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Leafs Centennial Legacy Includes Wondrous Women’s Hockey Lineage (Part Three)

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The following is the third in a three-part series highlighting the Toronto Maple Leafs and its linkages to women’s ice hockey.

With the Toronto Maple Leafs centennial celebrations, highlighted by jersey retirement numbers and the gradual additions to Legends Row, it has transformed the Air Canada Centre into the new shrine of hockey in Canada. As the venue’s legacy (which also includes a successful basketball team) continues to grow, it can also be proud of its efforts in helping to raise awareness of the women’s game.

From its annual Hall of Fame Game, which has seen the likes of Lori Dupuis, Geraldine Heaney, Cammi Granato and Angela Ruggiero (among others) grace the ice, an extension of such efforts involves support of the CWHL, which also sees the 2014 Clarkson Cup champion Toronto Furies as a sister franchise. In reflecting on such support, one of its shining legacies involves the Air Canada Centre serving as the host venue for the first two CWHL All-Star Games.

Adding to the unique sense of women’s hockey history that the Maple Leafs have contributed to is the fact that goaltender Sami Jo Small was the only player to have been part of both the TSN Challenge in 2000 (the first women’s hockey game contested at the ACC) and the first CWHL All-Star Game. As a side note, the aforementioned Dupuis, Heaney, Granato and Ruggiero were all participants in that historic TSN Challenge contest.

Having also graced the ice for the TSN Challenge, which saw over 14,000 enthusiastic hockey fans watch as Team Canada bested Team USA in a visceral match-up defined by national pride and a love of the game, included second-generation hockey star Meghan Sittler.

Undoubtedly, Meghan’s love of the game was also shared by her brother and younger sister, all taking up the game. Ryan, a first-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers, would one day play for the St. John’s Maple Leafs. Among his teammates with the club was Syl Apps III.

Ashley Sittler first skated with the Buffalo Bisons hockey program, having grown up in the Queen City. Along with older sister Meaghan, the two are part of a Bisons program that has seen over 120 players compete at the university level. Other famous alums included the likes of Emily Pfalzer and Jaime Totten.

Eventually skating at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport level for the Guelph Gryphons, Ashley earned two letters with the program. During her inaugural season (1999-2000) in Guelph, Sittler would play in the fifth place game at the CIAU National Championships. Playing for head coach Dave De Burger, some of her teammates that gained OUA All-Star honors included Kerri-Anne Rudaniecki, Krista Lehrbass, Tanja Vlahovich and Shannon Bettles. Leaving the program in order to care for her ailing mother, it truly symbolized the essence of teamwork.

For the Sittler family, their enthusiasm for hockey was evident at a young age, as their father Darryl was an icon for the Maple Leafs and hockey in Canada during the 1970s. Hockey in this exciting decade represented an unprecedented period of growth for the game.

From a rapidly increasing wave of expansion (the NHL would triple in size in less than a decade), the presence of a rival league, along with a rise in international competition, from the birth of the Canada Cup to the World Juniors, this overwhelming change was enhanced by the presence of remarkable competitors. With regards to women’s hockey, this decade saw future IIHF Hall of Famer Fran Rider help to form the OWHA, the backbone for the future of the game.

Darryl held a tremendous presence for the franchise, continuously keeping the blue and white in contention, riding the hopes and dreams of its exuberant fans. Selected eighth overall in the 1970 Draft, Sittler still stands as the greatest draft pick in franchise history while maintaining his own among such a group of legendary competitors that helped this decade, including the likes of Orr, Lafleur, the Esposito brothers, Dryden, Dionne and Clarke.

The 1975-76 season would truly emerge as Sittler’s coming-out party. Undoubtedly, the greatest season of his Hall of Fame career, said season would include his record 10-point performance on February 7, 1976. By season’s end, he would become the first player in franchise history to record a 100-point season. In addition, his heroics also included the game-winning goal which clinched the 1976 Canada Cup (which actually took place against Czechoslovakia at Maple Leaf Gardens).

Although the 1970s would result in the Maple Leafs unable to hoist Lord Stanley’s Mug, Sittler was a great source of continuity. With a team that had been dismantled by the first expansion (losing the likes of Bobby Baun, Terry Sawchuk and Red Kelly among others), future trades involving Eddie Shack and Peter Mahovlich only compounded the woes and the migration of young talent to the rival league, Sittler placed the franchise on its shoulders and the results speak for themselves.

While the 1970s was dominated by the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers, Sittler’s Maple Leafs accomplished seven winning seasons in the decade, along with eight postseason appearances. During those appearances, six of the teams that would oust them eventually qualified for the Stanley Cup finals. As a side note, Sittler would lead the team in scoring for eight straight seasons (1972-73 to 1979-80), tying with fellow Hall of Famer Lanny McDonald for the lead in the aftermath of the 1976-77 campaign.

With an everlasting admiration of her father’s accomplishments, Meghan Sittler reflects on what he meant to so many people in Toronto and the rest of Canada who watched him play, those same fans who dreamed of growing up and emulating his successes. Perhaps the strongest point of pride is the fact that his legendary contributions have surpassed generations,

“It seems that in Toronto and in Canada the people that watched my dad play have such a great love and respect for him that they pass down this regard to their children and grandchildren. It is a very distinguished honour to have your number retired and my dad absolutely deserves it. I think that the Leafs do a great job of telling the story of past players so I’m sure my dad will be celebrated and appreciated for years to come.” 

Sittler’s departure in a heartbreaking trade to the Philadelphia Flyers, which followed the trades of Tiger Williams and Lanny McDonald, absolutely ripped out the heart of the franchise. With his career eventually ending with archrival Detroit (where he played alongside Steve Yzerman in his rookie season with the Red Wings), it was no coincidence that his exit resulted in a downward spiral into the doldrums for the Maple Leafs.

Once Cliff Fletcher took the reins in Toronto, one of his first key moves was to establish a Leafs Alumni association. Fittingly, it was Sittler who was approached to help build the association. His return to the fold signified greater days to come as the likes of Grant Fuhr, Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk would wear the Leafs colors, propelling the club into the postseason picture.

Having starred at Colby College, where she played for head coach Laura Halldorson (who would eventually win a pair of Frozen Four titles with the Minnesota Golden Gophers), Meghan was one of the first superstars in the modern resurgence of collegiate women’s ice hockey. As a side note, Buffalo Bisons alum Sarah Gelman would also play at Colby College.

Leading all NCAA scorers in goals during the 1995-96 season, her season was highlighted by eight hat tricks in the season’s final 13 games. In the aftermath of the 1997-98 season, Sittler was an All-American selection, joined by Colby teammate Courtney Kennedy and fellow Bisons alum Jaime Totten.

Akin to her father, Sittler’s legacy would also extend into the Greater Toronto Area. Coincidentally, Meghan Sittler and her sister-in-law Gillian Apps would enjoy their own unique hockey connection, having both played with the Brampton Thunder, the longest running women’s ice hockey team in Canada. As mentioned in Part One, Laura Stacey, the great-granddaughter of King Clancy is currently in her rookie campaign with the Thunder, adding another unique connection between both teams while contgributing towards stgrenghtening such an exceptional legacy.

For Meghan and her siblings, the ACC would serve as a special place, only strengthening the unbreakable bonds of family. All three were present when the Maple Leafs honored Sittler’s number 27 in February 2003. The organization showed a touch of class acknowledging Sittler’s late wife during the ceremony. As a side note, her name was written on the corner of the banner, joining him in spirit as the banner was raised to the rafters.

Leading up to the Leafs Centennial, the celebration of Sittler and the other Leafs immortals whose numbers were honored would gain a special privilege. Establishing “Legends Row”, statues of these legendary players were gradually released. With more statues coming throughout this season, Sittler was one of the first to earn this special hallmark.

It was an emotional moment for Meghan, which saw her jubilation enhanced by the presence of her son. A unique coincidence is the fact that her son was actually born on the 27th day of the month, the same number that Sittler wore in his career. Not only will the statue serve as an eternal reminder of what his grandfather meant to the city of Toronto, but it shall help to preserve the legacy of the Maple Leafs is an opportunity for young and older fans alike to celerbate, enlighten and remember, 

“The day they released my dad’s statue was very exciting. The Leafs do such a great job at making it so meaningful and special. My son was under a year but he was there with our whole family. The statue itself is so impressive; the artist who made it is very talented.

When I first saw the statue, as the curtain came down I was moved to tears. It is such an incredible honour and so special that it will be here for years and years to come. My dad is a really kind man with great character, so anytime he receives recognition I feel so happy for him and so proud of him.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Images obtained from:

http://darrylsittler.ca/family/

https://locomobi.com/press-board/hall-of-famer-darryl-sittler-joins-locomobi-advisory-board/

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