I always enjoy reading, hearing, and talking about old hockey stories, and when a modern day event converges on history, it’s always an interesting exercise to look back at similar events that shaped the NHL game and weave them all together into a interesting tapestry.
It happened again this past week, as Edmonton’s Sam Gagner lit up the Chicago Blackhawks with four goals and four assists in a season where scoring goals is becoming an increasingly difficult thing to accomplish.
In the current age of neutral zone traps, big guys with great range and speed, and outstanding defense, it was incredible to see Gagner become the first player to record eight points in a game since Mario Lemieux did it for the Pittsburgh Penguins on December 31, 1988, a little over 23 years earlier. It was also great to note that in the official scoresheet, Gagner is the only star mentioned in the three stars section, since he was the first, second, and third stars of the game with that performance.
Gagner didn’t have his big night against an undermanned, last place club, either. He did it against the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the top teams in the League. While it wasn’t the most points ever recorded by a player in a game (Darryl Sittler of Toronto scored 6 goals and 4 assists in a memorable night against Boston on February 7, 1976), it equaled a mark originally set by Maurice “Rocket” Richard on December 28, 1944, when the hockey legend scored five goals and three assists against a Detroit Red Wings sextet at the Forum.
All of this discussion of Lemieux and Richard brought me into the tapestry weaving business. So, without further ado, let’s start weaving:
The Canadiens’ media guide, also known as the “Guide de Presse,” does not mention this game in the “en un coup d’oeil” section, also known as the “at a glance” area in the 1943-44 season summary. It does mention, however, that the Rocket wound up becoming the first-ever 50 goal scorer in an NHL season, notching his 50th on the final night of the season, in the Canadiens’ 50th game. Thus, the legend of “50 goals in 50 games” was born, and it wouldn’t have happened had the Rocket not had this memorable night, which was unprecedented in the NHL at the time.
The bleu, blanc et rouge were defending their fifth Stanley Cup championship that season, but lost in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs to Toronto, while Detroit rebounded from that ignominious December evening to capture the Stanley Cup championship from the Maple Leafs in a remarkable series. Something tells me that the Blackhawks will be looking at this last bit of information for some inspiration this season.
When Lemieux had his “l’Magnifique” night on New Year’s Eve in 1988, the NHL was averaging more goals than today. But Lemieux did something in that game that was even more remarkable: he actually scored a goal in every possible situation. Super Mario scored an even strength goal, a power play goal, a shorthanded goal, a penalty shot goal, and an empty net goal, all in that one game!
Since we’re on the topic of Lemieux, a quick scan down the page of the record book finds him in another section that is memory jarring. In 1992, he was suffering from an injured back. It was thought that he would be out indefinitely, perhaps for the entire season. The Penguins left Mario home in Pittsburgh for a road trip that included stops on Long Island, Los Angeles, and San Jose.
But suddenly, on December 5, 1992, the reports were that Lemieux was chartering a plane to fly across the country to join his team for a date at the Cow Palace in Daly City against a certain NHL expansion club with the lovable mascot and the cool logo. When the game started, Number 66 was in the lineup.
It didn’t matter who coach George Kingston threw out on the ice in the game for the Sharks, and on the other side of the ice, coach Scotty Bowman just kept on saying “Mario” when it came time to roll the lines. Lemieux scored a goal and had 6 assists for 7 points that night, which was the best single-game performance in a road game in his NHL career. It was the second best total ever recorded in an NHL road game, with the eight point night recorded by both Stastny brothers, Peter and Anton, in a 1981 tilt at Washington.
By the way, Lemieux only played that one game on the road trip and even though the Penguins scored 10 other goals, Mario led the team in scoring on the trip! But like the Canadiens’ guide, the Burgh Hockey season-at-a-glance section does not mention this game in its capsule summary. Instead, it mentions that Lemieux scored a goal in 12 consecutive contests, and became the second player in team history to record back-to-back four-goal games.
All 9 Penguins goals that night, in a 9-4 victory, came against one Sharks goaltender: Brian Hayward, now the TV color commentator for the Anaheim Ducks. It’s interesting to note that when Darryl Sittler had his 10 point night, all of the Leaf goals in the 11-4 victory came against one goaltender, Boston’s Dave Reece. Hayward went on to play a bit more, but in Reece’s case, it was his final NHL game.
So now, we have the story of Sam Gagner, who recently was one of the names mentioned in the “Steve Tambellini may trade him because he’s one of a bunch of young stars on the Oilers, and they’re probably not going to keep them all” newspaper columns that floated out there for a while. Something tells me that that’s not going to happen now.
By the way, there is one more thread to this tapestry, and it takes us back to Game Two of the 1944 Stanley Cup semi-final between the Canadiens and Maple Leafs. It was Maurice “Rocket” Richard’s debut in the big dance, and the Habs had lost Game One to Toronto, 3-1.
After a scoreless first period, the Rocket began to display his red glare, primarily in the direction of Maple Leafs goaltender Paul Bibeault. Scoring two goals just 17 seconds apart in the middle frame, Richard scored a hat trick with just a few minutes left in the second. In the first minute of the final period, he picked up a fourth goal, and then, almost 9 minutes in, he scored a fifth goal, to tie the League record.
Superstars of today should take note that coach Dick Irvin reportedly sat Richard for the rest of the game after the fifth goal, due to the fact that he felt safer and wanted to have Richard available for the remainder of the series.
At any rate, when the game ended and the three star selection was announced, Montreal Forum fans were stunned to see Richard was named the game’s third star. There was shock. How could anyone name a man who scored all five goals the third star?
They got their answer when Richard was named the second star, and the decibel level in the building began to rise. When the Rocket was announced as the game’s first star as well, the roof nearly blew off the building in joyous celebration.
The headlines in the Montreal and Toronto newspapers reported the score of the game, and they did it accurately: “RICHARD 5, TORONTO 1.”
Sam Gagner’s accomplishment this week, along with his 3-point effort in his next game, made it easy to select the NHL’s First Star of the Week. What we also have is another jolt of fun for hockey fans everywhere, and it should get all of us excited about the stories yet to be told, both at the rink and on the radio. See you there!