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The "Trader Jack' Myth (Part 2)

Red Kelly, Detroit Red Wings
Red Kelly, Detroit Red Wings (courtesy

By next season, 1956-57, the spaghetti hit the fan. In February 1957, Ted Lindsay announced at a press conference in New York that he and the league’s players were starting the first NHL Players Association, a move that did not sit well with most of the owners, including the Red Wings management. To make Lindsay pay, Adams would wait until the off-season to make another one of his spiteful transactions. When the Red Wings were defeated that season in the first round of the playoffs by the Canadiens, Adams made a B-line to Glenn Hall as he was making his way to the dressing room after  the final game 3-1 loss.  Dissatisfied with the goalie’s play in the series, Adams screamed, “I’ve done a lot for you,” before Hall made it through the door.

“I’ve done a lot for you,” Hall replied calmly. Like Leo Reise and Glen Skov before him, Hall knew it was his last game in a Red Wings uniform.

The Detroit press and fans must have known that something was in the air months later, on July 10, when Adams traded away young winger Johnny Bucyk to the Boston Bruins to bring back goalie Terry Sawchuk, who never should have been traded away in the first place.  Bucyk went on to an outstanding career in Boston that lasted 21 years. For a couple seasons, he played with Bronco Horvath and Vic Stasiuk on the high-scoring Uke Line, named after the Ukrainian  heritage of all three.  Ironically, these same linemates had played together just a few years earlier in Edmonton, where they  were all  Detroit property.  Sawchuk lasted 7 more seasons as a Wing before being unprotected in the draft and subsequently picked up by the Maple Leafs and went on to hoist a Stanley Cup in 1967.

Having secured Sawchuk on the roster for the upcoming 1957-58 season, Adams then traded Ted Lindsay and Glenn Hall (both First Team All-Stars) to Chicago 13 days later for Johnny Wilson, Hank Bassen, Forbes Kennedy, and Bill Preston…which was the equivalent of  giving away 2 thoroughbreds for 4 pack mules. Lindsay had just finished the best season of his career, second in scoring, only 4 points behind league-leading Gordie Howe. But Adams claimed that Lindsay was over the hill and that Howe had carried him all year. No one bought it, of course, certainly not the fans who jammed the Wings switchboard with angry phone calls for days. Everyone in hockey knew it was a move against the newly-formed union, especially when one looked at the dubious talent the Wings had received in return. It was the deal that tore the heart out of the team for years to come. Executive vice-president Marguerite Norris was in New York on business when she read about the Lindsay trade in a newspaper. She quickly called her brother, Bruce, long distance and shouted, “You can’t do that!” By the time she slammed the receiver down, Ms Norris had made up her mind that she was done with the Detroit Red Wings and quit her presidency on the spot.

Calling his own press conference shortly after the deal, Lindsay said, “ I wanted to close my hockey career in Detroit , but derogatory remarks about myself and my family showed me that the personal resentment on the part of the Detroit general manager would make it impossible for me to continue playing in Detroit.” Lindsay played three years in Chicago, where he helped to turn the team into a winner, then retired one year away from the Hawks winning the Cup in 1961. Once Adams was fired in 1962, Lindsay came out of retirement to play the 1964-65 season (his last before retiring again), leading the Red Wings to a first-place finish, their first since 1957, when Adams traded Lindsay away.

As a Blackhawk for the next 10 years after the trade, Hall was a standout. It must have been especially gratifying for him to be named First All-Star in his first year in Chicago and when the Hawks won the Stanley Cup in 1961 by defeating the Red Wings in six games with GM  Jack Adams looking on, a series  that saw Hall allow a mere 12 goals.

Back to 1957, Adams wasn’t  finished trading. That December he sent Earl Reibel, Billy Dea, Bill Dineen and Lorne Ferguson to Chicago for Nick Mickoski, Bob Bailey, Jack McIntyre and Hec Lalonde…a “numbers only” deal, where neither side gained.  Just a whole lot of nothing.

Then there was the strange case of center Guyle Fielder, the minor league superstar, whom Jack Adams had the rights to…twice. Fielder was a superb puck-handler who hated the dump-and-chase method prevalent in the NHL then and still today. Going into the 1952-53 season training camp , Adams had Fielder center a line between Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. It didn’t work out. Five years later, after an illustrious career in the Western Hockey League was unfolding for him, Fielder again was put on a line with Howe, while Johnny Wilson played left wing. And again, it didn’t work out. Adams couldn’t quite understand what so many others in the game could see.  Howe and Fielder both liked to handle the puck, and putting them together was dead wrong. Fielder, as Lindsay and other Wings believed, should have been placed between 2 young speedsters who could break out and take Fielder’s crisp passes. Adams couldn’t see it and Fielder went back to the WHL where he remained well into the early 1970’s setting up others with shotgun passes on the fly. Some of those players made the NHL, while he didn’t.

The last bad Adams deal was sending Red Kelly down the 401 to Toronto, a trade that made Toronto reporter  Trent Frayne utter, “The dumbest trade ever made by one of the all-time great traders.” Are you kidding? All-time great traders?  Sorry, Mr. Frayne, that he wasn’t. In fact, by this time, many insiders were wondering if Adams had lost it.

Red Kelly was a talented two-way, yet very offensive-minded defenseman with the Wings. Many called him the NHL’s second best at his position, next to Montreal’s Doug Harvey. For nine straight seasons, Kelly had scored 10 or more goals, topping out with a then-astounding 19 in 1952-53. But by 1958-59, some people thought he was slowing down at age 31, not realizing he was suffering through a broken foot the last month of the season, while the Wings were scrambling to make the playoffs.  A sorry sight for a once-great team. The defense in disarray, Kelly was asked by Adams and coach Sid Abel to keep playing, despite the injury. Kelly did, but it was no use. He could barely turn on his skates. The Wings finished dead last, the first time out of the playoffs in 21 years. The injury was kept silent until Kelly, himself, leaked it in passing the following season to Trent Frayne, who was working on a hockey piece for the Star Weekly. Kelly, by that time, was healthy and his play had improved dramatically. Frayne had his story and it came out the end of January 1960.

Marshall Dann, a Detroit Free Press reporter, picked up the Star Weekly story and wrote about it under the headline, “Was Red Kelly forced to play on a broken foot?”

Of course, news got back to Adams, and he was livid. He called Kelly into his office on February 4 after a home game for a meeting with him and owner Bruce Norris. There, Adams informed Kelly that he was traded to New York along with forward Billy McNeill for Bill Gadsby and Eddie Shack, and told to be at the Leland Hotel at 8 AM to take a bus to New York. Kelly stood his ground, and said he’d think about it.

“What do you mean, you’ll think about it? Be there!” Adams blurted out.

Kelly repeated, “I’ll think about it.”

Kelly then went to his Detroit home to talk the situation over with his wife, Andra. By morning, he decided he was going to retire. McNeill, whose wife had died recently, also wanted nothing to do with the deal and refused to report. Meanwhile, Shack had already been popping off to the press that he couldn’t wait to leave New York. (He did leave that November, when the Rangers dealt him to Toronto for Pat Hannigan and Johnny Wilson, just in time to be on 4 Stanley Cup winners).The furious Adams threatened to suspend Kelly, until NHL president Campbell stepped in to cool things down. Then the Toronto Maple Leafs made an offer to take Kelly off Adams’ hands. Adams wanted a young, untested defenseman named Marc Reaume in return. The deal was made before a stunned hockey world on 10 February. Leafs coach Punch Imlach immediately turned Kelly into a center, which many people thought he should have been all along. The following year, 1960-61, Kelly centered a line with the young, sharpshooter Frank Mahovlich. Kelly finished with 50 assists, helping the Big M collect 48 goals. By the time he retired in 1967, Kelly played on four more Stanley Cups winners as a Leaf. By adding the 4 he had seen with Detroit, he holds the record for most Stanley Cup wins for a player not a Montreal Canadien.   Now there’s some nice trivia for you.  Reaume played a whole 77 games in the NHL with 3 teams spaced over  the next 10 years, while most of his time was spent in the minors in such exciting hot spots as Hershey, Tulsa, and Rochester. Everywhere we went, I wonder how many times he was asked about the Kelly deal?

By 1962, Wings owner Bruce Norris had enough of Adams and “retired” him.  Adams  accepted the position as founding president of the Central Hockey League. After some extremely rough years, where even making the playoffs was a challenge, the Wings didn’t win another Stanley Cup until 1997, with captain Steve Izerman and the boys, 43 years after the blockbuster deal that sent Terry Sawchuk packing following the  team’s 1955 Stanley Cup win.  The Canadiens took the reins and won  5 straight Stanley Cup championships to close the 1950’s decade. These were championships that Detroit should have had instead, Ted Lindsay related years later, had Adams not decimated the team with his reign of terror.

“Adams was a good salesman,” Lindsay admitted once in an interview, “but not a good hockey man.”

When you look at the facts behind all the mentioned trades, how can anyone disagree? Now the Detroit Red Wings are one of the best run teams in the NHL, with 22 straight playoff appearances, along with 6 trips to the finals and 4 Cups. They have not drafted inside the top 20 since 1992, forcing the team to pull stars from the middle rounds. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Lidstrom, Thomas Holmstrom, and Jimmie Howard to name a few. There was no such thing as a draft in Adams’ day. However, he did have the benefit of head scout Carson Cooper, the best in the business. Carson knew his stuff, discovering Red Kelly, Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe, Terry Sawchuk, Harry Lumley and Alex Delvecchio in particular and sending them to the big club. Lindsay and  Kelly were unique finds,  snapped right off the Toronto St. Mikes College roster, a junior team (along with the Toronto Marlies) sponsored by the Toronto Maple Leafs. When the Leafs left the two players off their protection list, thinking they weren’t good enough for the NHL, Carson grabbed them in a blink. Then Adams fired Carson in 1953 for no apparent reason other than perhaps jealously. Cooper loved his job, and was crushed. It could be that Adams wanted to look like the real genius from then on. But it didn’t work out for Adams. By the time he made the Kelly-Reaume deal, there were no more stars in the farm system and no more Carson Coopers to find them.

To sum it up, in one decade, Jack Adams dealt away Hall of Famers Bert Olmstead, Glenn Hall, Ted Lindsay, Johnny Bucyk, Red Kelly, and Terry Sawchuk and received zilch in return, not to mention the fact he had minor league icon Guyle Fielder twice in the Wings radar scope and let him get away. Adams did get Sawchuk back, although, like a sequel to a great movie,  he was a shadow of his former self the second time around in a Detroit uniform. It’s interesting to note that excluding Fielder, the above mentioned players combined for a whopping total of 13 Stanley Cups wins after being traded away by Adams. What does that tell you about his trades?

Today, there is an NHL trophy named after Adams, the Jack Adams Award, but it’s for “coach of the year.”  Adams was a good coach. No dispute there.  It was his deals as GM—especially in his last few years—that left a lot to be desired.

To me, the “Trader Jack” tag only meant one thing…Adams made a lot of trades. But most of them were a whole lot of nothing or just plain bad.


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