For Mark Kirton, a center who was traded to the Red Wings from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the early 80s, the return to his former home arena, Maple Leaf Gardens, was especially eventful.
“A lot of players that get traded from Toronto, when they come back to Toronto, they usually have pretty big games,” Kirton said. “Whether subconsciously you want to prove a point or whatever, you find that with a lot of players. And it happened with me, too.”
Kirton faced his former team three times during the season he was traded to Detroit. The Wings won all three, and, over 30 years later, the Regina, Saskatchewan, native still recounts those games as some of the best of his career.
“I think I was first star two of the games and had three game-winners,” Kirton said. “Because you just get that much more pumped up playing against your previous team. But it happens more to Toronto, it seems, than anywhere else.”
One of Kirton’s performances against his former team was so remarkable that it earned him a headline spot on the following day’s newspaper. He remembers his mother saving press clippings from Toronto papers that read, “Kirton Comes Down on the Leafs.”
And in one of those games at Maple Leaf Gardens, Kirton got involved in a few memorable run-ins with former teammates, minor altercations that might have ended differently had he not previously established rapport with the opposing players.
“When I got traded to Detroit, we came back to play in Toronto and I remember Dan Maloney had a penalty,” Kirton said. “I remember going down the boards full speed with the puck down near the penalty box and he stepped out on the ice and I didn’t see him at all and I went right by him.
“And then after the game he (Maloney) came up to me and said, ‘Hey kid, you know I could’ve put you in the grave?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ Because I didn’t see him step out. But would he have put me in the grave had I not played with him in Toronto a couple weeks earlier? Yeah, probably. It was kind of funny.”
The incident with Maloney wasn’t the only memory from that game that stuck with Kirton, who finished the ’81 season with 18 goals and 13 assists, statistics that would have been even higher had he spent the full season in Detroit.
“I remember Wilf Paiement getting mad at me that same game because I was hacking at his ankles in the corner,” Kirton said. “And he turned around and he was ready to clobber me. He was a pretty tough player. He looks at me and he goes in his broken French accent, ‘Don’t you ever embarrass me in front of my own fans.’ But he would never do anything to me because I played with the guy.”
As for the relationships that develop between former teammates, Kirton believes that it adds a unique element to the game that only serves to intensify future matchups.
|Mark Kirton |
“There’s stuff that goes on, obviously, when you have a relationship with a player on the other team,” Kirton said. “You like to say that when you’re on the ice all bets are off, but you know the guy and your game steps up a little bit because it’s a challenge to beat your buddy.”
Kirton spent most of his time in Detroit playing on a checking line with Paul Woods and Brad “Motor City” Smith. Although such statistics weren’t kept at the time, Kirton remembers a stretch of six games in a row at home where the line scored in the first shift of the game.
It was the Wings’ restructuring in 1982, under new owners Mike and Marian Ilitch that determined Kirton’s eventual departure from the team.
“When Ilitch took over, everything took off in the right direction,” Kirton said. “It was a great thing for the organization, without a doubt. It’s just that, for the players that were there, we got caught in the crossfire, which made it difficult for us because they wanted to bring in all new players and have a fresh start.”
For Kirton, that fresh start meant being traded to Vancouver for center Ivan Boldirev. But it wasn’t the first time that a franchise’s restructuring had determined Kirton’s career path, as a similar situation in Toronto had facilitated his trade to Detroit a few years earlier.
Initially acquired by Toronto in the third round of the 1978 NHL draft, Kirton spent two years with the organization’s AHL affiliate (playing in 13 games with the Leafs during that time) before he was traded to Detroit.
“When I was drafted to Toronto in ’78, they had a very, very good team,” Kirton said of his earliest experiences in the NHL. “Roger Neilson was the coach there and they had a lot of stars on the team: Darryl Sittler, Borje Salming, Lanny McDonald, Tiger Williams, Ian Turnbull. And that team was probably only two or three players away from challenging for the cup. Harold Ballard, the owner, dismantled the team and basically destroyed it. So, again, I kind of got caught in the crossfire there, too. In a lot of ways, it’s timing in this business.”
Kirton points to his role on the Leafs and the Wings as part of the reason for his movement during both teams’ periods of flux.
“The kind of player that I was, I was more of a checker, defensive player, penalty-killer, face-offs,” Kirton said. “So my perfect fit on a team is a team that is a strong team and I’m just a piece of the puzzle in the third or fourth line. And unfortunately both those teams were in transition at the time. But you couldn’t ask to play on two better teams than original sixes. It was a lot of fun.”