Forward Errol Thompson played parts of four season with the Red Wings and even served as team captain for part of the 1980-81 campaign.
Like many Canadians, former Red Wings forward Errol Thompson grew-up in an area divided between Montreal Canadiens fans and Toronto Maple Leafs fans. Unlike many Canadians, though, Thompson eventually ended up being a key component to one of those teams’ famous scoring lines in the mid-1970s.
“Where I was from it was either Toronto or Montreal,” he said. “As a kid growing up you had a Toronto Maple Leafs shirt on or Montreal Canadiens; I happened to have a Toronto Maple Leafs one when I was a youngster. It was a pleasure to play for either one of those teams and I happened to be with Toronto, which was great.”
It was great, too, for the Leafs that Thompson “happened to be with them,” as the speedy left winger had seven 20-goal seasons with the franchise, including one season when he registered a career-high 43 goals and 37 assists. His tenure with Toronto also allowed him to experience one famous night that, as a kid wearing a Leafs shirt, he had probably never dreamed of.
“I’ve been fortunate,” Thompson said. “A couple highlights from my career, one with Toronto was the night that Darryl (Sittler) got his 10 points.”
Sittler’s 37-year-old record, set Feb. 7, 1976, still stands as the NHL’s mark for most points registered in a game.
“The building itself was – you often here people say it was electrifying – but everything was,” Thompson recalled. “The lights were brighter, the people were livelier, there were a whole group of incidents if you look back on that regular-season that only happened that night and never happened again. So I was pretty fortunate to be involved in a couple of those things.”
The record-setting game occurred during the heyday of the Leafs’ Thompson-Sittler-Lanny McDonald line, a famous scoring line in the league at the time. That season, Thompson scored 43 goals, Sittler scored 41 and McDonald scored 37. Combined, the trio racked up 273 total points.
“I think it was like anything else, you have to be compatible, everybody has their strong points,” Thompson said, explaining why the line was so dominant. “And if I have a strong point, and Darryl had a strong one and Lanny had one – they probably had more strong points than I did – but it was compatible on the strong points and it was just one of those things that it was kind of thrown together and it gelled very quickly.”
Not long after that, having played much of six seasons with Toronto, Thompson was traded to Detroit, a city that had always provided a great atmosphere whenever he had played there with the Leafs.
“Going into Detroit … that was always exciting there because it was a sport town,” he said. “They happened to go downhill there for a few years and then the excitement just kind of rejuvenated everything. There was excitement everywhere in the streets and it was nice to be part of that.”
Thompson became a part of that excitement very quickly when he was traded toward the end of the 1977-78 season. Having failed to secure a playoff berth the previous seven seasons, the Wings finally made it to the postseason in the weeks after acquiring the 5-foot-9 winger.
The Wings eliminated the Atlanta Flames in two games in the first round of the playoffs, but proceeded to lose to the powerhouse Montreal Canadiens, who had won the Cup the previous two years.
“We beat them one game in Montreal and then came back and they just hammered us,” Thompson said. “And of course going back into Montreal down 3-1, it was inevitable. And all we could do was just make sure that we wouldn’t give up.”
Just beating the Canadiens once was an achievement. Thompson remembers the exceptional support of the fans and characterized it with one instance during that period that saw the Wings suffer a tough defeat but no love lost from the fans.
“I remember getting beat 9-3 in Detroit and getting a standing ovation,” he said. “It was kind of neat.”
Not long after their single playoff run of the 1970s, the Wings moved from Olympia Stadium to Joe Louis Arena, another highlight of Thompson’s career.
“Not too many people had the opportunity in Detroit to close down the Olympia and open the Joe Louis,” Thompson said. “Walking in the back door of the Joe Louis when it first opened, it was just a massive building compared to the Olympia. If you look at the Olympia 50 years ago or whenever it was first established or built, back then it was a beautiful building. But as time goes on we all know that things deteriorate a bit.”
The transition between arenas happened during the season that Thompson scored the most goals with the Wings, finishing with 34 behind Mike Foligno (36) and Vaclav Nedomansky (35).
Thompson was traded to Pittsburgh the following year, where he retired at the end of the season, having played 599 career games.
Although he has only returned to Detroit a handful of times since retiring, Thompson remembers his time in Motor City fondly.
“I met a lot of great people in Detroit and had three great years there,” he said. “It’s a great city, I have nothing but kind words for it.”