Tommy Ivan's dreams of playing in the NHL ended early in his career. While playing senior hockey in Brantford before the war, he suffered a serious cheekbone fracture and gave up the sport, turning at first to refereeing and later coaching as a means of staying in the game. He joined the army and was made sergeant, acting as an instructor in chemical warfare. After the war he was hired by the Detroit Red Wings to coach their minor pro affiliates, first in Omaha and later in Indianapolis, and it was there he first encountered a 17-year-old named Gordie Howe.
In 1947 circumstances were such with the parent club that Ivan was named coach of the Wings - the only one of the Original Six coaches of the day who had never played in the NHL. His timing couldn't have been better, for Howe was now in Detroit as a rising star, as was young goalie Terry Sawchuk. Ivan led the team to first place in the standings for six years in a row and to three Stanley Cup wins during the early 1950s; the first in 1950 was decided in double overtime of game seven with a Pete Babando goal.
The 1952 Cup win was particularly impressive for Ivan because Detroit swept both series against their greatest rivals, Toronto and Montreal, and won the Cup in the bare minimum eight games. That team also had an incredible seven future members of the Hockey Hall of Fame: Sawchuk, Howe, Ted Lindsay, Alex Delvecchio, Sid Abel, Red Kelly and Marcel Pronovost. After the third of these Stanley Cup wins, in the spring of 1955, Ivan left Detroit to assume general manager duties in Chicago.
His time in the Windy City was remarkably successful, not just for the short term but for the long-term benefit of the organization. Ivan ended up coaching for a year and a half because of the illness of coach Dick Irvin. He brought the team up from last place to consistent respectability, and as a result he increased attendance from pitiful crowds of 3,000 or 4,000 a game to near sellouts every night.
In 1960-61, Ivan won the Stanley Cup with Chicago, one of the biggest thrills in his career as general manager and the result of years of hard work and the aforementioned planning. A few years later, however, he was to be pilloried for making one of the worst trades in league history, sending Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield to Boston for Gilles Marotte, Pit Martin and Jack Norris. Ivan was quick to point out that he soon traded Norris and Bill White to Montreal for Tony Esposito, one of the greatest goalies of the modern era, and sent Marotte to Los Angeles for Gerry Desjardins. So, he reasoned, the Phil Esposito deal wasn't that bad!
Because he consistently took the Wings to the finals, he also was named All-Star Game coach on a regular basis, and to this day his 3-0-1 record is the best in league history for the annual game. But perhaps his most famous association with the game came in 1961 when Toronto hosted the All-Stars as Cup champs and he was Chicago's general manager. He accompanied Jim Norris to the Royal York Hotel in Toronto to a meeting with Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard of the Leafs and was holding in his pocket a check for $1,000,000 that Norris was willing to hand over for the sale of Frank Mahovlich. It was the most sensational offer of the era, and although rejected the next morning by the Leafs, Norris' offer upstaged the All-Star Game itself for sheer magnitude of publicity.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974.