The high spots of a lifetime with the Red Wings
My 43 years in hockey: part II
For over 30 years Jack Adams has been running the Red Wings of Detroit, trading away players, fighting officials, and winning NHL championships as no other hockey man ever has. Here he hits the high points for one last, vivid time
THE TURNING POINT in my life came one morning late in the spring of 1935 as I walked without enthusiasm to the Olympia. This was the Depression era. the rink had gone into receivership, and there were rumors the hockey club would fold.
The girl on the switchboard greeted my glum face with a smile.
“There’s a long-distance call for you from Chicago,’’ she told me. “The new owner wants to talk to you.”
“New owner!” I exclaimed. “Who?”
“Mr. James Norris, the grain millionaire,” she said.
Several hours later I went to the trust company in Detroit that had taken over the rink. Mr. Norris had arrived from Chicago to meet the bankers. 1 was shown into an office where a big bald gruff man with heavy black eyebrows, round features and a wide nose was sitting behind a desk.
James Norris Sr. introduced himself and told me to sit down. He said hockey had long been a favored sideline of his, dating from his early years in Montreal, where he’d played for the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, the famed Winged Wheelers.
“We'll call this team the Wings,” Mr. Norris said, “in fact, we'll call it the Red Wings. Our emblem will be a winged wheel. That will be appropriate in Detroit. And I’ll give you a year in your job — on probation.”
We didn’t sign a contract — in fact. I've never had one in all my 33 years at Detroit. But what I got from Mr. Norris, instead, w'as a bankroll and one boss — a welcome change from the multiple ownership that used to debate team policy in the
broad lounge of the Detroit Athletic Club, worrying about costs, going deep into debt, and finally failing.
In the early years of the Depression we were lucky if we drew 80,000 people a season. The team traveled in day coaches and munched sandwiches on the trains. Frank Sheppard, one of our forwards, once said he’d figured out a way to retire with an income. “I’ll set up a string of hotdog stands at the towns where the train stops," he mused. "The meals you guys eat. I’ll be rich.”
The team was called the Cougars then, a legacy from the Victoria Cougars whose franchise was transferred to Detroit when the Pacific Coast league folded in 1926. It wasn't a popular name and when one of the newspapers conducted a contest we selected Falcons. Any good that might have done was voided by mediocre teams and hard times. In that bleak period we were literally giving our tickets away. It wasn’t that the game itself was unpopular, it was simply that people had no money. This was illustrated early in the Thirties when we played an exhibition game to help a fund being conducted by Detroit’s mayor, Frank Murphy. There was no admission charge, as such; people delivered food or clothing to the fireballs and got tickets in exchange. We attracted a capacity crowd of around 13,000. Just before game time we heard there was a guy driving up and down Woodward Avenue outside the rink. He had five bags of potatoes and wanted in. We took his potatoes and gave him standing room.
In this atmosphere, it was difficult to build a hockey club. If Howie Morenz had been available for $1.98 we couldn’t CONTINUED ON PAGE 34
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The game is faster now. Goalers see more shots in 15 minutes than old-timers saw in an hour
have afforded him. Speaking literally, we had a chance to get a fine centre. Bill Thoms, for $600 but we simply didn’t have the money.
So Mr. Norris’ arrival in 1935 was the turning point in Detroit, although I must say that the fastest and maybe the best deal f ever made came a matter of weeks before he bought the club. One cold March morning in Montreal I was standing on the steps of the Windsor Hotel with Frank Patrick, who was running the Boston club then. They’d been eliminated from the playoffs, our bunch hadn’t even made them, and Frank and I were in Montreal to watch the old Maroons play Toronto in the Stanley Cup final. The wind was howling up the Windsor Street hill from the station below the hotel, but we were oblivious to it. We were talking hockey, oddly enough.
“If I had Cooney Weiland,” Patrick said of our slick little centre, "my club would be in this final.”
“If I had Marly Barry,” I said of Boston’s big solemn centre. "Detroit would win the Stanley Cup.”
We looked at each other for a moment, then we chuckled. We shook hands to seal the bargain, a couple of free-wheeling paupers.
I never made a better deal. We put Barry with Herbie Lewis and Larry Aurie to form a line that led us to the Stanley Cup the next season, as I’d predicted with more bravura than conviction on the hotel steps. The Norris money didn’t hurt us in the climb from obscurity to the championship. I paid $35.000, a fortune in those days, to get a player I’d long admired, Syd Howe, from the St. Louis Flyers, and we paid about half that to Toronto for Hec Kilrea. With these changes we won our division and qualified to meet the Montreal Maroons, who'd won the other division. The mid-Thirties was an era of two sections in the NHL, the Canadian and the American, with the top three teams in each qualifying for the playoffs. Our playoff with Montreal was the most unforgettable of any preliminary in my time.
The series opened in the Montreal orum with Normie Smith, the little acrobat in our goal, engaging the big black-browed stoic Lome Chabot in the longest scoreless game on record. Regulation time produced marvelous work by the pair, and then the game settled into a test of endurance, hour after hour. Since the first goal scored would end the game, the tension in the smoky Forum rose and fell and rose again, time after time. One o’clock came and then 2 o’clock and by now the ice was slashed and chipped and brutal on the players. At 2.25 1 looked along our bench for the strongest legs and I broke up lines to send out Syd Howe, Hec Kilrea and young Mud Bruneteau.
“Boys,” 1 told them, “let’s get some sleep. It’s now or never.”
Bruneteau got the goal that ended the longest game ever. The puck went into the net after 16 minutes and 30 seconds of the sixth 20-minute overtime period, just three and a half minutes short of three full games. The teams had played 176 minutes and 30 seconds in their six hours in the Forum. The goalkeepers were skillful but I’d have to say that poor ice conditions contributed most to the record. While I was riding in a cab along St. Catherine Street the following night for
the second game I winced at the possibility of a repetition. There wasn’t one that night — we beat the Maroons 3 to 0 in regulation time — but 1 realized we had a problem: Bad ice produced bad hockey that could be an ordeaLfor spectators as well as players.
It was two years before I solved this problem, and I got the idea in Paris, of all places. We toured France in the spring of 1938 with the Montreal Canadiens and one evening we went to a restaurant where the tables lined a sheet of ice for a curling exhibition. Afterward, attendants swept the ice with sheepskin brushes and then flooded it for the next show. That turned on the light. I discussed the ice-flooding plan with governors of the NHL and by the 1940-41 season flooding between periods was the rule. This, with such legislation as the centre red-line in 1943, speeded up play to an extent that convinces me there’ll never be an approach to our overtime record. The game is simply too fast now and too wide open to permit long scoreless stretches. Great as the modern goalkeepers are. you rarely see even a goal-less period and scoreless games are virtually extinct. Incidentally, today’s goalers are just about the most wonderful athletes in the world. They have to be agile, they have to have splitsecond reflexes and they have to have guts. They see more shots in 15 minutes than old-timers saw in an hour.
In the season of the long game we won our first Stanley Cup, capping my first — and last — year as a probationary coach and manager.
The bitterest blow of my career came six years later, again against Toronto in the Stanley Cup final. We won the first
three games and were leading in the fourth with 15 minutes to play, but lost it by a goal after some of the most incredible refereeing I have ever witnessed. Don Grosso, our centre, told me that the referee had said to him, “I’ll make damned sure that you guys don’t win this game.” In those first four games our club was assessed 135 minutes in penalties. We weren’t a particularly rough club that year. In the whole 48 games through the season we drew 440 minutes, only a fraction more than nine minutes a game. Yet the average leaped to almost 34 minutes in the playoffs.
When that fourth game ended three of my players, Eddie Wares, Grosso and Sid Abel, surrounded the referee. Mel Harwood. at the exit gate. I went across the ice after them to pull them away and was charged with belting the referee. Actually, I didn’t get within 10 feet of him in the scuffling. But the league president, Frank Calder, suspended me for the balance of the series, and fined Wares and Grosso $100 each. Toronto won that game and took the next three, the only time a team ever won the Stanley Cup in a series in which it had lost the first three games. To me, the series seemed to be controlled by the Toronto newspapers and Conn Smythe. Their influence on Calder provided my darkest moment in hockey. At the next NHL governors’ meeting 1 turned to the president. “You’re through persecuting me, my boy,” I told Calder. “I’m through being your patsy.”
After that, we began to get an even break. Whenever a controversy arose I always spoke my piece. In later years there were even charges around the league that / was influencing referees in Detroit.
That’s nonsense. In this league I want only the type of men who can referee exactly the same way in Detroit as they do in Toronto. If you find a guy who’ll give you something, then one time he’s going to stick it into you.
We expect to get penalties, all right, because we’re a rugged kind of hockey club. I’m not much for having on our club winners of the "gentleman’s prize,” the Lady Byng trophy. I like guys with the hard glow of dedication — men like Sid Abel, our present coach, and Gordie Howe, whom I call My Guy. Abel illustrated the kind of thing I mean in the Stanley Cup final of 1950 when the Rangers came up with a real hot club. Sid, incidentally, had been a left-winger for us when he played beside Wares and Grosso in that 1942 series but after he returned from overseas in 1945 I made him a centre because he had lots of heart and bad legs. I wanted the heart, but his legs couldn’t stand up to the driving skating required on left wing.
Abel was clearly played out as we wen' into a seventh game against the Rangers. Also, he was missing Gordie Howe on his right wing. Howe had been critically injured two weeks before. The Rangers were fired up for that seventh game in Detroit and they had a 3-to-2 lead with a few minutes left to play. I sent out Abel and Ted Lindsay and Gerry Couture, who’d scored 24 goals that season. Sid was sagging. I figured he might set up the other two, tired as he was.
Abel showed the heart I’ve been talking about. He was knocked-to his knees in front of the Ranger goal when a rebound came off Charlie Rayner’s pads. Unable to climb to his feet, Sid scored the tying goal on his knees. That kept us alive, and we won in overtime on a goal by Pete Babando.
Howe, as I’ve said many times, is the greatest all-around player I’ve ever seen. I’m a strong admirer of Rocket Richard. He’ll go down as one of the greats. But for pure versatility, high purpose and team contribution, my guy is the greatest. He has a marvelous temperament and he never changes. He’d have been a standout in any game he’d chosen. His build and his razor reflexes are ideally suited to athletics. Even now he occasionally works out with the Detroit Tigers and looks right at home on the baseball diamond. He was a gifted player when he was teamed with Lindsay and Abel but after they left and Gordie was teamed with any number of players, he maintained his unmatched standards. Last year, I remember, we put Gary Aldcorn, a boy we picked up from Toronto, beside Howe and one night I asked him how he liked it.
“It’s a cinch,” grinned Gary. “All I have to do is skate up and down; the other guys are all trying to keep Howe under control and I’m having a picnic.”
In 1952 when Gordie was shooting for 50 goals to tie Rocket’s record, I told Tommy Ivan to put him out there every chance he got in our last few games. Tommy did, but Gordie kept passing the puck to Abel. Finally Tommy asked him what the hell he was up to.
"01’ Boot has a bonus for 20 goals, you know,” Howe told him, using Abel’s nickname, Bootnose. “If he’s in front of that net he’s gonna get the puck.”
They both missed. Abel got 17 and Gordie wound up with 47. The next year he got 49. This last year, you know, he
scored his 1,000th point, the first man in hockey history to do it.
It’s a miracle that Howe is playing at ill. Before we played the Rangers in that 1950 final, we met Toronto in the semitinal, a tight and vicious series. Near the end of the first game in the Olympia. Toronto’s Ted Kennedy was carrying the puck near the boards. Howe sped toward him, cutting diagonally across the ice. A fraction of a second before the impact. Kennedy drew himself up. and Howe crashed headlong into the boards. Gordie lay limp on the ice, bleeding from his nose and eye. Later, in hospital, there was every indication he was dying. He was unconscious, vomiting, had a broken cheekbone and nose, and a brain specialist operated, boring a hole into his skull to remove fluid pressing on the brain. We paced the corridors all night. Even the next day his condition was critical.
But then he rallied and, incredibly, 12 days later, when we played the Rangers in that seventh game. Gordie was able to watch in the Olympia. And when Pete Babando scored the overtime goal that made us champions, the cheers during the Cup presentation were for Gordie.
"We want Howe!” chorused some 14,-
000 people, again and again.
With his head swathed in bandages, Howe made his way carefully across the ice to the presentation. People were cheering and crying in that pent-up emotional binge as Howe stood there, a little awkwardly. his head held at a self-depreciating and evasive angle that is typical of him every time the cheers ring down. It's a tableau I'll never forget.
Howe is one player who'll be at Detroit as long as he wants to stay. 1 know I’ve said that of two other players in the past, Ted Lindsay and Red Kelly, but in their cases things had a way of changing. I'm sure they never will in Howe’s instance. When Lindsay came to us from the Toronto St. Mike’s juniors in 1944 he was a fine boy, and he and Abel and Howe made a great forward line. Eventually, though, it became a question of whether we were going to run the club or he was, and in Lindsay’s last two seasons with us he and I didn’t have much to say to each other. After his 13th season with our club
1 decided to send him to Chicago where
he had three more good years before retiring last fall. When you make changes, you know down in your heart that you’re right even when the players involved have been around for a long time.
Kelly was in his 13th season, too, when it became apparent that he wasn’t the defenseman he'd once been. We were battling for that fourth playoff position late last season when an opportunity arose to acquire Bill Gadsby from the Rangers. I figured Gadsby. a first-team all-star the year before, cotdd give us the defensive strength we needed in our late run. By
coincidence. Kelly was quoted in a national publication in Canada as saying he'd played part of the previous season on a broken ankle. That story, and the resultant furor in the press, didn’t influence my thinking in offering Kelly to the Rangers in the Gadsby deal. 1 figured it was a good trade. But then Kelly refused to join the Rangers, nullifying the deal. When Toronto offered us Marc Reaume for Red we were .ready to do business because Reaume is seven years younger than Kelly and I figured he’d help us. I’ve often said that being a general man-
ager is not a job in which you win friends. You do the best you can and if you satisfy your boss and sleep nights you've done all right.
I suppose it’s true that no team in this game comes close to the Red Wings in the magnitude of big-name deals and in the sheer numbers of players peddled. I’ve broken up championship teams and we’ve gone right on winning. For instance, of the 22 players on our 1950 Stanley Cup team, 14 were gone when we won again in 1952. One year 1 even traded two firstteam NHL all-stars, Lindsay and Glenn
Hall, the goalkeeper. That was unprecedented. A couple of years ago we looked over the rosters of the six NHL clubs and their minor-league affiliates and discovered, even to our own surprise, that 96 players in the leagues had been Detroit property at one time or another.
I got the nickname Trader Jack by carrying out a club policy we stress to every kid we sign. We tell him that if he has NHL ability, he’ll make the NHL, that if he doesn’t make it with us he’ll make it with one of the other clubs. We don’t keep ’em buried down on the farm, and if we have to choose between a boy of 22 and one of 27 we’ll keep the kid every time.
There’s a second important point to our trading philosophy: we’re in the entertainment business. The four American teams in our league don’t have the soft touch they have in Toronto and Montreal, with the built-in interest of a national game. We have to sell our product, game by game. Since each club comes into the Olympia seven times a season, a bad team can chase away customers. Sometimes, making a trade to sell our product, I’ve lost some good boys.
One fall day six years ago I picked up the phone and called Muzz Patrick, the Ranger general manager, in New York.
“You’ve got to come in here seven times this winter,” I reminded him, “and I hope you aren’t planning to bring back those old women you had last year.”
Muzz laughed and asked what I had in mind.
1 told him we had a boy at Edmonton, Bronco Horvath, who’d set a scoring record in the Western league with 50 goals and 60 assists in 67 games, a truly remarkable record.
“This fellow looks ready,” I said, “but we’re loaded with centremen. Do you want to take a look?”
Muzz said he did. But while Horvath led the NHL in scoring through most of last season, he wasn’t ready then. In fact, the Rangers sent him to the minors after one year, and then traded him to the Canadiens who let him go to Boston. Now, after four seasons there, he’s one of the league’s fine players.
Losing a good hockey player is a chance you have to take in making deals but if I
expected to get the advantage in every one I make, people would stop doing business with me. I figure I’m responsible for starting 99 percent of the trades we make. It’s seldom that anybody approaches me first. And, anyway, I have an answer for my critics: No team in hockey can match Detroit’s 12 league championships over the last 25 years, and nobody, not even the current Montreal Canadiens with their five straight Stanley Cups, is even close to our record of seven successive league championships from 1948-49 through 1954-55. In other words, we couldn’t have been hurt too much by the controversial trades.
Looking back over 43 years in this game, I find I’d change nothing. Each year, it seems to me, hockey becomes a finer spectacle, a better game. Only Howie Morenz and Eddie Shore from out of the past belong on any all-star team these days. Why, there are men sitting on the bench these evenings who probably would have been great stars in the old days. Players could shoot then, but they couldn’t skate with the boys we have today.
I’ve loved every minute of it. If God took me tomorrow, I’d change nothing. I often think of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s dying statement, “I regret nothing.”