. Continue reading