Goalie Jim Rutherford had three tours with the Red Wings and made his NHL debut against the Maple Leafs in 1971.
For an Ontario native, playing an NHL game in Toronto is a big deal. The stakes are simply higher.
So when former Red Wings goaltender Jim Rutherford returned to home turf for his first game at Maple Leaf Gardens, it was understandably one of the more memorable games of his career – but not in a good way.
“My first year pro, and my first-ever chance to play in the NHL in Maple Leaf Gardens, we were beat 13-0,” recalled Rutherford, a native of Beeton, Ont., which is 46 miles northwest of Toronto. “I played the first period, we were down 3-0 and it was a game where we really got out-shot in the first period.”
Having lost to Toronto twice earlier in the season, the Wings suffered the embarrassing defeat on January 2, 1971, in front of 16,485 Leafs’ fans.
Rutherford started the game but had to watch the final two periods from the bench.
“They changed goalies and Toronto scored three more in the second period, and then they scored seven in the third period,” Rutherford said. “I was sitting on the bench for those last 10 goals and didn’t feel any better. I remember that game pretty clearly. I got pulled from the game and it was a dream of mine all through my boyhood to get to that game.”
He eventually played 18 games for the Leafs near the end of his career, but it was in Detroit where he spent most of his NHL time.
“It was a night and day experience,” Rutherford said of the difference between Detroit and Toronto. “I’ll just start with my short experience in Toronto: growing up as a kid it was a team I always wanted to play for. Unfortunately, by the time I got a chance to play for them, I was near the end of my career and their team wasn’t very good. So I’m proud to say that I played for the Maple Leafs and wore the Maple Leafs jersey, but the experience wasn’t as good as I would have liked. But that was more about how I played, it was more personal than anything else.”
In December 1980, the Wings traded Rutherford to the Leafs for center Mark Kirton. Rutherford’s experience with the Leafs included a 4-10-2 record and 5.12 goals-against average.
Despite his lackluster NHL debut in Toronto and his less than stellar time there, Rutherford saw better days in Motor City over the course of his career. His situation was somewhat unique in that he played for the Wings on three different occasions.
“As for Detroit, I can’t say enough about playing for the Red Wings,” Rutherford said. “I think I was there about 10 years, and I think I played the fourth most games of any goalie with the Wings. We went through tough times in the ’70s and didn’t have real good teams, but what a great organization and city to play in. I have a lot of memories of the 20 years that I lived in Detroit, a lot of great memories.”
One such memory was the 1978 Stanley Cup playoffs – the Wings’ first postseason appearance in eight years. Rutherford remembers how excited Detroit fans were to see the Wings face off against the Atlanta Flames.
“The fans are always great fans and very supportive, but even more so when they haven’t seen the playoffs for a long time, and they were really into those games,” he said. “Atlanta finished with more points than we did, they were favored in the series, so it was an upset.”
Sweeping the Flames in the best-of-three series, the Wings advanced to play the reigning Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens.
“We went into Montreal and won the first game,” Rutherford said. “It was the only game that Montreal lost that whole year in the playoff run to win the Stanley Cup so that was without question a very exciting year for the guys who played for the Red Wings.”
But games between the Leafs and Wings always proved to reignite an unparalleled intensity on the ice.
“Those games have always been a great rivalry; they were very intense,” Rutherford said. “We had two bench-clearing brawls when I played for the Wings against the Maple Leafs in Olympia.”
When it came to an Original Six rivalry separated by only a few hundred miles, the standings didn’t matter.
“Regardless of where teams were in the standings, even if one team was really good, and the other one wasn’t as good, those games were very meaningful games,” Rutherford said. “But they got a little out of hand; they got a little rough at times. It was the teams that (Darryl) Sittler played on, (Mike) Palmateer and those guys.”
After spending a year and a half with the Leafs and Los Angeles Kings, Rutherford finished his career with one last game for the Wings in 1982.
“The Wings were on a youth movement,” he said. “They signed Greg Stefan and Corrado Micalef, two first-year goalies, and Jimmy Devellano signed me as insurance, not knowing if both those guys were going to be ready to play and as it turned out they were and that’s when I retired.”
In just over nine seasons with Detroit, Rutherford also witnessed the transition from Olympia Stadium to Joe Louis Arena.
“Buildings are really built on tradition and the success of the teams that went ahead of you,” he said. “And of course the Olympia had such great history with winning all those Stanley Cups, so for me playing in the Olympia was very special, more special than Joe Louis at that time.”
After all, it was Olympia Stadium that had seen Rutherford tie Glenn Hall’s record of three straight shutouts in February 1976.
“It was a unique building where the fans almost hung out over the ice in the upper balcony,” Rutherford said of Olympia. “The fans were almost sitting right on top of the ice surface so it had a great atmosphere, a fun place to play, a fun place to be for a game.”
The current president and general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes, Rutherford retired after 457 games with a career record of 151-227-59 and a 3.65 GAA.