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The Norris Hockey Family

Who remembers the term “Original Six” hockey? I do, I do!

For the benefit for those who don’t, from 1942-1967 only six teams were part of the “Big Show” in the National Hockey League; the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, and Toronto Maple Leafs. Who had the money during that time? Who had the power? Who pushed their will on the others? Who made the boardroom decisions? In other words, who really controlled the league? Answer--the Norris family. They had their iron fists wrapped around all four American teams, much to the dismay of the two Canadian franchises across the border.

One family! How on earth did that happen?

James E Norris Sr
James E Norris Sr (US Public Domain)

Let’s see…enter James E Norris, Sr whom friends called “Big Jim.” Born to a well-to-do family in Montreal in 1879, Norris Sr inherited Norris Grain Inc from his father after the family moved the operation to Chicago, Illinois. President of Norris Grain at age 28 in 1908, Big Jim set out to corner the market on the grain business by buying up huge clusters of storage elevators throughout the United States. Within 25 years of taking over Norris Grain Inc, James E Norris was the largest cash grain buyer in the world and a force to be reckoned with, despite the Great Depression gripping the country following the 1929 Stock Market Crash.

Worth multi-millions and using his successful grain business as a foundation to force his way into pro sports, Norris bought the bankrupt Detroit Falcons and the team’s arena--the five-year-old, 15,000 seat Detroit Olympia--in 1932 for a mere $100,000. One of his new employees was son James D Norris, hired to learn the ropes of running a hockey team. Big Jim’s next move was to rename the team: He came up with the Detroit Red Wings in honor of the Montreal amateur hockey team he had once played for called the “Winged Wheelers.” Of course, the new Detroit logo (an auto wheel attached to a bird wing) was the perfect fit for the industrial metropolis, being that it was the Motor City.

With loads of Norris cash now available for coach-GM Jack Adams, the Red Wings were able to build a farm system and purchase high-caliber players, so much so that within five years of Norris buying the team, they won back-to-back NHL championships, the first American team to achieve such a accolade.

James D Norris
James D Norris (US Public Domain)

The deepening Great Depression didn’t seem to hurt the Norris pocketbook any because in the space of four years in the mid-1930s, Big Jim spread his control over the remaining American teams, either outright or through the backdoor. He became the largest shareholder of Madison Square Garden, the home of the New York Rangers. He acquired Chicago Stadium, the home of the Black Hawks, plus provided business loans to Boston Bruins owner Charles Adams to keep his team afloat, besides owning a share or two of the Bruins’ rink, Boston Garden. All three arenas--or portions thereof--were obtained at reduced prices, due to the economic times. By 1940, Norris’ personal wealth exceeded $200 million, when you include his real estate investing and sprawling cattle ranches throughout the country.

In 1944, when Chicago’s owner Frederic McLaughlin died, Norris saw to it that Black Hawks president Bill Tobin, along with a number of partners could purchase the team. Although Tobin appeared to be the head on paper, most knew he was a Norris puppet using Norris money because son James D Norris was one of Tobin’s syndicate, while still remaining Vice President of the Detroit Red Wings. Another partner-to-be was Arthur Wirtz who had been Big Jim’s business partner up to that time, going back to the original purchase of the Wings in 1932. As with James D, Wirtz remained a Wing executive at the same time he had his fingers on the Hawks. Talk about a conflict of interest. By now, due to Big Jim’s influence, the joke was that the NHL stood for the “Norris House League.”

For the next decade, Norris Sr ignored the Norris-Tobin-Wirtz ownership and the family investment in the Chicago Black Hawks. The Red Wings were the important club. Furthermore, the Wings got the better part of any trades between the two. For the next 14 years, Chicago (by now the laughingstock of the NHL) made the playoffs only twice.

Upon his death on December 4, 1952, after his teams had won five Stanley Cups, Norris’ interests remained within the family. James D Norris gave up his Vice President position with the Detroit Red Wings to concentrate solely on the Black Hawks, as did Wing executive Arthur Wirtz. For the next two decades, the Wirtz-Norris partnership ran the Black Hawks until James D died in 1966.

Bruce Norris
Bruce Norris (US Public Domain)

James D had already received several of the family's other businesses in the late 1940s, including a significant ownership position in Norris Grain Inc and the entire family shares in Madison Square Garden. In Detroit, younger half-brother Bruce and his sister Marguerite Norris inherited the Red Wings, where Marguerite was named President, making her the first female executive in NHL history. After winning the Stanley Cup in 1955, Bruce bought out his sister's shares--some people claim he actually stole them--in the midst of a family squabble to become the sole owner of the Red Wings. In her three years at the helm, Marguerite’s team finished first every year and won the Stanley Cup twice. She was also the first female to have her name engraved on the Cup. In 1957, James D and Bruce Norris, as well as other NHL owners of the time, were accused of taking part in union busting activities during the blockbuster attempt by Detroit’s star Ted Lindsay and a group of NHL players to establish an NHL Players Association in which every player had been signed on except for one--Toronto’s Ted Kennedy. In response to Lindsay’s “treacherous” activities and for the “good of the league,” the Norris boys arranged a deal between the two teams to send Lindsay and goaltender Glenn Hall--both First Team All-Stars--to the lowly Black Hawks for Hank Bassen, Johnny Wilson, Bob Preston, and Forbes Kennedy. In other words, diddly squat. Little did anyone know--or maybe they did--that this deal would mark the beginning of a significant improvement in the Chicago Black Hawks’ fortunes, while it brought the Detroit Red Wings glory days to a screeching halt.

Although heading to the Stanley Cup finals five times from 1956-1966, Detroit didn’t win another Stanley Cup once Bruce Norris took the Red Wings over; while brother Jim and partner Art Wirtz finally won a championship in 1961, thanks to the steady netminding of Glenn Hall and stellar play from young stars Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, and Pierre Pilote, three prime examples of a revamped Black Hawks farm system.

Marguerite Norris
Marguerite Norris (US Public Domain)

Throughout the 1960s, the Hawks were no longer the league doormats. The Wings took over that department, until Little Caesars Pizza owner Mike Ilitch bought the team from Bruce Norris in 1982 for only $8 million. Bruce died four years later, much too early to see his father’s old team turned into the NHL’s most elite organization and a perennial contender under the leadership of the “Pizza King” from Michigan.

All three Norris men are enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Although Marguerite isn’t, she probably should be. She had more common sense and a better business head than her “Old Boys Club” brothers, certainly better than Bruce, who literally destroyed the Red Wings. Between the years 1967-1983, the Wings made the playoffs just twice. It got so bad at one point in the 1970s that Detroit fans referred to their team as either the “Dead Wings” or the “Dead Things.”

One thing was for certain: Had Marguerite been president in 1957 she would not have given permission to trade All-Stars Ted Lindsay and Glenn Hall. It was one of the worst deals the Wings had ever made in their history and the one that Bruce lived to regret.


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