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NHL once had tradition of playing on Christmas

by John Kreiser

Stan Gilbertson has a hat trick all his own.

Gilbertson scored 85 goals in an NHL career that lasted just six seasons and 428 games. But on Dec. 25, 1971, Gilbertson, then a 27-year-old rookie, slid the puck into an empty net with 18 seconds remaining, wrapping up a 3-1 victory for the California Golden Seals against their in-state rival, the Los Angeles Kings -- and becoming the last NHL player to score a goal on Christmas.

It was his only goal of the night, but he earned the "Stan Gilbertson Hat Trick" by also 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 Dec. 25, 1971, and it represented the end of an era. Hockey on Christmas was a staple of the NHL from the 1920s through '71, when the practice of playing on the holiday ended. In fact, from 1960 through 1967, every team in the League played on Dec. 25.

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


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The New York Rangers must have thought the Grinch made up their 1966-67 schedule. Not only were the Rangers one of three teams to play on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but both games were on the road (Toronto swept a home-and-home series with Boston). 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 Claus 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 and one of only six victories in a nightmarish 1943-44 season.

The Rangers were also pretty good on Christmas Eve -- in fact, they didn't lose a game in six tries on Dec. 24. New York won four times, including the 1966 game against Montreal, and tied the other two.

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

* On Dec. 24, 1949, the Montreal Canadiens and the Rangers battled to a scoreless tie at the Forum, the only game ever played Dec. 24 or Dec. 25 to end without a goal being scored. Hall of Famers Chuck Rayner of the Rangers and Bill Durnan of the Canadiens were flawless in what The Hockey News called "the best goaltending performance of the season."

* There's been only one Christmas Day game that was decided in overtime. On Dec. 25, 1941, Detroit beat the Brooklyn Americans 3-2 in 1941. 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 consigned to the history books.

* The St. Louis Blues enjoyed their first two Christmases in the NHL. The Blues played on Dec. 25 in each of their first two seasons after joining the League in the 1967 Expansion -- and shut out the Minnesota North Stars both times. Seth Martin earned a 1-0 victory in 1967 and Glenn Hall blanked the North Stars 2-0 a year later.

* Toronto's Bill MacMillan had three goals in the Leafs' 5-3 victory against Detroit on Dec. 25, 1971. MacMillan is the last player to get a hat trick on Christmas night.

* So much for holiday cheer: California's Ernie Hickey and L.A.'s Jean Potvin received the last Christmas Night fighting majors in 1971. Geography helped -- the Rangers' Rod Seiling and Minnesota's Jude Drouin had tangled earlier in the evening.

* The St. Louis Blues and Buffalo Sabres had the last Christmas tie -- they played to a 4-4 draw on Dec. 25, 1971. Detroit and Toronto played to a 4-4 deadlock on Dec. 24, 1960, the last tie on Christmas Eve.

* Christmas Eve games were usually happy ones for the Toronto Maple Leafs. They played nine of them, more than anyone else, and went 5-2-2 -- including an 8-1 rout of Los Angeles in 1969, the last time they played on Dec. 24.

* The Leafs were on the wrong side of the NHL's worst holiday loss. In 1930, the Detroit Falcons (later the Red Wings) celebrated Christmas by pummeling the Leafs 10-1.

* The Rangers went more than two decades without losing on Christmas night. The Blueshirts played 16 games on Dec. 25 from 1928 through the 1949-50 season -- and went 15-0-1. The streak ended with a 4-1 loss to Detroit on Christmas night in 1950.

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