Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Darryl Sittler-Hockey Hall of Fame 1989

There is no tougher place to play professional hockey in the National Hockey League than in Toronto. It is the hub of hockey, has its most devoted fans, and its harshest critics.

The media in Hogtown can chew you up and spit you out, if you are not prepared mentally to take the heat. As is often the case, they are right exactly fifty percent of the time.

Searching back in my memory, the name Frank Mahovlich comes to mind. He began his NHL career as a Maple Leaf. He came to the Leafs via the St. Michael’s route, as did many other Buds at that time. The expectations on “The Big M” at that time were enormous, and he did not disappoint in his first year. He won the rookie of the year award, much to the disappointment of the Bobby Hull fans in the Quinte area.

But he ran into a thorny obstacle along the way which often jeopardized his career, and certainly his mental health. His name was Punch Imlach. Imlach ruled the Leafs with a despotic touch for several years, under the guise of his smiling patriarch, Harold Ballard.

As the 1970s began during the Ballard era, another star burst onto the scene in Toronto. Darryl Sittler had been groomed for three years with the London Knights, putting up respectable totals, as well as a surprising number of penalty minutes: he averaged one hundred minutes per year in London.

Sittler was the golden-haired boy who was supposed to lead the Leafs out of the doldrums to another victory parade down Yonge Street. He even wore Mahovlich’s number twenty-seven, and starred for the Leafs for twelve tumultuous years. Much to no avail, as Lord Stanley’s Mug never made it to Toronto during Sittler’s time.

Sittler recently spoke at a dinner in Belleville. Because of his wealth of knowledge about the game, and his own personal experiences, he is able to encapsulate the current state of the game in a few short words. “Of course players are more superior now. They eat better, they work harder. They are better coached.” He covered all of the highlights in his career. “My greatest thrill in hockey was scoring the overtime Cup-winning goal against the Czechs in the first Canada Cup.” (Sittler fans will recall, vividly how he faked a shot against the Czech goalie, Dzurilla, sent him sprawling, and fed the puck into the empty net.)

Many Leaf fans will never forget the night when Sittler scored six goals and added four assists in a game against the Boston Bruins in Toronto. A couple of other pretty fair players named Lemieux and Gretzky had eight point nights in their careers. No one has reached the nine point plateau, let alone ten.

He told how an aging Jean Beliveau beat him cleanly the first time they faced off. He spoke about his long-lasting relationship with linemate Lanny McDonald. They teamed with Errol Thompson on a dynamic line. Add Mike Palmateer, Borje Salming, and Ian Turnbull to the mix and you have a young and upcoming crew. Ballard brought in Imlach as GM in 1979, and all went awry.

Imlach drove Sittler crazy in Toronto, to the point where Darryl removed the “C” from his jersey that he had inherited from Dave Keon. Ballard defended Imlach, and called Sittler a cancer on the team.

Throughout his heyday in Toronto, Sittler and his wife Wendy worked tirelessly on community causes. Even after he finished his career with stops in Philadelphia and Detroit, he donated countless hours to the public good.

Seven years ago he lost his wife to cancer. Since that time, he has quietly, subtly, shared the message that many types of cancer can be prevented, and cured. His message was clear and firm. Get tested. For all of the men at the dinner, he strongly recommended a colonoscopy. It is a fairly simple procedure, and should be done every five years following your fiftieth birthday. Sittler said that if he could get one person from the group of one hundred to take the test, to be spared the ravages of cancer, that his time would have been well spent in Belleville.

He told me that he had played for a former Belleville McFarland player who coached him in London-“Bep”Guidolin. “Turk” Broda also coached him there. “In those days,” he said, “there was not a lot to coaching. It was a mater of opening and closing the door, and having a fine whiskey and a cigar after the game!”

When he was eight years old, his dad took him to an NHL exhibition game in Kitchener between the Rangers and the Black Hawks. After the game, he waited patiently and got the autographs of Andy Bathgate and Bobby Hull. He signed autographs for half an hour after dinner. He looked up after the line had dissipated, asked if there was anyone else, and quietly left the room.

As always, with class. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1989.

James Hurst

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