Darryl Sittler, other Maple Leafs and NHLers still gold for fans at auction

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Darryl Sittler shook his head as the bidding on one of his Maple Leafs sweaters fetched close to $40,000.

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“That’s twice the money I made my first year,” the one-time Toronto captain said Thursday night, when his 1974-75 white home jersey was the prize item at Studio Auctions’ inaugural live hockey memorabilia event in Toronto. 

As audience applause followed the final gavel from Studio Auctions co-owner Brad Teplitsky to an unidentified internet buyer in the GTA, a rumble of thunder erupted outside the bidding tent. 

“Must be Harold Ballard,” Sittler said with a laugh of the late penny-pinching Leafs owner who’d have loved to manipulate today’s lucrative Leafs souvenir market. 

What makes this Sittler sweater unique is a period autograph, the visible repair work in front and the different tinted blue ‘A’ on the left side, the one and only year he served as Dave Keon’s alternate before graduating to an eventful term as captain.

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Sittler had no idea where it had been since he wore it. 

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“At the time it was just a jersey to us,” Sittler said. “We used them for about half a season (players get many more these days). The rips and marks were fixed and you kept going. Then either trainers kept them or Harold would just sell them or give them away.

“I don’t even know if it would fit me today,” Sittler added, noting the non-stretch fabric looked small given the build of players 50 years ago and their leaner shoulder pads.      

Sittler has come to appreciate what drives people to pay big dollars for such cast-off game-used equipment and why buyers, auction houses and appraisers go to such great lengths for photo verification and other methods to confirm provenance and determine value.

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Maple Leafs forward Darryl Sittler had a 10-point night in 1976.
Maple Leafs forward Darryl Sittler had a 10-point night in 1976. Postmedia files

“Fans are fans. Look at all of Wayne Gretzky’s memorabilia, those cases of hockey cards (a batch from 1979 recently found in Saskatchewan with his highly sought-after Gretzky rookie edition that could be worth close to $4 million).

“If a person has money, wants something unique and obviously has a sentimental attachment, it’ll always go up in value, it’s one of a kind. People have a certain player or team they love and I just happen to be one of those guys that make somebody happy.” 

Sittler also lost track of the sweater he wore on his NHL record 10-point night, Feb. 7, 1976. No one knew its whereabouts until 2018, when Barry Meisel, a collector based in New Jersey, spotted it among a batch of other NHL team apparel he had purchased.

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It was verified partly by a dangling white thread on the shoulder in newspaper photos of that evening that Meisel matched to pictures at the Hockey Hall of Fame. A rough guess at the time put its value at $350,000 to $500,000, though it has since been purchased by another enthusiast in Denver. 

Sittler, 73, insists he’s not bitter about missing the cash windfall on all of this. If collectors put in the hard work to locate such treasures and everything’s above board, he’s content. 

“I’m fortunate to still have the sweater that I (ripped) the ‘C’ off,” he said of the emotional night in 1979 he quit as captain when general manager Punch Imlach traded his pal Lanny McDonald.

“Gunner (trainer Guy Kinnear) gave that one to me at the end of the season. We didn’t think too much about it, but now it’s a unique item, as is this one with the ‘A.’”

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Former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Darryl Sittler.
Former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Darryl Sittler. Postmedia files

That missing ‘C’ model might be part of a future Sittler auction. He did keep many items related to his Hall of Fame career from the Leafs, Team Canada ‘76, the NHL all-star game and the London Knights.

Los Angeles-based Studio Auctions, run by former Toronto lawyer Teplitsky and business partner Mark Silver, has primarily specialized in Hollywood special effects up until now, such as Tom Cruise’s Top Gun sunglasses and flight suit, the miniature of Dorothy’s house from 1939’s Wizard of Oz and an screen-used R2D2 droid from Star Wars. They have another SFX auction in September.

But 10 years after Leafs fan Teplitsky began to collect, the first big foray into hockey on Thursday including items from Sittler, teammates Borje Salming, Tiger Williams, Ian Turnbull and Mike Palmateer, contracts for Bill Barilko and George Armstrong, vintage Leafs programs, photos and the massive original 1931 blueprints of Maple Leaf Gardens. 

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A Guy Lafleur sweater from the late ‘70s wasn’t far behind Sittler’s top price, going for $26,000 US, with Toronto’s one-time penalty leader Williams’ making $16,000.

Milestone sticks were also big sellers, with twigs from Gretzky’s 785th goal for $12,000, Bobby Orr’s from his rookie year of 1966 at $10,000 and Gretzky’s 1,400th assist for $8,000. 

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LINDROS A ROOKIE LEAF? 

Imagine Eric Lindros breaking into the NHL as a Leaf instead of joining them 14 years later as a free agent, slowed by age and injuries. 

It was being cooked up according former GM Gerry McNamara as part of an entertaining panel discussion this week at St. Michael’s College School on the state of the Toronto franchise. 

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McNamara, like many peers in the late 1980s, saw the star power in the exceptional young bull playing in the Leafs’ backyard with the Oshawa Generals. As the Leafs were going nowhere fast, sped up by Ballard’s refusal to give McNamara scouting or development resources, the GM hinted it wouldn’t have been hard for the Leafs to tank ahead of Lindros’ 1991 draft year.

“I had a plan,” said McNamara, now 89, whose time in charge has been viewed in a better light as subsequent GMs have yet to make the Leafs a Stanley Cup champion. “But I had a coach I couldn’t work with (John Brophy) that Harold loved.” 

McNamara was fired late in the 1987-88 season and replaced by Gord Stellick, who ended up firing Brophy and lasted a year and a half himself before Floyd Smith took over in Ballard’s final days of life.

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Trying to right the Leafs ship after a bad start in ‘89-90, Smith sent the ‘91 first-rounder to the New Jersey Devils for defenceman Tom Kurvers, leading to more panic trades when it appeared the pick would turn into the Lindros ticket.

Jersey eventually settled for third overall, taking Hall of Fame defenceman Scott Niedermayer behind Lindros (whose selection by Quebec opened another can of worms) and Pat Falloon by San Jose.

LOOSE LEAFS

Rich Clune, who has been with the Leafs and Marlies in various capacities for nine seasons, is leaving for promotion to assistant coach in Anaheim … A storm drain that over-flowed with all this week’s rain caused some flooding on the event level at Scotiabank Arena, an area that includes the Leafs dressing room. MLSE said any damage, deemed to be minor, will be repaired as part of the venue’s scheduled summer renovation project … 58-year-old former Leafs defenceman Al Iafrate is working in a new artificial hip … Kody Clark, son of former Leafs captain Wendel, continues re-habbing from left quad tendon surgery after two years out of the game. A 2018 second-round pick of the Capitals, now a free agent, he hopes to land a tryout somewhere this autumn … Happy 86th birthday earlier this week to ‘voice of the Gardens’ Paul Morris. 

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