The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup, Darryl Sittler was cheering against them.
Now, as the young Leafs club looks to win its first cup since they beat Montreal in the last season of the Original Six in 1967, the 68-year-old Toronto legend is excited about what the current group could achieve.
"We were disappointed in losing out the last two years in the first round of the playoffs. Expectations are that you have to go beyond the first round the see where it goes,” Sittler said. “We have a good management team in place. I like Brendan Shanahan and just the way he handles himself. Kyle Dubas is a young guy, but he's very competent and efficient at what he does. Then we have Mike Babcock, the Saskatchewan coach, who I think is one of the best coaches in the game. He works hard at teaching our young players, not only the game of hockey, but to be good citizens and good men and good team players.
"Our goalie is good. We've got some depth and four lines and hopefully we'll have everything rolling when the time comes in the playoffs. It's not easy to get by Boston and Tampa, but right now we have to keep focusing on getting there. We have some teams coming up behind us.”
Sittler grew up a Montreal Canadiens fan who idolized Jean Beliveau. He would go on to play 12 seasons with the Maple Leafs from 1970-1982 before being traded to Philadelphia and then finishing his career with one season in Detroit. Sittler was the Leafs’ all-time leader in goals (389) and points (916) until Mats Sundin eclipsed both marks in the same game in 2007.
Before coming to Moose Jaw to speak at the Kinsmen Sports Celebrity Banquet, Sittler was part of a large Leafs-themed banquet in Saskatoon that also featured Lanny McDonald, Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmore, Curtis Joseph and Glenn Healey.
Sittler said he doesn’t do many speaking engagements, but he is always happy to meet the passionate Leaf fans who span the country. Toronto can be a tough market for players during the lean times, but Sittler said there’s nothing better than playing in front of a fanbase that cares as much as the Leafs’ does.
"The people are passionate and the Leaf fans have gone through some down times over the last number of years since '67, so obviously people bring that up. If you're a good player and your team is doing well, there's no better city to play in. The fans love you and they'll remember you forever,” Sittler said. "I think the players feel that and understand that. As a player I would rather be in a market like Toronto as a player than somewhere where you could have a great career and it goes a little unnoticed.
"Toronto is a good place to be for hockey and now that we've improved the expectations continue to get higher. You have to live to those expectations to not let the media, the fans and yourself down, so to speak.”
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The Express also asked Sittler some rapid fire questions about his career.
Express: “Do you think anyone will ever break your NHL record of scoring 10 points in a game?”
Sittler: "It comes up every year around February 7. It's a record that's been around. Over 10,000 games have been played. Guys like Wayne Gretzky and Mario (Lemieux) and other great players have gone through the league and not been able to get nine or 10. I'm proud to hold the record. Is it going to last? To be honest with you, I hope it does. You never say never. A few years ago (Sam) Gagner in Edmonton got eight points and nobody would have expected that. It will be a tough record to beat, for sure. Very seldom do you get 10 goals scored by two teams, never mind 10 by one team themselves."
Express: “Eighteen of the 25 players on the Canadian roster for the 1976 Canada Cup ended up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Do you think that’s the greatest collection of hockey players ever assembled?”
Sittler: "In my estimation it was. There were a lot of great Team Canadas over the years, but I look back at that team and the roster of players that have gone on to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. It was Bobby Orr's last hurrah and he didn't play in '72. Bobby Hull was on that team. You just go down the lineup. I was just a young guy at that time, I was only 25, but I think it was one of the best teams ever assembled.
"You leave home in the summer and the expectations are that you hope to make the team with 35 guys trying out. There are 10 guys who are going to get cut, so they're disappointed, but at the same time you would rather be there trying out. In my case it turned out that I scored the winning goal, but going in there, Lanny (McDonald) and myself were just hoping to make the team and do whatever the coach, Scotty Bowman, asked us to do, whatever role it was, and we ended up being on the ice for the winning goal."
Express: When you went to Philadelphia in 1982, you arrived just in time for the Flyers to be the first team to ever wear Cooperalls in the NHL. What did you think of them?”
Sittler: "I didn't like them. I'm glad they didn't stick around very long. I found that if you fell on the ice you skidded. They were a little warmer to wear. I always threw my pants on after I got my skates on, but the Cooperalls had the tight shell, so you had to put them on before you put your skates on. Innovation is good. The Flyers were at the head of the market then. Nothing, ventured, nothing gained, but I'm glad we don't have them anymore."