Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - One on One with Jack Adams
One on One Treasure Chest Pinnacle
One on One with Jack Adams

24 NOVEMBER 2006
Jack Adams has come to be known for his exceptional talents as a hockey executive, but is, in fact, an Honoured Member of the Hockey Hall of Fame as a player, inducted in 1959.

John James Adams was born in Fort William, Ontario, part of Thunder Bay, today, on June 14, 1895. The son of a railway engineer, Jack was able to save enough money to buy his first pair of skates by doing odd jobs, including selling newspapers in local taverns. Adams became a rink rat, shoveling the ice at the local rink in return for free skating. By the age of 15, he quit school and began working in grain elevators. "I was a skinny kid and I worked ten hours a day for 22 cents an hour," he recalled. "But that wasn't for me. I wanted to see the world."

Although it wasn't particularly exotic, Adams was 19 when he left home to play hockey. "I moved to Calumet, Michigan to play in the Northern Michigan Senior Hockey League — a real blood and thunder deal," he recalled. Referred to by a journalist as a 'bobcat on blades,' Adams was playing against men in a survival-of-the-fittest league. After a particularly nasty scrap, Jack was admitted to the hospital, where his sister was a nurse. She didn't recognize the battered patient as her own brother. "Jack, hockey will kill you if you don't quit," she scolded. "And it's changing you!" Adams learned to fight in order to survive. It was a trait he would employ throughout his entire hockey career, both as a player and administrator.

After playing with the Calumet Miners in 1915-16, Adams first joined the Peterborough 247th in 1916-17, then the senior Sarnia Sailors in 1917-18. While scoring 15 goals in just 6 games with Sarnia, Adams attracted the attention of several professional teams, finally signing with the Toronto Arenas and making his debut that season in the newly-formed National Hockey League. That year, the Arenas downed the Vancouver Millionaires for the Stanley Cup, although Adams was ineligible to play in the final because he had joined the team too late in the season.

Adams played for the Arenas again during 1918-19, but was lured to join the Vancouver Millionaires in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association after receiving a desperate telegram from team owner Frank Patrick. "Our team in very bad shape," it read. "Skinner has twisted knee cartilage and Duncan with shoulder ligaments both out of game for month or more. I would greatly appreciate if you would make a big effort to come and help us out. Situation desperate or would not wire you." Adams joined the west coast team and scored 9 goals and 6 assists, good for seventh place in league scoring. In 1920-21, he finished fourth, firing 17 goals and adding 12 assists in 24 games. Curiously, Jack did something no other player has done before or since. In the final game of the regular season, Jack was credited with a goal he scored into his own net! For unknown reasons, after Adams accidentally put the puck in his own goal, the referee awarded him with the goal. The Millionaires finished first overall that season, then went on to be PCHA playoff champions, but lost the Stanley Cup final to the NHL's Ottawa Senators.

1921-22 was an exceptional season for the young Adams. Jack won the league scoring championship with 26 goals and 4 assists in 24 games. Vancouver again finished first during the regular season, and the Millionaires again won the playoff championship. That year, Vancouver was defeated by the NHL's Toronto St. Pats for the Stanley Cup.

Adams intended to quit hockey when he got married in 1923, but a lucrative offer from the St. Pats took him back to Ontario for the 1922-23 season. He finished third in scoring that season, and also coached the team during the latter part of the season. In the next three seasons with the St. Pats, Adams finished eighth in scoring in 1923-24, sixth in 1924-25 and sixth again in 1925-26. Jack was sold to the Ottawa Senators prior to the 1926-27 season and helped that team to a first place finish. That season, the Stanley Cup became exclusive to the NHL, and the Senators defeated the Boston Bruins to win the cherished trophy. Many decades later, teammate King Clancy stated, "Jack Adams was an inspiration to me as a player, a coach and a manager, even if he was tough on me as a referee." After the Senators win on April 13, 1927, each of the team members received an 18-carat gold ring with 14 diamonds in the shape of an 'O.'

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The one-year-old Detroit Falcons franchise suffered through a horrendous maiden season. Their arena, the Olympia, had not yet been completed, and the team had played its home games at the Windsor Arena. With fan support numbering in the hundreds instead of the thousands, the Cougars won just 12 of their 44 games under coach Art Duncan. The team tried unsuccessfully to hire Lester Patrick, who had coached the Cougars in the Western Hockey League, but then, on the recommendation of Frank Calder, hired Jack Adams as coach and manager on May 16, 1927. "He is a very smart young fellow," commented Calder. "He feels he's nearing the end of his playing career. He knows the game. He'd like to continue in hockey and I think he'll make a real good coach."

That fall, the Cougars moved into the Olympia, but the newly-hired Adams always held an eternal grudge against Windsor for the city's lack of support. Adams believed that Windsorites should belong to the Red Wing family because of their proximity to Detroit, but felt betrayed because, for decades, the Canadian city was a staunch supporter of the Toronto Maple Leafs. To strengthen ties, Adams put Detroit's affiliate junior club in Windsor in the latter half of the 1940's, giving starts to Al Arbour, Glenn Hall, Larry Hillman, Marcel Pronovost, Terry Sawchuk, Glen Skov, Larry and Johnny Wilson and many others. The hope was two-fold -- it allowed the parent club to oversee its young chattel but it was also hoped to develop a body of fans who would embrace ties between the two cities. But in 1950, the Red Wings played an exhibition contest for charity at Windsor Arena, paying their own expenses. When the Wings skated out before the game, they were booed by the Windsor fans. When later informed, Adams went into a rage and later moved his junior franchise to Hamilton.

The Cougars suffered from a lack of finances during its first several years of operation, and as a result, the on-ice product was not very good. For a few years, Jack worked for the bank because the team had gone bankrupt. "If Howie Morenz could have been bought for $1.69, we couldn't have afforded him," Jack shrugged.

Although Jack got the team into the playoffs in his second season behind the bench, the Cougars were knocked out almost right away. In 1930-31, the team changed its name to the Falcons, but the change had no effect on the team's fortunes.

What did, however, was new ownership. During the summer of 1932, grain magnate James Norris bought the team. Renaming the franchise the Red Wings, Norris insisted that Adams remain with the team. "You can have this job on probation for one year to see how you make out," he was told by the new owner. The newly-named team demonstrated a better product on the ice, too, reaching the Stanley Cup semi-finals that season.

It took some time, but Adams sold the game of hockey in the Detroit market, employing a strong scouting staff and a farm system that nurtured young talent before breaking them into the NHL. Once the team had developed a competitive line-up, the city embraced the team and the game, and Adams paraded through season after season of winners.

In 1936, the Red Wings beat the Montreal Maroons in the longest hockey game on record, ending in the sixth overtime period. "I was half asleep on the bench," recalled Jack. "Mr. (James) Norris was sitting on the rail seat next to me. I decided desperate measures were necessary if we were going to win it. I broke up our lines and put Hec Kilrea and Mud Bruneteau out there. I figured Hec had good legs and Mud was the surest shot. They were younger and seemed to be fresher than anyone else on the team. I can see Mud yet as he cut in from the right wing and put the puck in the far side past Lorne Chabot. He shot it right along the ice." The Red Wings moved into the final and defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs for the Stanley Cup, the first in franchise history. The victory was even more remarkable as the Red Wings had finished in last place just one year prior.

Mud Bruneteau, who scored the winning goal on March 25, 1936, in the longest playoff game in NHL history, recalled Adams' benevolence. "Once, on a trip and dead broke, I received a telegram that my father had died. Adams pulled a roll of bills out of his pocket, handed them to me, told me to forget about hockey and get home where I belonged. How can you do enough for a man like that?"

The Wings repeated as Stanley Cup winners in 1937. "For the greatest all around performance, you can't overlook Syd Howe's play in the 1937 series," mentioned Adams, referring to the semi-final against the Canadiens. "Howe played defense, left wing and centre in the final game of that series." Detroit beat Montreal 2-1 in the third overtime period of that contest.

A fierce competitor, Adams sparred with anyone in opposition, including fans and officials. "Rotund as a hand grenade and just as explosive," was how he was described by Time Magazine. "He was everyone's enemy during a game and a good friend when it was over," stated Frank Selke, manager of the Montreal Canadiens. "He helped build hockey to what it is from the horse and buggy days."

Adams remained coach and general manager of the Detroit Red Wings until 1947 when he gave up the coaching duties to Tommy Ivan so he could concentrate on managing. Beginning in 1948-49, the Red Wings finished first seven times in a row. In his thirty-five years with the Red Wings, Jack's teams won the Stanley Cup on seven occasions, and missed the playoffs but seven times. The franchise participated in post season play every season from 1939 to 1959.

Jack Adams took great pride in the teams he constructed. Lew Walter, a writer with the Detroit Times, noted, "Jack Adams made more winning teams out of average talent than any manager in the game." But through great scouting and loyal development, as well as the occasional trade, Adams was able to put together a dynasty. "Our 1951-52 champions that won the playoffs in eight straight games was the greatest hockey club ever assembled," he boasted. That squad included Hall of Famers Sid Abel, Alex Delvecchio, Gordie Howe, Red Kelly, Ted Lindsay, Marcel Pronovost and Terry Sawchuk. Each of them was scouted and signed by Detroit under Jack Adams. In commenting on Howe, who had been overlooked by Lester Patrick of the New York Rangers, Adams claimed, "Picking him out of a bunch of kids at training camp and watching him develop has been my greatest thrill," and called Howe "the greatest player in the history of the game." Gordie Howe added, "Mr. Adams was like a second father to me. When I joined the Red Wings, I was only 16 and he looked after me as though I was his own son."

Many felt that the team should have won more Stanley Cup championships than they did. Most of his moves were shrewd, but not all worked out successfully for the Red Wings. When Ted Lindsay was named captain, part of his role was to represent his teammates in discussions with management. Although no one could question Lindsay's loyalty to the Red Wings on the ice, Adams felt that his captain had not shown loyalty, and the two never spoke except on business. When Adams discovered that Ted Lindsay was president of a new players' association, he wasted little time in dumping his captain in Chicago.

It was often stated that Adams' ego got in the way of sound decision-making. In 1959-60, Adams looked to move Red Kelly, who he felt was past his prime. After a stillborn deal to the Rangers, Kelly ended up with Toronto, and went on to play more than seven seasons as a Maple Leaf, helping the franchise win four Stanley Cup championships. In return for Kelly, Detroit obtained journeyman defenseman Marc Reaume, who played but 47 games for the Red Wings. "Certainly, everybody makes mistakes on trades, but no matter what you give up, the trade is a success if you get what you want. Then it's all over. I've never had regrets over any deal we've made," said Jack. But Adams maintained that youth was paramount to success. He believed that older players commanded too much money, were prone to injuries and lost much of their moxy. "If a player gets too big for our club, he doesn't belong on it," he added.

Jack had wanted to choose his own time to retire and select his successor, but was retired on full salary by the Red Wings at the end of the 1961-62 season. "After being happily engaged in professional hockey for 44 years, I now feel that the time has come for me to bow out," he announced at the time. But there was more to the story, and every shred of evidence points to the decision to retire being made for him by Bruce Norris, owner and president of the Detroit Red Wings. "It was pretty much my own decision," Jack added cryptically. Adams had his own succession plan in place, wanting Bud Poile, who was then coaching Detroit's Western Hockey League team in Edmonton, to be named general manager of the Detroit club, but moments after the retirement announcement was made, Bruce Norris announced that he had chosen Sid Abel to replace Adams. "In my early youth, I can remember meeting Jack, as he had a great affinity for children," stated Norris. "Jolly Jack became a by-word in our life and I felt that knowing him as intimately as I did was one of the real highlights in my career. He was as dedicated a man to his cause as I have ever met, but even so, he had a great personality and understanding of the people with whom he was in constant contact. Jack Adams was a complete man in the field he knew and loved and his contribution to the sport can never be equalled."

Jack left the franchise in great shape. That spring, although the Red Wings missed the playoffs, both of their junior franchises faced each for the Memorial Cup. The eventual winners, the Hamilton Red Wings, featured Paul Henderson, Lowell Macdonald and Pit Martin. The Edmonton Oil Kings included Glen Sather.

Adams left a phenomenal legacy, which included seven Stanley Cup championships, twelve first place finishes and enshrinement in the Fort William Hall of Fame, the Michigan Hall of Fame, the Detroit Red Wings Hall of Fame and in 1959, the Hockey Hall of Fame. He is the only person to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup as a player, as a coach and as a general manager.

In 1966, the New York Rangers presented the Lester Patrick Trophy to be awarded to recognize outstanding service to hockey in the United States. Jack Adams was the inaugural recipient. In 1974, an annual award was presented which would honour the NHL coach judged to have contributed most to his team's success. The prestigious trophy was named the Jack Adams Award.

Adams undertook an ambitious new job in 1963 when he was selected as president of the Central Professional Hockey League, a league he helped found. "I'm not ancient," he chuckled. "I feel fine about this new job. I think I can do some good for the league." Using the formula with which he had been so successful in Detroit, Jack stated, "The purpose of this league will be to develop players. Youth is the lifeblood of the NHL." Among those who stepped into the NHL from the CPHL are Gerry Cheevers, Phil Esposito, Serge Savard and Rogie Vachon.

Then, on May 1, 1968, while working at his desk, dealing with matters as president of the Central Professional Hockey League, Jack Adams was stricken with a fatal heart attack and died. He was 73 years old.

On April 27, just days before his death, and in what proved to be his final official act in hockey, Adams had been in Fort Worth to watch the final game of the CPHL championship series. He presented the league's championship trophy to the Tulsa Oilers. The trophy they received was, fittingly, the Jack Adams Cup.

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and On-line Features at the Hockey Hall of Fame.