Darryl Sittler, left, and Errol Thompson.
Dion Phaneuf’s blockbuster trade from Toronto to Ottawa this week was big news, but it pales in comparison to a story involving another NHLer from P.E.I. that unfolded almost 40 years ago to the day.
(OK, Phaneuf wasn’t born in P.E.I. but both his parents were. He was married here and calls the Island home in the off-season, so that qualifies him at least to be an adopted Islander.)
It was Feb. 7, 1976 and then-Leaf captain Darryl Sittler was in the process of setting an NHL scoring record that may never be broken.
But it was the Islander who helped make it happen that I remember most.
Over the years, I’ve stumped more than a few sports trivia buffs with this seemingly simple question: Name Sittler’s line mates when he recorded six goals and four assists against the Boston Bruins.
Most have no trouble identifying Lanny McDonald as Sittler’s setup man on the right side. But who was that guy on the left wing? Paul Henderson is the most frequent guess. Wrong. Ron Ellis? Dave Keon? Norm Ullman? Nope. Was it Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, maybe even Tiger Williams? No, no, and definitely no. So I offer a clue that tends to confound them even more – the third man on that line was from P.E.I.
Again, the floodgates open. Rick Vaive? Billy MacMillan? Both decent guesses, as they were both Islanders who played at one time or another with the Leafs. Forbie Kennedy? Al MacAdam ... Brad Richards? Not even close.
It was Errol Thompson – a.k.a. the St. Eleanor’s Flash – the man with the blazing speed and wicked backhand shot. And he figured in on no fewer than three goals on that record-setting night.
In fact, when Sittler scored 44 seconds into the third period to tie ‘Rocket’ Richard’s record of eight points in a game, Thompson drew an assist. As Sittler settled against the boards, arms high in the air, Thompson was the first there to congratulate him.
For an Errol Thompson fan watching the Hockey Night in Canada game from his home in western P.E.I., it seemed like it couldn’t get any better.
But it did.
At 9:27, Thompson collected the puck at centre ice and drew three Bruins towards him. Then he made a slick behind-the-back pass to Sittler who blasted home his fifth goal and ninth point of the game.
It’s one of the few scoring records that hasn’t been eclipsed by Gretzky, Lemieux, Ovechkin or Crosby. Rookie phenom Connor McDavid had five points Thursday night, but he’d need three more periods in that game just to match – not beat – Sittler’s mark.
Thompson scored 43 goals playing on the big line in 1976, one of the reasons I contend he’s one of the organization’s most under-rated players. He was their second pick in the 1970 draft – behind Sittler. After six seasons in Toronto, he was traded to Detroit and was later named team captain. He finished his career in Pittsburgh in 1981, racking up career totals of 208 goals and 185 assists.
But it was that Saturday night game in 1976 that I remember most fondly. Sittler got the record but only with a big “assist” from Thompson.
As a Leaf fan but more so, as an Islander – even 40 years later – that still makes me very proud.
Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.