Greatest Maple Leafs: No. 9 Darryl Sittler

Each day from now until the Winter Classic, Sportsnet will count down the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs of all time.

The moment Leafs captain Darryl Sittler shunned the “C” may have been when he deserved it most.

Owner Harold Ballard brought Punch Imlach back for a third go-round as GM for the 1979–80 season and he immediately started trashing the team in the press and prohibiting players from TV appearances, just to make a point about who was in charge. Sittler was a special target because of his influence in the dressing room and Imlach’s dislike of his agent, Alan Eagleson.

The captain’s teammates staunchly supported him as the situation devolved to open warfare. Sittler’s no-trade clause protected him, so Imlach shipped Sittler’s best friend and linemate Lanny McDonald to the Colorado Rockies. Sittler responded by grabbing a trainer’s scissors and cutting the “C” off his sweater.

He wrote a letter of resignation to the Leafs, saying that the day he became captain was “the happiest day of my life,” but the current standoff was intolerable and he could no longer occupy the role. No captain was named to replace him.

It’s one thing to carve out a legendary career with a team that’s lighting up scoreboards and plowing through playoff opponents, but it’s another thing entirely to be a revered leader who shepherds your team through some of its darkest days. That’s Sittler’s legacy. Humble, dogged, getting the job done with hard work rather than flashiness.

Sittler wore the Maple Leaf on his chest for 12 seasons, and in that time, he held himself and his team together through vicious power struggles between Ballard, Imlach and the players they seemed determined to break. But Sittler never hoisted the Stanley Cup — and it’s because of that, not in spite of it, that he ranks so high on the list of the greatest ever in team history.

He grew up in tiny St. Jacobs, Ont., near Waterloo, and started playing minor hockey up the road in Elmira. He played junior with the London Knights, where Turk Broda, another Leafs legend, was his coach. Sittler put up blistering 90- and 99-point seasons with London, and in 1970 the young, rebuilding Leafs drafted him eighth overall.

His was a slow burn, with 18 and 32 points his first two seasons, but in his third, he found his feet, scoring 77 points. After that, he never dipped below 36 goals or 80 points a season for the rest of his time with the Leafs.

When Dave Keon left for the World Hockey Association in 1975, Sittler was given the “C,” making him, at 24, the second-youngest captain in Leafs history after 22-year-old Teeder Kennedy in 1948.

“We wanted a captain who wasn’t afraid to speak up for his teammates and who was a man respected by both players and management,” GM Jim Gregory said at the time. “Sittler was the man.”

Later that season, Sittler etched his name in the NHL record books in a way that will likely never be duplicated.

It was Feb. 7, 1976, and Don Cherry’s Boston Bruins were visiting Maple Leaf Gardens. Gerry Cheevers had just returned from the WHA and Cherry wanted to save him for the next home game, so rookie Dave Reece was between the pipes. Sittler notched an assist on the first goal by McDonald six minutes in — and never stopped. By the end of the second period, he had racked up three more assists and added three goals.

“Every time he stepped on the ice, you knew something was going to happen,” says McDonald.

During the second intermission, the team statistician let Sittler know the NHL record for a single game belonged to Maurice Richard and Bert Olmstead, with eight points. Afterward, even Sittler was unable to explain how the hockey stars aligned that night — his sixth goal and 10th point was a pass that bounced off Boston defenceman Brad Park’s leg and into the net.

“As long as he lives, he’ll remember this evening,” Brian McFarlane, the colour commentator, bellowed. “So will all of us doing the game here at Maple Leaf Gardens.”

Piles of fan mail poured in and the switchboard operators took to answering the phone: “Maple Leaf Gardens, home of Darryl Sittler.”

That night also kicked off the most amazing period of Sittler’s career. In April, he scored five goals in a playoff game against Philadelphia, matching a record set by Newsy Lalonde in 1919 and duplicated by Richard in 1944 (Reggie Leach and Mario Lemieux have since done it as well).

In September came the game Sittler later called his career highlight. With game two of the Canada Cup final in overtime, Sittler faked a shot that drew Czech goalie Vladimir Dzurilla out of the crease, then fired the puck into the empty net.

“That was the only championship team I was on,” he said later. “When you represent your country, there’s something pretty exciting and passionate about that.”

During the 1977–78 season, Sittler hit his zenith offensively with 45 goals and 117 points, ranking him third in the league behind Guy Lafleur and Bryan Trottier. Throughout his career, he always seemed a little surprised by all the fuss, attributing his success to work rather than raw talent.

“I know my limitations,” he once said. “I’ve always had the ability to score goals. I have a fairly accurate shot, but it’s not overpowering. When I’m out there I try to do my best. I’ll always just continue to muck my way through things.”

He did that for as long as he could once things turned ugly with Imlach.

The summer after Sittler cut the “C” off his sweater, Imlach had a heart attack, and while he was out of commission, Ballard and Sittler came to an uneasy public truce — the owner blaming the discord on tensions between Imlach and Eagleson.

Sittler’s captaincy was restored, but Imlach was back on the warpath for the 1981–82 season, and more of Sittler’s friends and allies on the team were shipped out. The situation was making Sittler ill with stress, and he asked to be traded. On Jan. 20, 1982, one of the greatest Maple Leafs ever became a Philadelphia Flyer.

He played three more seasons in the NHL, two with Philadelphia and one with Detroit.

A decade after he was driven out of Toronto, Sittler returned to the city and team that loved him, becoming a consultant to then-GM Cliff Fletcher.

In 2003, the Leafs raised Sittler’s No. 27 to the rafters, a lasting tribute to the man who quietly led his team in the middle of a storm.