By tying the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-3 in regulation time on 9 April 2014, the Detroit Red Wings--despite over 400 injury games--were officially in the NHL playoffs for the twenty-third consecutive season. With three games left to play, they only needed one point. And they got it, although they lost 4-3 in the shootout. Following that, they took the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, then lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Boston Bruins in five games.
Oh well, there’s always next year.
Detroit is “Hockeytown.” It’s well named. The Red Wings are the most successful American NHL team with 11 Stanley Cups. Only the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens have more. The Red Wings began as the expansion Detroit Cougars in 1926-27, brought intact to the NHL when the Victoria Cougars of Western Hockey League folded and were placed on the selling block by Lester and Frank Patrick. On paper, Detroit appeared to have an instant contender because the Victoria lineup had won a Stanley Cup in 1925 and were runner-ups in 1926, the last two years that the two professional leagues competed for the top prize before the NHL sole-owned the Cup. But it didn’t work out as planned for the new NHL Detroit team. Out of the playoffs the first couple of years in the Motor City, the Cougars made it in their third year, but bowed out in the first round. Changing the team’s name to the Falcons in 1930 didn’t help much either. They needed more.
It was not until grain millionaire Jim Norris bought the squad in the summer of 1932 that changes were made for the better. The team suddenly had the money needed for coach-GM Jack Adams to build a team with. Norris also changed the name to the Red Wings and the logo to the now-familiar winged wheel, a perfect symbol for the Motor City. Similar to the modern Wings, Norris’ Wings then ripped off their first 23-year run of excellence, starting in 1935-36 by winning back-to-back Stanley Cups. From then until 1957-58, the Wings played in 13 Stanley Cup finals, winning seven of them. Their last 20 seasons were all topped by playoff appearances. By the way, they just happened to finish first in the regular season every year that they won the seven Stanley Cups. Adams coached from 1927-28 until 1946-47, then stayed on as GM until 1962. He was the winningest coach in Wings history until current coach Mike Babcock shot past him just recently on April 8, the day before they made the playoffs for the twenty-third straight time.
The best of the early years by far was the stretch from 1949-50 to 1956-57 when Adams’ redshirts finished first seven straight years and eight out of nine. Four Stanley Cup appearances and three wins to boot. These were the Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay years. According to one opposing player, every time the two mega stars stepped out on the ice, “We were already down two goals.” These years were highlighted by Howe’s three straight seasons with 40-plus goals and four straight Art Ross trophies as the top point getter.
The greatest team in this stretch was the 1951-52 lineup, which Jack Adams called at the time, “The best team in my 25 years in the NHL.” Today, it is considered one of the Top 10 best teams ever, one of those teams that totally dominated the league in their day. Coached by Tommy Ivan, they were the first NHL team to collect 100 points back-to-back. With a 44-14-12 record, they were 22 points better than the second-place Montreal Canadiens. Their for-against was a league-best 215-133. In net, Terry Sawchuk played all 70 games, and finished with a 1.90 goals against average and 12 shutouts. They had the mighty production line of Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel--one, two, and ninth in scoring. Four players were on the First All-Star team--Lindsay, Howe, Sawchuk, and defenseman Red Kelly. Then they dominated the playoffs as the first team ever to go undefeated, sweeping Toronto and Montreal. In the games on Detroit’s home ice--the Olympia--Sawchuk shutout the opposition all four times.
In 1970, my Junior B coach in Regina, Bill Folk, was called up to play four regular-season games as an extra defenseman that season with Detroit as a young, 24-year-old, before being sent back down to Indianapolis of the AHL. In 1952-53, he played eight more games as a Red Wing. Later on, he became a star in the Western Hockey League, playing in Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Spokane and Vancouver. Those 12 games were his extent as an NHLer. Unfortunately, he was one of those many players born just too soon to cut the six-team NHL. Back then, at any given time, there were only 30 defensemen combined in the entire NHL. Two pairs of two, plus a spare on each team. Hard to fathom, isn’t it, in this day and age.
A key member of Red Wing management was super-scout Carson Cooper, an ex-right winger who spent nine seasons in the NHL. The best judge of talent in the NHL, Carson knew his stuff, discovering Red Kelly, Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Bill Quackenbush, plus goalies Harry Lumley and Terry Sawchuk, in particular, and sending them to the big club. This was before the amateur draft, of course. All are Hall of Famers today. 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, according to some Detroit people in the know. It could be that Adams wanted to look like the real genius from then on. Cooper died two years later, a crushed man, two weeks short of his 56th birthday. Following several disastrous deals made by Adams, the Wings finished dead last in 1958-59. Their first 23-year reign over.
The Wings managed four trips to the Stanley Cup finals in the early to mid-1960s. But no wins. Then came the dry years. From the last season of the six-team NHL in 1966-67 to 1982-83, the Red Wings made the playoffs only twice! They were the laughingstock of the league. Fans were calling them the “Dead Things” and the “Dead Wings.” But the cavalry came to the rescue in the form of Mike Ilitch purchasing the club in 1982. He raffled off cars at Joe Louis Arena home games to attract the crowds. But even more vital to the cause, he hired Jim Devellano of New York Islanders fame as GM, who in turn chose Steve Yzerman as the Wings first-round pick in the 1983 draft. Then Devellano hired Scotty Bowman as coach in 1993. What came next? Three Stanley Cups during the Bowman-Yzerman years. Devellano handed the reins to assistant GM Ken Holland in 1997 to become Senior VP, and Bowman retired from coaching after the 2002 championship.
Since Yzerman’s retirement in 2005, the Wings are still the class of the league. So, how do they keep it going? Is there some secret formula? Perhaps, there is.
Part Two--(After the Break) Next Week…