WITH MATT LARKIN
Staring across a table at Hall of Famer and Toronto Maple Leafs legend Darryl Sittler, 65, you'd never guess he accomplished his most famous feat four decades ago. His posture is perfect. He has the firm handshake of man who still works out at his local gym at least three times a week. He oozes a quiet, classy confidence. He could strut around like he owns the place but chooses modesty instead.
Sittler sits in the THN office, flipping through a volume from a February 1976 edition, like it's a pulpy novel he just can't put down. After a quick dig through the archives, we've unearthed the newsprint cover detailing his signature NHL accomplishment.
It's a record so astounding it feels pulled from a video game or a movie. But it's all too real, and it's about to turn 40 years old. Everything clicked for Sittler Feb. 7, 1976 when his Toronto Maple Leafs hosted the Boston Bruins. The points kept pouring in. Maurice 'Rocket' Richard's single-game record of eight points stood for 32 years and 9,453 NHL games before Sittler smashed it with a 10 spot. His mark is still going strong. This Feb. 7, 40 years and 38,995 NHL games will have passed since Sittler made history.
Sittler joined us to review footage of all 10 points and reminisce about the events before, during and after that magical game. This is his definitive oral history.
Sittler's 10-point game itself has been immortalized over the years, but what about the events leading up to the game? Was there anything in Sittler's 1975-76 season before Feb. 7 that hinted at a breakout performance? He was in the midst of a solid season for the Leafs but wasn't threatening league scoring leader Guy Lafleur of the Habs. Sittler's Toronto Maple Leafs were struggling on the brink of the Adams Division playoff picture, with a 21-20-11 record. They had one win in a seven-game stretch leading up to Feb. 7. Sittler didn't necessarily feel something huge on the horizon, especially with the piping-hot Bruins approaching on the schedule.
SITTLER: Players don’t look at it that way. You just approach every game with the mentality that, hey, you’re going be prepared, you’re going to do the best you can. Obviously, we had some good, young players like Lanny McDonald coming up. Borje Salming was coming into his own. Ian Turnbull. So we were going to have a good team, all in the early 20s. At that time, I was only 25. So you’re hopeful.
Leading up to the game, any time it’s a Saturday night, Hockey Night In Canada, Original Six, there’s more buzz in the media air, in the city, so to speak. Harold Ballard had made a comment in the paper, I don’t know, three or four days before, "If only he could find a center to play with Lanny and Tiger Williams," so obviously it was a bit of a shot toward me. But that was Harold, you know? And then, that night, everything just fell into place and happened. Did that motivate me any more or any less? No. I always approached every game with the same mentality.
Professional hockey players are creatures of habit. Game days include morning skates, often a mid-day nap and, for seemingly every player, the same pre-game meal each time. Sittler took his morning skate at Maple Leaf Gardens, but the rest of his day didn't follow the usual routine.
SITTLER: My wife, Wendy, she was out doing something and wasn’t going to be home. I got behind schedule downtown for whatever reason. I thought, "Well, I’ll just run in and grab some takeout." So I grabbed some Swiss Chalet chicken and some fries. Because I wanted to get home and sleep, I was eating it while it was still hot, off the front seat of my car. And then you go out and get 10 points, and you ask, "What are the things you did different?" That was one of the things.
So Sittler, belly full of roast chicken and fries, arrived at Maple Leaf Gardens to tangle with the Bruins in front of 16,385 fans. Boston's star-crossed goalie that evening: rookie Dave Reece, about to be sent back to the minors with Gerry Cheevers returning from the World Hockey Association. Game on.
Lanny McDonald 1 (Darryl Sittler), 6:19
SITTLER: Lanny was a great linemate and teammate of mine for a while, and he’s got the good snap shot. He was coming down and obviously in a position to let it go. Reece came out of the net, but I think he was a little bit off-angled, and Lanny put it right inside the post.
Ian Turnbull 1 (Darryl Sittler 2, Errol Thompson 1), 7:01
SITTLER: That’s Ian Turnbull, who had a great shot. Look at Reece way out of his net. The nice thing, as a forward, playing with Borje and Ian, they would come up on the play and almost give you an out as a fourth forward. So that’s what happened there, Brad Park steps up to me at center ice. I just dump the puck. Ian’s coming from behind and has lots of time to wind up, and what a great shot. Goal, in the top corner.
The Leafs led Boston 2-1 after the first period. Two points for Sittler, but very much business as usual.
SITTLER: I don't even remember what the score was at the end of the first.
Darryl Sittler 1 (Borje Salming 1, Lanny McDonald 1), 2:56
SITTLER: Again, there’s what I talk about, defensemen coming up in the play. Borje made the rush around the defense. I just drove to the front of the net. Borje made kind of a one-hand pass out to me, but again, it was Borje that created the offense, to get me the opportunity to go to the front of the net. When you look at the five guys on the ice, myself, Lanny, Errol Thompson, Borje and Ian, we were five offense-minded players, a line, a unit.
Borje Salming 1 (Darryl Sittler 3), 3:33
SITTLER: That was a kind of a set play we had all the time. I was a player that was strong on faceoffs. Borje had a good shot. Wingers hold up the other wingers from going out, giving the 'D' lots of time to wind up.
Darryl Sittler 2 (unassisted), 8:10
SITTLER: I was a long way out, but that puck dipped a little bit. Any goalie, when the puck’s flipping end over end, I think Reece got off balance somewhat. I don’t know if it went through his legs or through his arm or whatever, but the fact that it was dipping…and it might have even hit a Bruin's leg or stick to change the direction on Reece.
When you’re coming in at a fair clip, if you’ve got time to wind up, you use the defenseman as a screen. That’s an actual play for a forward coming in over the blueline. If you don’t have an option to pass, which I didn’t, you shoot it at the net, and if he stops it, maybe Lanny or Errol gets a rebound.
Halfway to 10 points, Sittler felt euphoric, as five points is a great game for anyone. But he still didn't have the single-game record on the mind.
Darryl Sittler 3 (Jack Valiquette 1, George Ferguson 1), 10:27
SITTLER: There was a delayed penalty. I think Wayne Thomas was in net for us. He was coming to the bench, so I was the next centerman to go out, so I just jump on the ice. Jack Valiquette’s in the corner, so that’s why I’m out with a different line there. He threw it out to me in the slot, and I just slapped it home.
Borje Salming 2 (Darryl Sittler 4, Lanny McDonald 2), 13:57
SITTLER: Again, there’s Borje coming in as the fourth forward, the defenseman moving up in the play. It gave Lanny an out, somewhere to pass to. Borje just deflected it in past Reece. A lot of those goals, Reece, he didn’t have a chance on them much. You can't blame him as much as saying he had a bad game. There were a lot of good goals, just inside the post. He wasn’t getting a whole lot of protection out there.
Lanny and I were in sync. Sometimes, you get the chance to play with players that you have that instinctive intuitiveness of where they're going to be, where to pass it and all that stuff. Few players, you get that with, but Lanny and I had that.
The Leafs led 8-4 after 40 minutes. At this point, even Sittler couldn't ignore something special was happening. He had three goals and four assists.
SITTLER: Stan Obodiac was our statistician, and he came down from the press lounge into the dressing room. He came over to me and said, “Darryl, I don’t know if you know, but you’ve got seven points. If you get another one, Rocket Richard had the record back in the '40s, you’d tie Rocket Richard.” So then I knew. I mean, when you’re having a good game, you’re playing an Original Six team, it’s in the Gardens, the building’s excited, you’re ahead, that in itself is exciting. But then, starting the third period, I knew there was a shot at tying a record.
Darryl Sittler 4 (Borje Salming 2, Errol Thompson 2), 0:44
SITTLER: That was maybe the prettiest goal. I came around the defenseman on my off side. I had lots of speed, and it’s hard to defend when you’re backing up and the forward’s got a little bit more speed on you. When you’re on your off side, you can bring the puck to your forehand, which I did there, and I tucked it inside the post. Because of the speed and the way the goal ended up, I ended up behind the net, hitting the boards and kind of knowing again, at that point – that was the eighth, right? – that I tied the record. That one was extra special.
As a centerman, I always liked coming down the opposite side, the wrong side, the off wing. I had a fairly good shot, I could shoot on the fly, snapshot, wrist shot. I scored a number of goals in my career that way.
Half a period later, Sittler found the net a fifth time, destroying a 32-year-old record.
Darryl Sittler 5 (Errol Thompson 3), 9:27
SITTLER: I don’t know what I felt. It was just one of those unbelievable nights, but what I felt, I’m not sure. The guys were all happy for me, I was happy. I’m just crossing the blueline here, I’ve got a stride on the forward, I think it’s Wayne Cashman. Again, you look at that shot, it’s right inside the post, on the ice. Reece came way out of his net, he’s playing the puck the way he should. But I made a great shot.
Darryl Sittler 6 (Lanny McDonald 3), 16:35
SITTLER: I just put my hands up and shook my head. I’m behind the net, looking for Errol, you see him in the slot, to make a pass out to him. Park tries to intercept it, and it deflects off his skate. Reece is moving across, which you normally would do, and it went between his legs. It caught him off guard. That one was unreal. That kind of told the story. It was just one of those nights. Hey, the puck had eyes. It went in.
You never think you can’t miss. You've got the flow going, the adrenaline going, all that sort of stuff, but you’re just enjoying playing a good game. I can honestly say there are games that I played as well as or better than that night, but I didn’t end up with 10 points. You might end up with four points or five points or have lots of scoring opportunities. That particular night, most of them went in, or you passed to a guy and it went in. It wasn’t like that was my best game I’ve ever played. There were other games I played that were as good or better, but didn’t end up on the scoresheet the same way.
The predictable media crush began after the game, but the night wasn't an all-out party. The Leafs had to get back to business in a hurry.
SITTLER: It was exciting. You're in friggin’ fantasy land. Hockey Night In Canada had me on. In the dressing room, the players were all excited for me. The trainer, Joe Sgro, kept the sticks. I don’t know if I used one or two sticks. Unfortunately his townhouse burned down, and those sticks were in it, so they’re no longer here.
We had to play the next night at home, so it wasn’t like, "OK, let’s go out and have a big party." We went out to Mississauga to Bobby Rubino’s, had some ribs and a little bit of dinner and back at it the next day. It was just another Saturday night game. I guess the thing that I didn’t realize at the time, yeah, I set a record of 10, but it didn't sink in how difficult that record would be to surpass.
Ballard and the Leafs did formally honor Sittler a month later with a presentation at center ice in the Gardens. He received a tea service and a silver platter with the record inscribed and Ballard's signature. It remains a Sittler family heirloom.
No player has matched the record in 40 years since, and no player has even tallied nine points. Nine players have recorded eight points in a game since 1976: Tom Bladon (1977), Bryan Trottier (1978), Peter and Anton Stastny (1981), Wayne Gretzky (1983, 1984), Paul Coffey (1986), Patrik Sundstrom (1988), Mario Lemieux (1988, 1988, 1989) and Sam Gagner (2012).
SITTLER: And I often said when I was watching Wayne Gretzky get 200-plus points a season and Mario Lemieux, the skill level those guys had, that they would be the guys that would have a shot at the record.
If you would have said 10 years ago, "Who would be a guy who would score eight or 10 points?" you wouldn’t say Sam Gagner. But he had one of those nights. Everything went in for him. That can happen again to somebody else. It doesn’t have to be Alex Ovechkin or Patrick Kane. But it could happen. It happened to me.
The overlooked element of Sittler's 10-point performance: it wasn't the only great thing he accomplished in 1976. That summer, Sittler earned a Canada Cup invite and did his best Paul Henderson impersonation, winning the tournament for Canada in sudden death.
SITTLER: The 10-point game, people talk more about that more than they do the overtime goal of the Canada Cup. Representing Canada, and winning the Canada Cup and scoring that goal, that was a big moment for me because I wasn’t on a Stanley Cup championship team. So that was a championship team. From a player’s standpoint it's more meaningful to be a part of that.
Sittler remains a prominent ambassador of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the sport as a whole. He works as a motivational speaker. He appears at corporate events to teach team building and which styles of coaching are most and least effective. He participates in fundraisers for charity, auctioning off jerseys and sticks and photos. He makes a concerted effort to give every fan the time of day.
SITTLER: I don’t take this thing for granted. I’ve always said first impressions are lasting and important. When I was a kid, I waited outside the Kitchener Auditorium, I was maybe seven, eight years old, hoping to get an autograph. A number of players filed by me, didn’t stop. I was disappointed, and then two guys stopped: Bobby Hull and Andy Bathgate. I’ll always remember that moment and feeling as a kid. Now I make it to the National Hockey League, and there are opportunities every day when people come up. People respect you, they want to say hello, they want an autograph. I go back to that memory I had as a kid. So I try to pass that on to our players today.
We now try to protect everybody all the time: you park underneath the building, you do different events, you've got people around you, but still, it’s important to use your common sense and be reasonable about things and not stick your head in the friggin’ mud and just think it’s all about you. To me, that’s the most important thing.
And now Sittler waits. Will 40 years become 50 and 60 before we see another 10-point game in the NHL?
SITTLER: People say, "Hey, that record’s never going to be broken." I hope it doesn’t get broken, but if it does, I could understand why, because that’s sports. The unknown can happen to anybody, as it did to me, so I’d respect that. And if it did happen, well, good on the guy that did it.