THE NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE entered a new era of play in the fall of 1942. The Detroit Red Wings entered this era as one of the league’s elite clubs, and as a club with something to prove.
The Wings had played in the Stanley Cup final in each of the previous two springs, only to come up short. Detroit dropped a four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in 1940-41, but the pain from that setback would prove minor compared to the hurt they’d feel in 1941-42. Racing to a 3-0 series lead against the favoured Toronto Maple Leafs, the Wings then dropped four straight games, the first time in Stanley Cup history and the only time to date in a final series that a team squandered a 3-0 advantage to drop a best-of-seven-set.
1942-67 was the golden era of Original Six hockey, when the NHL existed with the same six clubs: the Detroit Red Wings, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Montreal Canadiens, the New York Rangers, the Boston Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks. The period had the longest consistent tenure of solid membership in league history. And it began, perhaps unsurpisingly after their losses in 1941-42, with the Red Wings on a mission.
The Wings rolled to a first-place finish with a 25-14-11 slate in 1942-43 and just kept rolling through the play-offs, avenging their 1941 defeat by sweeping the Bruins in the Cup final series. As would be the case with all of Detroit’s championship clubs of the six-team era, this squad was led by a Howe. Centre Syd Howe, who like his namesake Gordie Howe would finish his career as the NHL’s all-time scoring leader, led the 1942-43
Wings with 35 assists and 55 points. Between the pipes, Johnny Mowers posted six shutoutsone more than the other five NHL teams combinedwon the Vezina Trophy and was named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team.
The landscape of the NHL was altered dramatically over the next few seasons, however, as many veteran players enlisted in the armed forces to help with the effort of World War II, causing skeptics to suggest that NHL stood for “Nursery Hockey League.”
Though the teams didn’t change, the dearth of talent led to some wild contests, many of them involving the Red Wings and the Rangers. Detroit blasted the New Yorkers 15-0 on January 23, 1944. Connie Dion kept the clean sheet for the Wings, while Rangers’ goalie Ken McAuley fished all 15 pucks out of his net in what stands today as the most lopsided shutout score in league history. Eleven days later, Howe put six pucks past McAuley in a 12-2 drubbing of the Rangers. In the annals of the NHL, only Joe Malone of the Quebec Bulldogs (seven) on Jan, 31, 1920, has ever scored more times in a single game.
Steadily, the Wings introduced a series of new-comers into their midst who would all go on to enjoy Hall of Fame careers and would provide the nucleus for the club’s next dynasty. “A bunch of us came in together and we had a strong sense of friendship,” recalled defenceman Red Kelly. Goalie Harry Lumley and defenceman Bill Quackenbush made their NHL debuts in 1943-44. At 17, Lumley was the youngest goaltender in league history. The next season, a gritty left-winger named Ted Lindsay jumped right from the junior ranks into the Detroit line-up. In the fall of 1946, another strapping youngster joined the fold, a right-winger named Gordie Howe. “He’s the best prospect I’ve seen in 20 years,” remarked Detroit coach-GM Jack Adams.
In 1947-48, Kelly followed Lindsay’s lead and jumped directly from junior to the Wings. That season, Lindsay’s star really began to emerge, as he led the NHL with 33 goals, earning a berth on the league’s First All-Star Team as Detroit returned to the Stanley Cup final, only to be swept by Toronto.
The Wings were on top of the league in 1948-49, finishing first overall, but again fell to the Leafs in four straight games in the Cup final series. Team captain Sid Abel, one of the few veterans who would remain from the previous Detroit era, won the Hart Trophy that season. The following season Detroit welcomed two more future Hall of Fame rookies in goalie Terry Sawchuk and defenceman Marcel Pronovost, finished first, and won the Stanley Cup in a dramatic seven-game series with the Rangers (Pete Babando scoring the Cup winner after 28:21 of overtime). That season, linemates Lindsay, Abel and Howedubbed the Production Linefinished 1-2-3 in scoring, the only time that a Stanley Cup champion suited up the NHL’s top three scorers.
Coach Tommy Ivan had first combined Abel’s veteran savvy with the prototypical power forward Howe and the irascible Lindsay during the 1947-48 season, and they were an instant hit. “We’ll keep them together as long as they keep going,” Ivan said at the time. Howe felt the unit was a natural fit. “We could all carry the puck, we could all skate and check and we could all make plays,” Howe explained.
The 1950 Cup win came despite the near-tragic loss of Howe, who suffered serious head injuries after falling into the boards while looking to check Toronto captain Teeder Kennedy in the opening game of the Stanley Cup semi-final series between the two teams. Howe suffered a lacerated eyeball, fractured nose and cheekbone, and a concussion that required surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. Originally listed in critical condition, he pulled through and was able to attend the deciding game of the final series in street clothes. “They still won the Cup, even with Gordie Howe out of the line-up,” Adams noted in the victorious dressing room. “That’s like taking a .400 hitter out of the World Series.”
Adams believed that successful teams had a shelf life of five years and he was in the process of reworking his late 1940s roster. He dealt away Quackenbush to Boston in 1949, feeling Kelly was ready to take on a more major role, and the arrival of Sawchuk and Pronovost made Lumley and defenceman (Black) Jack Stewart expendable. In 1950, they were traded to Chicago.
The 1950-51 Red Wings finished first for the third season in succession, establishing NHL marks for wins (44) and points (101) as centre Alex Delvecchio, another future Hall of Famer, joined the club and Gordie Howe set an NHL record with 86 pointsbut it was the 1951-52 team that would go down in history as perhaps the NHL’s best-ever squad.
That year the Wings equaled their NHL marks for wins and points, becoming the only franchise during the NHL’s first 54 seasons to post consecutive 100-point campaigns. Howe scored 47 goals and once more led the league in scoring with 96 points. The team assembled a club record 15-game unbeaten from November 27 through December 28 and a 10-0-5 road unbeaten streak from October 18 to December 20. The Wings lost consecutive games just once all season long.
Howe won the Hart Trophy to go with his second straight Art Ross Trophy, Sawchuk earned the Vezina Trophy, and those two plus Kelly and Lindsay were all named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team, but the biggest prize would be captured in record fashion. Detroit became the first team to sweep to the Stanley Cup in the minimum eight games, led by Sawchuk, who posted four shutouts on home ice and finished postseason play with an amazing 0.63 goals-against average and an astonishing .977 save percentage. Adams described his team as “the greatest in hockey” and no one was about to argue the point. “We had such chemistry on that team, I really think we could have played all summer and we would have just kept winning,” Wings forward Marty Pavelich said.
Preparing to attend Game 4 of the final series at Olympia Stadium, Detroit fishmongers Pete and Jerry Cusimano decided to bring a special guest to the rinkan octopus. They reasoned that the eight tentacles of that mollusc represented the eight wins required to lift the Stanley Cup. When the Wings opened the scoring, Pete reached under his seat and threw the octopus onto the ice, launching a Detroit play-off tradition that continues today.