James Norris was the head of one of the NHL's most significant and powerful families. He transformed the state of professional hockey in Detroit and passed along his expertise to his three children who also became involved in the league.
Born in the Montreal suburb of Lachine, Norris played intermediate hockey with the Victorias in his hometown and later focused on the defence position with the McGill varsity squad. Norris also excelled at squash and tennis. He became a wealthy grain broker with strong business ties to Chicago.
As early as 1930, Norris had designs on bringing a second franchise to Chicago to compete with the Black Hawks. He felt they were an inferior operation and the many colourful battles in the press between Norris and Hawks' owner Colonel Frederic McLaughlin were legendary.
After being denied a franchise in Chicago, Norris purchased the Olympia Stadium and Falcons franchise in 1933. He changed the team sobriquet to Red Wings and began an aggressive campaign to improve the club's fortunes. Norris retained incumbent coach Jack Adams and gave him a much larger budget with which to work. On his coach's recommendation, he startled the hockey world by purchasing Scotty Bowman and Syd Howe from the struggling St. Louis Eagles club. In 1936, the team won the Stanley Cup and the following season became the first American franchise to repeat as champions.
During the 1930s, Norris' success in the Motor City was vital to the NHL which saw the once-proud Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons ruined by the economic crisis. He also purchased the St. Louis Arena and utilized a minor pro team there to develop players and give injury replacements a place to play.
One of the best-known traditions around the Red Wings was Jack Adams' phone call from the dressing room to the concerned owner. Norris was forced to avoid attending games because of a heart condition. When he succumbed to a heart attack in 1952 his daughter, Marguerite became the first woman president of an NHL franchise. His son James was already the head of the Chicago Black Hawks and his other son Bruce eventually took over from Marguerite in Detroit. After James Sr. died, the Norris family presented a trophy to the NHL in his memory to be given to the top defenceman in the NHL. The NHL honoured him in 1974 when one of its four new divisions was named after him.
Norris was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958.