BY ERIC ZWEIG
Imagine the reaction today if an NHL player scored seven goals in a single game.
Suppose that player was Alex Ovechkin. What if he did it at home? Imagine the bedlam inside the Verizon Center. Imagine the headlines, the endless highlights on countless sports channels, the videos posted on YouTube. Yet, on Jan. 31, 1920 – 90 years ago Sunday – when Joe Malone, the greatest goal-scorer of his day, became the only player in NHL history to score seven goals in a single game, his feat barely earned a mention in the sports pages of Canadian newspapers.
There are several reasons why the oldest significant NHL record attracted so little attention in its day. First and foremost was because it occurred in a meaningless mid-season game – much more meaningless than most. In this era, the NHL’s four teams played a split schedule to contest their 24-game season. The top team, after 12 games of the first half, met the winner of the 12-game second half for the post-season championship.
So, on this historic night, a playoff spot was on the line when the 8-3 Ottawa Senators hosted the 8-3 Montreal Canadiens (Ottawa won the game 11-3). Meanwhile, the 5-6 Toronto St. Pats were out of contention when they traveled to Quebec City to face Joe Malone’s woeful 1-10 Bulldogs.
Attendance would likely have been sparse, anyway, but the coldest night of the Quebec winter attracted the smallest crowd of the year. (It was so cold St. Pats center Corb Denneny “had his right hand badly frozen” during the game.) About 1,200 fans were in attendance, but they certainly witnessed a barnburner.
Quebec started off with a rush. Malone tested Toronto’s Ivan “Mike” Mitchell early, but the netminder kept him off the scoresheet until 6:50 of the first period. It was 3-2 Quebec when the first 20 minutes ended, though Malone had nearly scored a second goal late in the frame. (If it hadn’t been called back – for reasons still unclear – the NHL’s single-game record would be eight goals, not seven.)
Malone officially got his second goal just 50 seconds into the second period, with the third and fourth coming later as Quebec’s lead grew to 6-4 after 40 minutes.
Toronto replaced Mitchell with Howard Lockhart and the St. Pats pulled to within 7-6 early in the third period, before Cully Wilson took a major penalty. Malone scored his fifth and sixth goals while the St. Pats were shorthanded. His final record-setting goal came late in the game and closed out a 10-6 Bulldogs victory.
“For the locals, Joe Malone was the bright star,” stated a report of the game. “The lanky forward had his biggest night of the year, setting up an individual performance that has not yet been equaled this year. He scored seven tallies and played a great game.”
But how come?
There are several more reasons for the scant coverage. High scoring performances were far from rare in hockey’s early days, despite the fact sticks were primitive – but no more so than the pads goalies wore – and forward passing was only allowed in the neutral zone.
Stars often played the full 60 minutes, or very close to it, so scoring opportunities were plentiful. Newsy Lalonde scored six goals in a game for the Canadiens just three weeks earlier and, on March 10, 1920, Malone tallied six himself.
Also, leagues had come and gone fairly regularly in hockey’s early days. The NHL was only in its third season and fans would barely have differentiated it from its forerunner, the National Hockey Association. Malone had already scored seven goals in an NHA game in 1913 and eight in a game in 1917.
He even scored nine times in a single Stanley Cup contest in 1913 and many fans would’ve still remembered Frank McGee’s 14 goals for Ottawa in a 1905 Stanley Cup game.
So, happy anniversary, Joe Malone. Ninety years later, your NHL record has certainly stood the test of time and is more impressive now than ever.
Eric Zweig is a managing editor with Dan Diamond and Associates, consulting publishers to the NHL, and the author of three books in 2009: "Fever Season," "Tough Guys" and "On this Day in Hockey."