Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - Detroit Red Wings - 1949-55
One on One Turning Point

Detroit Red Wings - 1949-55

7 JANUARY 2014
Ted Lindsay led all scorers during the 1949-50 regular season. (Frank Prazak/Hockey Hall of Fame)
Lost amidst discussions of hockey dynasties that includes the Oilers of the 1980s, Canadiens of the 1950s and '70s, Islanders of the '80s and Maple Leafs of the 1960s is memories of an extraordinary string of successes for the Detroit Red Wings in the early 1950s. Beginning with the 1948-49 season, the Red Wings enjoyed seven consecutive first-place finishes and won the Stanley Cup on four occasions: 1950, 1952 1954 and 1955.

The architect of the successes was Jack Adams, the shrewd general manager of the club. Along with scouts who scoured the countryside to find talent, Adams constructed a team that included incredible goaltending, outstanding defence and unprecedented offence. Key ingredients were future Hall of Famers Terry Sawchuk in goal, 'Red' Kelly and Marcel Pronovost on the blueline and forwards Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay.

The team was very young, but they bonded quickly. Gordie Howe reminisced in his autobiography, 'And Howe,' "In the early days, it was always the four of us - 'Red' (Kelly), Ted (Lindsay), Marty (Pavelich) and myself, and then Metro Prystai joined us a bit later. The five of us stayed at Ma Shaw's (rooming house) for quite a long time.She had a house near the Olympia Stadium."

Detroit's Marcel Pronovost hits Toronto's Cal Gardner as Gordie Howe watches on October 27, 1951 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. (Imperial Oil-Turofsky/Hockey Hall of Fame)
What also contributed to the team chemistry was time spent together on the road. All NHL teams travelled by train during this era, although the Red Wings were the first to occasionally fly."Our first Red Wings' flights were in DC3's," recalled Howe. "They weren't exactly built for comfort, but they were pretty reliable."

The Red Wings finished first in 1949-50, led by the Production Line of Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe and Sid Abel. "Winning the scoring championship was a team thing," recalled Lindsay. "The Production Line of Sid at centre ice, Gordie on the right side and me at left wing -- we were one, two, three in scoring. I happened to be leading it so it was a wonderful thrill. You're playing with the best hockey players in the world; you're playing against the best hockey players in the world."

Tommy Ivan, the head coach of the Red Wings, can be credited with putting together the trio. The three worked hard both during games and at practices. They created a set play in which the wingers would shoot the puck into the opponent's end after crossing the red line at centre ice. They would angle their shoot-in so that the puck bounced off the end-boards to a spot in front of the goal where the other winger could get it. That winger could either shoot or make a quick pass to Abel in the slot. It was an innovative play for the era. In that era, netminders never ventured out of their net so they never cut off the shoot-in or blocked the pass out front.

The legendary Gordie Howe was a part of all four Red Wings championships between 1949 and 1955. (Frank Prazak/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The Red Wings eliminated the Maple Leafs in the semi-final, although lost Gordie Howe in Game One after a nasty accident that almost killed the star forward and forced him to miss the remainder of the playoffs. Then, in Game Seven of the final against the New York Rangers, unheralded Pete Babando scored his second goal of the game at 8:31 of the second overtime to win the Stanley Cup for the Red Wings.

"To win the Stanley Cup was a dream," remembered Ted Lindsay."When I was growing up, I never really dreamed about winning the Stanley Cup because I never really dreamed I'd play in the National Hockey League. I just followed one day, one month, one year after another and I kept getting better. But winning the Stanley Cup was just tremendous because you're recognized as part of the best team in the world, and I was part of that team that contributed winning the Stanley Cup for Detroit."

General manager Jack Adams never sat pat, and even after winning the Cup, dealt his goaltender, Harry Lumley, along with 'Black Jack' Stewart, Al Dewsbury and Don Morrison to Chicago, receiving netminder Jim Henry as well as Bob Goldham, Metro Prystai and Gaye Stewart. Lumley may have backstopped Detroit to the 1950 Stanley Cup victory, but Adams understood that Terry Sawchuk was waiting in the wings to be elevated to the National Hockey League. Also, Marcel Pronovost, who made his NHL debut during the 1949-50 playoffs, found a regular spot on defence when 'Black Jack' Stewart was traded away.

Gloves worn by Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings during the 1952-53 NHL season. (Matthew Manor/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The team was unable to repeat in 1950-51, losing to the third-place Montreal Canadiens in the semi-final in spite of finishing first during the regular season with 101 points; the first NHL team to pass the 100-point plateau. Detroit monopolized the All-Star Teams, too. Terry Sawchuk, Kelly, Howe and Lindsay were named to the First Team, and Reise and Abel to the Second. Sawchuk also was named Rookie of the Year, Kelly took home the Lady Byng Trophy as most gentlemanly and Howe was the league's leading scorer.

For the fourth straight season, the Red Wings finished first during the regular season in 1951-52. Howe won his second consecutive scoring championship with 86 points, including a league-best 47 goals. Terry Sawchuk earned the Vezina Trophy with his 1.94 goals-against average, including 12 shutouts. Both Sawchuk and Howe were named to the NHL's First All-Star Team, joined by winger Ted Lindsay and defenceman 'Red' Kelly.

If the Wings were considered strong during the regular season, no one could have imagined how much better they got in the playoffs. "This is a fine team that has won everything else and the guys intend to enter the record books as the first club to do the job in eight," boasted Jack Adams.

Terry Sawchuk (left) and captain Sid Abel (right) each kiss the Stanley Cup after Detroit's triumph in 1952. (Hockey Hall of Fame )
With a goaltender turned magician, Detroit swept both the Leafs and the Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup. Sawchuk allowed just five goals in the eight games, and incredibly, he didn't allow a single goal in any of the four games played at Detroit's Olympia Stadium."The Wings dominated because goaltender Terry Sawchuk and a tidy, diligent defense strangled the big guns of the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens," reported The Detroit News.

"As Game Four wound down, something was tossed from the Olympia seats and landed on the ice," recalled Marcel Pronovost in his autobiography, 'Pronovost: A Life in Hockey.' "Linesman George Hayes went over to see what it was and you should have seen him jump back! So I decided to take a look. I smacked it with my stick. Right away, I knew that it was dead. It was an octopus. I scooped it up and skated over to the penalty box with it, but nobody there wanted to touch it either."

The Detroit News wrote that it was Bob Goldham who "flipped it over on the blade of his hockey stick and an usher retrieved it, not to the penalty box but to the press box for further inspection by the media." Either way, season ticket-holders Jerry and Pete Cusimano, who happened to own a fish store, made their point, and started a long-time tradition. The eight tentacles of the octopus represented the eight wins needed for Detroit to win the Stanley Cup.

A cornerstone on the Red Wing blueline, Red Kelly would become the first recipient of the Norris Trophy in 1954. (Frank Prazak/Hockey Hall of Fame)
"As far as I'm concerned, that 1951-52 Red Wings club was the best team ever assembled," stated Pronovost. "Only four of our players (Sid Abel, Bob Goldham, Tony Leswick and Leo Reise) were over the age of 26. What I remember most about that team was how we were as a unit. There were no egos. We were all close friends. We bonded together and were a close-knit bunch."

The Hockey News agreed, naming that 1951-52 Red Wings team the fifth greatest team of all time.

The GM again wheeled and dealed. During the summer, Leo Reise was traded to the Rangers and captain Sid Abel was traded to the Black Hawks where he took on the role of playing-coach. In his place, Alex Delvecchio was brought in, and he eventually was inserted between Howe and Lindsay on the Production Line. "I don't think Alex Delvecchio ever got the total credit he deserved as a hockey player," Gordie Howe stated. "Sid (Abel) was a great centreman, but I played 18 years with Alex."

Howe led the league in scoring for a third straight season in 1952-53, collecting 95 points, including 49 goals. He and Lindsay, as well as Sawchuk and Kelly, were named to the NHL's First All-Star Team once again. Delvecchio was the choice at centre on the Second Team.Howe was named the league's most valuable player, Kelly took the Lady Byng for a second year and Sawchuk was, once again, recipient of the Vezina.

Alex Delvecchio joined the Red Wings in 1951-52, taking over for Sid Abel on the Production Line. (Michael Burns Sr./Hockey Hall of Fame)
Detroit was eliminated in the semi-final by the Bruins, whose goaltender, 'Sugar' Jim Henry, had briefly been the property of the Wings. "I would compare this year's Wings squad with some of the best I've handled in my 26 years at the Olympia, despite the playoffs," claimed Adams.

The 1953-54 season saw the Red Wings finish first for an unprecedented sixth time.Howe won a fourth straight scoring championship, this time with 81 points, and Kelly, Howe and Lindsay were selected for the First All-Time Team. Sawchuk made the Second Team. A newly introduced trophy for the NHL's best defenceman, the Norris Trophy, saw 'Red' Kelly as the inaugural winner.

The Wings dusted the Leafs and earned a berth in the final against the Canadiens. The hard-fought series went to a seventh and deciding game. Deadlocked 1-1 at the end of regulation in Game Seven, Tony Leswick lofted a long shot towards the Montreal goal. Goaltender Gerry McNeil had it in his sights, but Doug Harvey came out of nowhere to deflect the puck away, except it hit his glove, changed trajectory, and eluded McNeil's grasp for the Stanley Cup-winning goal at 4:29 of OT. The fans erupted into a monstrous ovation while the Canadiens quickly skated off the ice, refusing to shake the hands of the victors.

Detroit President Margueritte Norris and NHL President Clarence Campbell look on as Coach Jimmy Skinner kisses the Stanley Cup during the celebrations on April 14, 1955 at the Detroit Olympia in Detroit, MI. (Hockey Hall of Fame)
Ted Lindsay, captain of the team, was presented with the Stanley Cup by NHL president Clarence Campbell. "Lindsay hated to lose so much I think he would have fought his own mother on the ice if he thought it would give his team a chance at victory," chuckled Pronovost in his autobiography.

The defending Stanley Cup champions finished first for an extraordinary seventh consecutive time under new coach, Jimmy Skinner, in 1954-55. Sawchuk took the Vezina and was named to the NHL's Second All-Star Team. Defencemen 'Red' Kelly was chosen for the First Team and Bob Goldham for the Second.

After sweeping the Leafs, the Wings' GM boasted, "I'm not predicting we'll win the Stanley Cup, but it will take a super-human effort to keep us from winning!"

Detroit went on to be challenged by the Montreal Canadiens for a second straight spring. The series went seven, and in that final game, the Red Wings won 3-1 to collect their fourth Stanley Cup championship in six years.

Ted Lindsay addresses the crowd at the Detroit Olympia on April 14, 1955 after the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. (Richard Bak/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The microphone to be used for the on-ice Cup presentation got tangled above the ice surface, so the Wings lifted Glen Skov to reach up and secure the microphone for the NHL president. Ted Lindsay then hoisted the Stanley Cup on behalf of his teammates.

"When some of these boys were a little younger, we had teams that might have been better but this bunch has them all beat on one score - it's the greatest clutch team I've ever had," proclaimed Jack Adams.

The dynasty came to a humiliating conclusion. In a matter of days, Jack Adams traded much of his Cup-winning roster. Tony Leswick, Glen Skov, Johnny Wilson and Benny Woit were dealt to Chicago and Marcel Bonin, Lorne Davis, Terry Sawchuk and Vic Stasiuk to Boston.

"He definitely took the heart and character out of that team with those deals, and he didn't get much in return," sighed Pronovost. Only nine players who had won the Cup in 1955 were with the club on opening night in 1955-56. "Of the eight players we received in the deals, only two (Warren Godfrey and Bucky Hollingsworth) were still around after the following season, and within three years, Terry Sawchuk, Johnny Wilson and Tony Leswick were reacquired."

Goaltender Terry Sawchuk backstopped the Red Wings to three of four Stanley Cup titles during a six year stretch. (Michael Burns Sr./Hockey Hall of Fame)
The Red Wings did return to the finals again in 1956, and for a third season, facing the Montreal Canadiens, but this time, it was Montreal's turn to initiate a dynasty, winning the first of five consecutive Stanley Cup championships.

The Red Wings certainly earned the right to claim that they had been a dynasty. For seven consecutive seasons (1948-49 to 1954-55), Detroit finished the NHL regular season in first place, and won the Stanley Cup four times in a six-year period. Members of all four Stanley Cup championships were Gordie Howe, 'Red' Kelly, Marty Pavelich, Marcel Pronovost, Johnny Wilsonand Ted Lindsay.

"I've always said that we were a dynasty -- there's no doubt about it," stated Lindsay emphatically. "Montreal interrupted that, but it never would have been interrupted if we didn't have a less than competent general manager in Jack Adams. In 1955, we won the Stanley Cup in the seventh game in overtime against the Montreal Canadiens. It was a lucky goal, but I don't care whether it was lucky or not, we were still the Stanley Cup winners. At that time, you had one goaltender, you had five defencemen and you had three lines plus two extra players. Mr. Adams traded nine players away from our championship team. That's fifty percent! That destroyed the nucleus of our team. The team still had ('Red') Kelly, we still had (Marty) Pavelich, we had (Marcel) Pronovost, we had Howe and myself. We had (Terry) Sawchuk in the nets and we had Glenn Hall coming up. Montreal wanted Sawchuk at that time but Adams didn't want to give him to Montreal because it would have made them too strong. Well, they won the Stanley Cup five years in a row, even without him! But we could have used the players Montreal would have sent. We only had one weakness on our team, and that was defence. Bob Goldham was getting older but he still had a couple of good years left. I feel very strongly that we should have won those five Stanley Cups that Montreal won if Adams hadn't traded those nine players away. Four went to Boston, three went to Chicago. We got good guys back -- wonderful guys -- but they weren't winners. There is a certain chemistry. There are certain guys who can play their whole careers and never win anything. That's because they're not winners. Every time I see Henri Richard, I look at him. He won eleven Stanley Cups. I say, 'Henri, you're a lucky little son of a gun. Five of those should have been ours.' That's me wishfully thinking but Henri laughs because he's got the eleven Stanley Cups."

Gordie Howe reflected back on the era in 'And Howe,' his autobiography."Back in those days, it was an honour to play. There were so many guys trying to get jobs. There were only about 110 big league hockey jobs available in all six teams. If you got hurt, you wouldn't even get a contract. It would be all over. Now, it's a livelihood."

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