I had the honor of taking Toronto Maple Leafs legend Darryl Sittler (D.S) on a trip down memory lane. The Hockey Hall-of-Famer was extremely kind, and very generous with his time and you could tell by how much his eyes lit up discussing the Maple Leafs, as his passion and love for the blue and white is embedded in his core. We touched on a number of different topics including his draft year, the 10-point game versus his experience at the Canada Cup, Auston Matthews and the current Maple Leafs roster and Got Skill, a unique skill-based game that challenges a player’s hand-eye coordination and timing. Certainly one of the greatest moments of my career, I hope you enjoy our chat:
S.S: I want to bring you all the way back to when you were drafted eighth overall by the Leafs, did you know back then it would end up being Toronto?
D.S: I didn’t have any idea, back then you weren’t a part of the draft, I was working building swimming pools in London where I played junior, I was in a pickup truck full of gravel and a wheelbarrow, and I heard on the radio at noon that I was drafted by the Leafs and about a week later I got a call. Alan Eagleson was my agent and that’s when I knew. I talked to Jim Gregory, the general manager at the time, and you were 20 and you weren’t 18 at the time, you waited until you finished your junior hockey. When I say that, you didn’t have any combine or interviews or testing.
S.S: 484 career goals, were there any goalies back then that caused you fits or you had trouble scoring on?
D.S: Nobody caused you fits, every time you played, you played to score on whoever it is, the better goalies at that time were Bernie Parent, he was tough in the ’70s, Ken Dryden obviously, Tony Esposito, Gerry Cheevers in Boston, those were the key guys you were up against. So I don’t know how many I scored against each one of them or if there was one better than the other, but nobody stands out.
S.S: Speaking of records, I can’t meet with you and not ask about the 10-point game, however, I wanted to ask as I heard a story and wanted to confirm if it was indeed true, about how you put your teeth in during the second intermission just in case of photos and interviews?
D.S: No, somebody just asked me that the other day, it’s interesting you say that, I still have all my own teeth, so that’s not true.
S.S: With the Gretzky’s and Lemieux’s coming into the world, were you ever worried about it being broken once they arrived on the scene?
D.S: Those were the two guys in the ’80s who were putting up a couple hundred points a season and both had eight points in a game and I thought they might be the two guys that possibly would do it and they didn’t. And then now, I watch today and see a guy like Connor McDavid who gets 10 scoring chances a game some nights, so you never know it could happen but it’s going to be difficult. Even seeing Mitch Marner have six points in a game this year, even six is amazing, but it’s been 46 years, almost 12,000 NHL games have gone by and I still hold the record. I was lucky and it wasn’t like I was any better than anyone else, it just seemed to all fall into place that night.
S.S: Where do you put that night compared to the game-winning goal in the Canada Cup in ’76?
D.S: The Canada Cup is way different, in that it was one of the best teams Canada has ever put together, as we look at the team and see 19 become Hall-of-Famers. And then to score the winning goal, and back then there was still in the hockey fan and Canadian mind, Soviet Union was communist, Czech Slovakia was communist at the time, so there was quite a bit of passion in that series coming out of the ’72 series. So first of all, to make the team was a feat, 35 guys went to camp, 10 guys got cut and 25 made it and I got a chance to play in it. I was on the third-fourth line for the first little bit, and Scotty Bowman gave me a chance to play more. Played with Marcel Dionne and Lanny (McDonald) and I was a left wing at the time, not even a centreman eh, so that was a bigger thrill for me than the 10-point game, but everyone remembers the 10-point game because every year it’s talked about, you know?
(A quick back story on the photo above. Towards the end of our chat, I told Sittler a story of how I brought my Dad to a Leafs game, and on the way to the game his name had come up multiple times during our drive. Then during it, the organization recognized a military veteran with a custom jersey and for the presentation, none other than Sittler himself was there to present him with the jersey. Watching from a couple of sections over was my father, a retired and very decorated Military veteran who was army air force and airborne, and he absolutely touched by the moment of recognition and respect from the applauding crowd. I went to leave after our interview and Sittler wouldn’t let me go without a signed picture for my Pops. Would you really expect anything less?)
S.S: Moving ahead, what was your first impression of Auston Matthews when you saw him?
D.S: Well Auston obviously started out, and we kinda followed his career before with the US National team and when he went to Europe, so you knew he was going to be a good player. When you’re picked number one in a draft that was a draft with a lot of depth, and for him to start out the way he did with the four goals in his first game, that record won’t be broken by anyone. He’s progressively getting better and better and he’s now one of the best players in the league. (SS) He seems more engaged physically than ever before, emotionally and everything else, he’s matured that way and wants to take charge, he’s a leader and wants to win a Cup.
S.S: With the current team, are you surprised with the lack of playoff success?
D.S: Well, playoffs are a fine line. Each year if you go back to when we lost, we lost to Boston a few years ago in the seventh game and when we lost to Montreal up 3-1 in the series, there’s a fine line between winning and losing in each one of those games that you lost. No different with Tampa this year and no different than Tampa winning and getting to the Final. You know they scored some key goals at key times and an overtime goal that got them over the hump so to speak.
We haven’t been able to do that. It’s not that we don’t have a good hockey team, we have a great hockey team. Our challenge as everyone knows is that we have the four guys making $40 million bucks and you have to fit the pieces around it every year, you know because you’re going to lose guys every year. Guys become good players and you can’t afford them with the salary cap, obviously, that’s a management problem but if you’re a Leafs fan you have to be satisfied and see how much the team has improved, that’s the best record any Leaf team has had.
SS: So Got Skill, how did you get involved with them?
DS: I’ve done some work with Tony and they are in the food and beverage industry and they have a game that you can play while you’re sitting there talking with your buddies and friends with a chance of winning something. So, Tony asked if I wanted to do a promotion across Ontario, so I’m going to Thunder Bay in a couple of weeks and a few establishments like this, and get a chance to meet the fans and they promote their product and everyone is happy.
Meeting new people, talking Leafs, and engaging with fans is something that comes naturally to the hall-of-famer. Truly a legend, both on and off the ice as from the moment he walked into the hotel lobby for his Got Skill event he took the time to shake hands, say hello, and even was nice enough to ask people to leave him alone while we completed the interview. Sittler is happier the more he gets to engage with Leafs Nation, a true genuine and humble man.
Some of the most interesting elements of our chat was the fact he was so modest about his career and made a point to say he didn’t feel like he was better than anyone else. I also had a pretty good laugh when he told me how he found out the Maple Leafs drafted him, boy have the times changed. Lastly you could tell by the look on his face when he spoke of him, Sittler has strong praise for Matthews and feels he’s the right type of player who can lead the Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup. As he mentioned, management has some serious work to do this offseason, but the Cup dream in Toronto is still very much alive for one of the all-time greats. Regardless of what era you grew up watching in Toronto, when you discuss Maple Leafs’ legends, Sittler’s name is always an early entry into the conversation.