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Memories from when Christmas games were tradition

by John Kreiser
Stan Gilbertson is the last of his kind.

On Dec. 25, 1971, Gilbertson, then a 27-year-old rookie, slid the puck into an empty net with 18 seconds remaining, wrapping a 3-1 victory for the California Golden Seals against their in-state rival, the Los Angeles Kings -- also becoming the last NHL player to score a goal on Christmas Day.

Gilbertson also has the distinction of taking the last penalty ever assessed in a Christmas game, and being in the box for the last power-play goal.

The Seals-Kings game was one of six on Christmas in 1971, and represented the end of an era. Hockey on Christmas was a staple of the NHL from the 1920s through 1971, when the practice of playing on the holiday ended.

The NHL's holiday hockey history also includes playing on Christmas Eve -- a practice that ended in 1972. 

The New York Rangers must have thought the Grinch made up the 1966-67 schedule -- not only were they one of three teams to play on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but both games were on the road (Toronto and Boston also played both days, but had a home-and-home series). But the Rangers didn't whine about having to play at Montreal on Christmas Eve and then fly into Chicago for a game on Christmas Night -- in fact, they won both games, beating the Canadiens 4-3 and shutting out Chicago 1-0.

Then again, Santa usually was good to the Rangers on Christmas Day.

They played on the holiday for the last time in 1971, winning 2-1 at Minnesota. That victory gave the Blueshirts a 24-11-2 record on Dec. 25. Among those victories was one of the most unlikely regular-season triumphs in NHL history: The war-decimated Rangers took a 2-15-1 record into Toronto on Christmas Night in 1943 and stunned the Maple Leafs 5-3 -- New York's first road win of the season and one of only six victories in a nightmarish 1943-44 season.

The Rangers also were pretty good on Christmas Eve -- in fact, they never lost a game in five tries on Dec. 24. New York won three times, including the 1966 game against Montreal, and tied the other two.

Here's a look at some other holiday hockey numbers:

0 -- Combined goals by the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers on Christmas Eve in 1949, the only game played Dec. 24 or Dec. 25 to end in a scoreless tie. The Rangers' Chuck Rayner and Montreal's Bill Durnan both were flawless in what The Hockey News called "the best goaltending performance of the season."

1 -- Christmas games won in overtime. Detroit beat the Brooklyn Americans 3-2 in 1941, back when the NHL played overtime. There also was one OT win on Christmas Eve -- Toronto beat Montreal 2-1 in 1931. Overtime disappeared during World War II and didn't return until 1983, well after Christmas games were a thing of the past.

2 -- Consecutive shutouts by the St. Louis Blues in 1967 and 1968, their first two Christmases in the NHL after expansion. Both came against the North Stars -- and both were in Minnesota. Goaltender Seth Martin backstopped a 1-0 win in 1967, and Glenn Hall was a 2-0 winner in '68.

3 -- Goals scored by Toronto's Bill MacMillan in a 5-3 victory against Detroit on Christmas night in 1971. MacMillan is the last player to get a hat trick on Christmas night.

4 -- Losses in holiday games by the Los Angeles Kings, who were 0-3-0 on Christmas Day and 1-1-0 on Christmas Eve. Their only win cam on their last try, on Christmas Eve in 1972 at California.

5 -- Penalty minutes assessed to California's Ernie Hickey and L.A.'s Jean Potvin for a first-period fight on Dec. 25, 1971. It was the last fight in a Christmas game, though the Rangers' Rod Seiling and Minnesota's Jude Drouin had tangled earlier in the evening.

6 -- Most goals in a Christmas shutout after the institution of the red line in 1943-44. Montreal wiped out Chicago 6-0 on Christmas Night in 1962 in the only post-red line shutout on Dec. 25 in which the winner scored more than three goals.

8 -- Goals scored by St. Louis and Buffalo in a 4-4 deadlock on Dec. 25, 1971 -- the last Christmas tie.

9 -- Games played on Christmas Eve by the Toronto Maple Leafs, the most of any team (Montreal is next with seven). The Leafs were 5-2-2 on Dec. 24, capped by their 8-1 rout of Los Angeles in 1969.

10 -- Most goals scored by one team in a holiday game. Eighty years ago, the Detroit Falcons (later the Red Wings) celebrated Christmas 1930 by beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 10-1.

12 -- Most combined goals in a holiday game. Boston beat Pittsburgh 8-4 in 1970, overcoming an early 2-0 deficit as Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk and Don Marcotte each scored twice.

16 -- Unbeaten streak on Christmas by the Rangers from 1928 through 1950. New York went 15-0-1 on Dec. 25 during that 22-year span, which ended with a 4-1 loss to Detroit in 1950.
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