Auston Matthews scored his 46th goal of the season in San Jose on Tuesday during the first game of the Maple Leafs’ three-game California road trip which continues tonight in Los Angeles. I’m not looking to jinx anything, but it seems pretty certain that he’ll become the first Toronto player to score 50 in a season since 1993–94, making him just the fourth in franchise history to do so. And, really, at this point, it would be disappointing if he’s not able to break Rick Vaive’s single-season record of 54 goals.
Vaive was the first Leaf to score 50 when he set the team record back in 1981–82. But seven seasons before that — and coming up on 45 years ago later this month — another player on another Toronto team became the city’s first pro athlete to reach the 50-goal plateau. I was there on March 25, 1975 when “Shotgun” Tom Simpson scored his 50th for the Toronto Toros. This was just going to be a short piece about that … but then I found something more.
As I mentioned in my most recent story, the Toros and the WHA were a big part of my young hockey life. I do have many fond memories, but, it seems that as the years go by, they’re all starting to blend together!
Back in 2016, I posted a story here about Olympic memories. I wrote that the Munich Olympic Games ran from August 26 to September 11, 1972. (The massacre of Israeli athletes occurred on September 5-6). My grandfather had died that August 26, and Team Canada and the Soviets played all four Canadian games of the Summit Series between September 2 and September 8. I remember all of this, of course, but each event now seems so separate and distinct to me that it’s hard to believe they all happened within two weeks.
No tragedies in today’s story, but although I do remember that I was there when Tom Simpson scored his 50th goal, I really had no memory of all that went on. Turns out, Simpson entered the game against the Vancouver Blazers on that Tuesday night with 46 goals … and scored four to reach 50. He also added two assists for six points in Toronto’s 8-4 win. I don’t really recall any of that, but what really amazed me was that it happened on the same night as one of my other greatest Toros memories; the night that Evel Knievel went one-on-one against Les Binkley for ABC’s Wide World of Sports!
I do remember that Knievel scored a couple of cheap goals. And I think I remember him skating back to center ice after each of his attempts to talk things over with Frank Gifford of ABC. In my memory, they weren’t mic’ed up in a way that we could hear them, although I believe we did hear Frank Gifford introduce Evel so maybe we heard their conversations too. What I didn’t know until researching this story was that Global TV, who used to broadcast Toros games, wasn’t allowed to air this second-period intermission stunt because ABC had the exclusive rights to it. So maybe the conversations were ABC property as well?
Something else I remember about that night was that although we were told that Knievel had some hockey experience in his background, not everyone believed that. Maybe that was just my father being cynical and not a widespread belief, but that’s how I remember it. (Then again, my memories of that night are obviously not as sharp as I used to think!)
In reading through the articles now from before the game, it was made pretty clear that Evel Knievel had played some competitive amateur hockey in his younger days … which other hockey researchers have pretty much confirmed over the years. (It’s interesting, now, to be able to read hockey stories about a young Bob Knievel in Montana newspapers online.) Knievel even claimed that Gordie Howe and the boxer Joe Louis were his sports idols.
Still, it definitely seems that Toronto sportswriters thought Knievel’s appearance at the Toros game was just a cheap publicity stunt … but it’s one of my best childhood hockey memories. So was being there when Tom Simpson became Toronto’s first 50-goal scorer. I just didn’t remember that both things happened on the very same night!