Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - One on One with Jim Devellano
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One on One with Jim Devellano

28 February 2012
In 1990, Jim Devellano was promoted to vice president of the Detroit Red Wings while serving a second stint as general manager from 1994 to 1997
In 1990, Jim Devellano was promoted to vice president of the Detroit Red Wings while serving a second stint as general manager from 1994 to 1997.
(Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)
Born James Devellano on January 18, 1943, Jimmy Devellano took a most curious route from his hometown of Toronto, Ontario to the Great Hall of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

While harbouring the same dreams of hockey glory as his peers, Jimmy Devellano left high school before graduating in order to work in the 'schmatta' business, earning 80 cents an hours in the garment district of Toronto. He later worked as a claims adjuster for the government. But while he toiled at these jobs during the day, his real passion was hockey, and he spent his evenings coaching and watching hockey games in the Toronto area.

"When the St. Louis Blues were awarded an expansion franchise in early 1966, I was a 24-year-old man living in Toronto going to hockey games every night of the week just because I loved hockey," he recalls. "I found an angel and that angel was Lynn Patrick. He was the general manager of the St. Louis Blues."

After existing as a six-team league from 1942-43 to 1966-67, the National Hockey League expanded to twelve teams for the start of the 1967-68 season. Joining the Blues as expansion franchises were the Los Angeles Kings, the Minnesota North Stars, the Oakland Seals, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The six new teams played in the Western Division and the 'Original Six' teams remained together in the Eastern Division.

In 1983, his first draft with Detroit, Jim Devellano and the Red Wings selected Steve Yzerman in the first round.
In 1983, his first draft with Detroit, Jim Devellano and the
Red Wings selected Steve Yzerman in the first round.
(Detroit Red Wings)
"I had no background in the game and I needed an opportunity to show somebody that I could select players," Jim admits. "There is a lot of hockey in the Toronto area."

With no practical experience but fuelled by passion for the game, Devellano devised a way to get his foot in the door. "I wrote Lynn Patrick a letter and told him I'd like to scout for the St. Louis Blues in the Toronto area. I was single and had a lot of time to go to a lot of games and I offered to do it for nothing. He took me up on it. He hired me and after one year of scouting for the Blues for free, he thought enough of my work that he put me on the payroll."

The Blues won the Western Division and faced the Eastern Division champs, the Montreal Canadiens, for the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1968, and while they were swept in four games, the Blues proved to be formidable competition.

Through 45 years and counting working in the NHL, Jim Devellano has been part of seven Stanley Cup championships.
Through 45 years and counting working in the NHL, Jim Devellano has been part of seven Stanley Cup championships. (Detroit Red Wings)
That summer, Jimmy put forward his player recommendations for the Blues to consider in the 1968 Amateur Draft, the precursor to the NHL Entry Draft. "There was a goaltender playing for the Toronto Marlboros by the name of Gary Edwards. I pushed and recommended Gary and they drafted him and he went on to play in the NHL." Edwards was drafted in the first round, sixth overall, by St. Louis, and enjoyed a long career in the NHL, with stops that also included the Los Angeles Kings, the Cleveland Barons/Minnesota North Stars, the Edmonton Oilers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. In 1974-75 while playing with the Kings, Edwards and crease-mate Rogatien Vachon were runners-up for the Vezina Trophy for best goals-against average.

"After year one, I went from being the Blues' Toronto-area scout to being their Ontario scout." The Blues faced the Canadiens for the Cup again in 1969 and reached the final against the Boston Bruins in 1970. "Working with the St. Louis Blues gave me the opportunity to meet a young coach by the name of Scotty Bowman. I got to talk a lot of hockey with him. We became good friends and many, many years later, I would end up hiring him in Detroit."

In 1972, Devellano's career took an unexpected turn. "After being with the Blues for five years, believe it or not, I was fired by the Head Scout, Frank Mario. It was more of a personality conflict than having anything to do with my work, as I would later prove. Lucky for me, I got another break. Expansion was going to take place again in 1972 and the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames were going to join the NHL. I got in touch with the Islanders' general manager, Bill Torrey, and he checked me out with a few people and I got a job with the Islanders. In fact, I got a promotion. I was hired as their Eastern Canada scout after being the Ontario scout with St. Louis."

In 1982, the Detroit Red Wings offered Jim Devellano the role of general manager.
In 1982, the Detroit Red Wings offered Jim
Devellano the role of general manager.
(Detroit Red Wings)
The Islanders, with first overall pick in the 1973 Draft, selected Denis Potvin, who had been scouted by Devellano. "I had a very good rapport with Bill Torrey. After our first year, he was looking for a coach and I suggested a guy I had known as both a player and a coach in St. Louis — Al Arbour. He was hired and the rest is history."

The Islanders methodically pieced together a terrific roster. "After two years as the Islanders' Eastern Canada scout, I became their head scout. By the end of my ten-year tenure there, I had become the assistant general manager. We would win the Stanley Cup in our eighth, ninth and tenth years." Jimmy would have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup as a scout in 1980 and 1981, and as Assistant General Manager/Director of Scouting in 1982.

After the third Stanley Cup championship, the Detroit Red Wings came calling, offering Devellano the role of general manager in 1982. "The Red Wings had fallen on terribly bad times in the early 1980s, and Mike Ilitch purchased the club from Bruce Norris. The Norris family had owned the Red Wings for 50 years. The team was really bad. They were down to 2,100 season tickets. The Ilitches were hopeful people in Detroit. They were looking for a general manager and because they were new to the National Hockey League, they did a lot of checking around. After they did their due diligence, I was lucky enough to be their first general manager in 1982."

The renaissance of the Red Wings didn't happen overnight. Devellano and his management team worked diligently and, slowly but surely, the team's fortunes began to change. "The 1980s were still a struggle in my early years, although we were better. To simplify it, we had two outstanding drafts in the 1980s. The 1983 NHL Entry Draft and the 1989 draft really gave us the nucleus that allowed our team to become outstanding.

"In 1983, my first draft with Detroit, we got lucky and with our first selection, took Steve Yzerman. It gave us a young franchise player and in that same draft, we got Bob Probert and Joe Kocur, who became two of the toughest players in the league. We got a lot of toughness out of that draft as well as skill with Steve Yzerman and another player we picked up, Petr Klima. That was a pretty good haul." In 1983-84, the Red Wings made the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, and only the second time since 1969-70.

"We continued to peck away in the drafts," Jimmy explains. "We picked up some free agents. We were better — a little more interesting and a little more competitive -- but we weren't yet great. The 1989 Draft probably goes down as the best draft in the history of the National Hockey League. We got Mike Sillinger in the first round, Bob Boughner in the second and then picked up Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Dallas Drake and Vladimir Konstantinov. That draft propelled us into the 1990s and 2000s. That was a draft for the ages. It really set us up and so many years after that draft, we are still living on the back of Nicklas Lidstrom."

Jim Devellano and Steve Yzerman along with the Conn Smythe Trophy, The Stanley Cup and the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl.
Jim Devellano and Steve Yzerman along with the Conn Smythe Trophy, The Stanley Cup and the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl.
Detroit finished first in their division in 1987-88 and 1988-89, then again in 1991-92, 1993-94, 1994-95 and 1995-96. During that time, in 1990, Devellano was promoted to vice-president and Bryan Murray was hired as general manager. Jimmy served a second stint as GM from 1994 to 1997.

The Red Wings evolved from the 'Dead Things' to a dynasty, winning the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. Explaining how the franchise has consistently been among the best at harvesting hockey talent, Jimmy explains, "Our scouts have been with us a long time. We are careful to pick players knowing their backgrounds." Of specific note is the success in uncovering European hockey talent. "Back in about 1989, we hired a scout named Hakan Andersson as our European scout. He really dug up a lot of good European players late in the draft. No other team was working over in Europe to the degree that the Red Wings were, so we got in early and got a leg up. Hakan was able to come up with some gems for us. Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom and Henrik Zetterberg are just a few of the excellent players he helped us come up with, and that's the reason we've been able to stay competitive for so long. When you're drafting guys in the fourth, fifth or sixth round that can make your team and are star players, it's worth a fortune, and that's what we've got out of Europe with Hakan. We haven't had a draft pick in the top ten since 1991."

In 2010, Jimmy Devellano's long, successful career was recognized with induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builders' Category. "It was quite a thrill. It's not easy to get in. I thought of the honour as a culmination of almost 45 years of a successful career, being in the league with only three teams during that time." He adds, "I always reflect back on all the terrific people that I was involved with or, when I was in authority, the people I surrounded myself, people like Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, Bill Torrey, Ken Holland, Mike Ilitch and Hakan Andersson. I've been fortunate to work with good, solid, hardworking people. All of those people and so many others helped me earn the honour. As a Builder, you don't earn those honours on your own. I had some dandies working with me through the years. I was very, very fortunate and I think back on all the help that I got."

From fan to fantasy, Jimmy Devellano's career has risen to the heights in hockey, but through it all, he has never lost the characteristic that guided his success — passion for the game.

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.