• Sal Maiorana

A Perfect 10 for Darryl Sittler

TORONTO (Feb. 7, 1976) - From one day to the next, you never knew what former Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard was going to say, but you could bet it was usually going to be something outrageous.

Take, for example, his conclusion during the 1975-76 NHL season that talented center Darryl Sittler was "a cancer on the team," spoken just a couple months after Ballard had said of Sittler, "If I could have another son, I'd want one just like him." Consistency was not one of the man's character traits.

Because Sittler was one of the Maple Leafs' star players, he was more prone to Ballard's bombastic behavior, and through the years, he had learned to tolerate the multiplicity of Ballard's personality.

But even the sturdy wall of insulation Sittler had built around himself sprung a leak when the patriarch of Maple Leaf Gardens had ripped him for a recent lack of production.

Sittler had scored just one goal in the previous eight games and had five goals and 10 assists in the last 17 games, prompting Ballard to say that the goal-scoring wizardry of wingers Lanny McDonald and Errol Thompson was going to waste because the Leafs didn't have a center who could get them the puck. The Leafs were struggling with one win in their last seven games, and they were mired in third place in the Adams Division, far behind Boston and Buffalo. Ballard needed a scapegoat, and his captain, Sittler, was the obvious choice.

"We'd set off a time bomb if we had a hell of a center in there," Ballard had said.

That bomb went off a couple nights later, and appropriately enough, it was Sittler who detonated it. Sittler erupted for six goals and four assists to lead the Maple Leafs to an 11-4 slaughter of the first-place Bruins. The 10 points he amassed set an NHL record for one game that not even Wayne Gretzky has been able to surpass, and Sittler became the first player to score hat tricks in back-to-back periods when he scored three times each in the second and third periods.

"Maybe now he won't have to hunt quite as hard for that center he wants," Sittler said after the game, lobbing a dig back into Ballard's court. "Undoubtedly Mr. Ballard will figure his little blast inspired me to set the record, but it just isn't that way."

No, Ballard's tirade did not serve to light a fire under Sittler. The fire had always been lit, but the breaks just hadn't been going his way in recent weeks.

"Look, I'd been in a slump, not producing the way I want, and working with different wingers hasn't helped," Sittler said. "But when you play with guys like Thompson and McDonald, they create openings for their center because they skate and move the puck so well. If you give either of them a good pass, you have a chance to get an assist."

Just 42 seconds later, Sittler had another assist when Ian Turnbull beat Reece with a similarly long slap shot. It was the start of a horribly long night for Reece, who was playing only because regular goalie Gilles Gilbert was injured, and Gerry Cheevers - the former Bruin great who had spent the past 3 1/2 years in the World Hockey Association, then re-signed with Boston less than a week earlier - wasn't quite ready for action.

Despite their slow start, the hard-working Bruins - who had won seven games in a row and had lost only once in 17 road games - battled back. Before the first period ended, Jean Ratelle netted the 350th goal of his career to pull Boston within 2-1.

But early in the second period, the Bruins came to the realization that this wasn't going to be their night, and that it belonged solely to Sittler. Toronto's Borje Salming rushed from end to end using a variety of dazzling moves before flipping a pass into the slot which Sittler literally batted into the net for a 3-1 lead.

Boston's Brad Park was penalized 33 seconds later, and Sittler beat Gregg Sheppard on the faceoff that started the power play. The puck squirted back to Salming who sent a soaring slap shot from the point past Reece.

Bobby Schmautz answered for the Bruins, but Sittler got that back at the 8:19 mark when he intercepted a pass near center, cruised over the blue line and although he didn't get good wood on his 50-foot shot, the puck managed to slip through Reece's pads.

"I slapped the puck from just inside the Boston blue line and sort of flubbed the shot, but it went between the goalie's legs," Sittler said with a look that suggested it is better to be lucky than good sometimes. It was his fifth point of the night, but his one-man show was only at the intermission.

Act II began midway through the period. The Bruins' Dallas Smith was called for a delayed penalty, and Sittler was the player who jumped over the boards to replace pulled Toronto goalie Wayne Thomas. Naturally, Sittler was in position to jam in a pass from George Ferguson to make it 6-2, giving him the hat trick.

Johnny Bucyk scored 39 seconds later for the Bruins, a point that moved him into second place on the all-time NHL scoring list ahead of former Detroit Red Wing Alex Delvecchio. Bucyk's 1,282 points left him behind only Gordie Howe.

His glee was shortlived as the Leafs answered 34 seconds later with the only goal Sittler did not participate in as Ferguson drove a shot by Reece. But Sittler was back on the scoreboard when he started the play that resulted in Salming's second goal of the night. Ratelle's second marker of the game closed Boston's deficit to 8-4 before the wild period came to a close.

Sittler's five points in the second period tied an NHL record, and with seven points in the game to this point, he had already established a new Maple Leafs mark. And there were still 20 minutes left to play.

"Lanny told me at the end of the second period there was a Leaf record I'd beaten," Sittler said. "Then in the third they flashed things across the (message) board and I was aware of the record. And the guys kept informing me about it."

Sittler tied the NHL record of eight points in a game - shared by former Montreal great Maurice "Rocket" Richard (1944) and Montreal's Bert Olmstead (1954) - when he stationed himself at the edge of the crease and stuffed in a pass from Salming on a power play.

He then sent the home crowd into a frenzy when he scored the record-breaking point on a wrist shot that beat an off-balance Reece to the far side.

"The thing I'll always remember about that game was the ovation I received when I broke the record with my ninth point. It was unbelievable," Sittler said.

Ballard went so far as to say "It was a greater feat than Paul Henderson's goal in Russia in 1972," referring to the former Maple Leaf's historic goal in Moscow that won for Team Canada its eight-game series against the Soviets, widely considered to be one of the greatest moments in hockey history.

Sittler rounded out his night with one more goal, and as far as he was concerned, it put the whole night into perfect perspective.

"My sixth goal was one of those 'when you're hot, you're hot' efforts," he said. "I was behind the net, I tried to pass out toward Thompson and it went in off Brad Park's skate. It was a night when every time I had the puck, something seemed to happen. Some nights you have the puck and nothing happens. Sure, I got some lucky bounces, and I don't think it was one of their goalie's greatest nights. It'll be hard to forget something like this."

Sittler's teammates were aware of the pressure he was under given Ballard's statement, and they were thrilled for him.

"It was just a super deal for a guy who's turned this club around this season," said McDonald.

Added Toronto coach Red Kelly: "It was a fantastic performance which couldn't have happened to greater guy than Sittler."

Even Don Cherry, the acerbic Bruins coach, had to give Sittler credit, albeit grudgingly. "Everything he touched turned to gold tonight, but he sure worked for them. He's a great center." Cherry then put his guard back up and expressed anger that Toronto had run up the score. "The Leafs were loose, but it doesn't pay to embarrass clubs like that."

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