Let’s start with the letter. In May 1967, Jimmy Devellano wrote Lynn Patrick, the general manager of the brand-new St. Louis Blues, offering his services as a scout – for free.
Jimmy D was only 24 then. He hadn’t finished high school, and he was working as a claims adjuster for the unemployment insurance commission at the corner of Yonge and St. Clair in Toronto. He hadn’t played hockey, but he had grown up playing street hockey, trading bubble-gum hockey cards and going to Maple Leafs games, idolizing coach and GM Punch Imlach. He was coaching multiple minor hockey teams – hockey, hockey, hockey filling up his nights and weekends – and the NHL was about to expand.
Wait. The NHL wasn’t just expanding. It was doubling in size, going from six teams to 12. In the Original Six era, there were so few management jobs that they rarely went to anyone who hadn’t played in the league or hadn’t been born into it. But now Jimmy D saw an opportunity for a guy with no real background in the game, a deal that could work for both sides. All those teams needed scouts, and he knew where to find players. The Blues would have nothing to lose, and he would have everything to gain.
So Jimmy D wrote Patrick. And then he paid his own way to Montreal for the expansion draft. And then he paid his own way to St. Louis for the Blues’ inaugural game. And then it paid off.
“Guess what?” Devellano said. “He took me up on it, and I got my foot in the door. I never looked back.”
Forty-three years later, Jimmy Devellano, now 67 and senior vice-president of the Detroit Red Wings, is headed to the corner of Yonge and Front in Toronto, just a couple miles down the street from where he had worked for the unemployment insurance commission. On Monday night, he will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder.
As he built his own career – rising from volunteer scout to top executive – he helped build the Blues and New York Islanders as expansion teams, then helped rebuild the Red Wings when they might as well have been an expansion team. But he built more than that. He helped build the careers of many others, mentoring the likes of current Wings GM Ken Holland and Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman.
Devellano owns 14 championship rings – an American League championship ring as an executive with the Detroit Tigers, six championship rings from minor-league hockey and seven Stanley Cup rings. He won three Cups with the Islanders (and left his fingerprints on a fourth), then four more with the Wings.
“And now the Hall of Fame gives you a ring, so that will be 15,” Devellano said, laughing. “I’ve got a lot of jewelry, and I’m not a jewelry type of guy.”
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Devellano has never been flashy. He has always been just Jimmy D, a man who simply loves and lives hockey. Those who know him well all describe him the same way. The first thing Yzerman said about him was that he “committed his entire life to the game.” Ottawa Senators scout Nick Polano, who served as a coach and assistant GM under Devellano in Detroit, said “his whole life is hockey.”
“The thing about Jimmy was this: He was 24-hours-a-day hockey,” said former Islanders GM Bill Torrey, now an alternate governor for the Florida Panthers. “It’s been his life, and he’s deserving. He’s very deserving of this award.”
Devellano would be deserving based on his pure hockey resume alone. It wasn’t long before the Blues saw what he could do and put him on the payroll as a full-time scout, allowing him to leave his government job. Though they eventually let him go, expansion afforded him another opportunity when the Islanders were born in 1972. He hooked on as a scout and rose to director of scouting and then assistant general manager, putting him in charge of the draft and the farm system.
Torrey, knowing his Islanders would struggle in the beginning, set out to build through the draft and said he was “always very, very selective” with his hires. That created camaraderie and trust. “I knew what everybody was doing, but I let them go and do it and cover it,” Torrey said.
After eight years of work, the Islanders won their first Stanley Cup in 1980.
“That was the most important one, because nobody’s so brazen that they think they’re going to win two or three or four or certainly more than that,” Devellano said. “You don’t know that at the time. You don’t even think that at the time.”
The Islanders won four consecutive Cups, and the vast majority of their players were draft picks, including the likes of Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin and Clark Gillies. That track record is what landed Devellano in Detroit after the Islanders’ third Cup.
When Mike Ilitch bought the Red Wings in 1982, Detroit was not known as Hockeytown, despite its Gordie Howe heritage. The Red Wings were known as the Dead Things. Out of the playoffs perennially, they had only 2,100 season-ticket holders. They needed players – and so they needed someone who knew how to find players. Devellano was the first person Ilitch hired.
“He said, ‘We’re no better than an expansion team,’ ” Polano said. “I remember him saying that. He said, ‘That’s why we have to build it like an expansion team, build it through the draft.’ ”
Devellano brought in some big names to fill holes and sell tickets – fading stars like Brad Park, Darryl Sittler, Borje Salming – but he held on to his draft picks and kept the faith. His first draft yielded Yzerman, Petr Klima and the Bruise Brothers: Bob Probert and Joe Kocur. The Wings soon became pioneers in European scouting and took chances on Eastern bloc players like Klima, Sergei Fedorov(notes) and Vladimir Konstantinov, who had to defect like something out of a spy novel. The Wings whisked Fedorov out of a hotel and bribed doctors to fake a cancer diagnosis for Konstantinov.
“There would be snickers: ‘They’ve got a lousy team in Detroit, and there’s Jimmy wasting picks on Russians and Czechs. He can’t get them out. There’s an Iron Curtain,’ ” Devellano said.
“Well, we did get them out.”
Winning was a struggle for a while. The Wings dipped all the way to 40 points in 1985-86, Devellano’s fourth season. But Devellano stuck with it, and Ilitch stuck with him when others had seen enough.
Polano, who coached the Wings from 1982-85, recalled a particularly low point. Devellano had discovered he was a diabetic and lost a lot of weight – while the Wings had lost a lot of games. Some fans walked around the concourse at the Joe carrying a sign: “Fire the coach and the fat man, too.”
“So after the game, Jimmy D came down to my office and he said, ‘Nick, did you see that sign they were walking around the concourse with?’ ” Polano said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I was really embarrassed. My family was at the game.’ He said, ‘How about me? He’s calling me the fat man. I lost 30 pounds!’ I thought that was great. That loosened me up. I started laughing. I said, ‘You know, life’s good.’ We did have a few laughs along the way, too. …
“The whole thing comes down to building the team through the draft and surviving the bad times, hanging tough during the tough times and just having a plan and sticking to it and not getting distracted by people who criticized what we were doing. He stuck to the plan. There were a lot of times when he was second-guessed.”
Finally, after a decade-and-a-half of work this time, the Wings won the Cup in 1997. Devellano had given up the GM title to become senior vice-president, but he was also director of hockey operations then. The first Cup with the Islanders was a thrill, a dream come true. This one was a relief.
“When I came to Detroit, I promised everybody that we would win a Stanley Cup eventually,” Devellano said. “It took 15 hard, long years to do it.”
Devellano wasn’t the only one who felt relief. Brendan Shanahan(notes) knew Devellano’s record and philosophy of holding on to draft picks. Because the Wings had acquired him and Brian Glynn from the Hartford Whalers for Paul Coffey, Keith Primeau and a first-round pick early that season, he was too nervous to hold a full conversation with Devellano until the Cup party at Ilitch’s house.
“I felt like they gave up a lot to get me,” Shanahan said. “When you meet a guy like Jimmy D, you know he’s not building a team to win a round or two. It wasn’t really until we won the Stanley Cup that I sort of felt worthy to speak to Jimmy D.”
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But Devellano didn’t just have an eye for talent. He had an eye for people who had an eye for talent, and he had a knack for nurturing them.
Look at the people Devellano hired in Detroit: He brought in Scotty Bowman, an old colleague from his Blues days, who already had won six Cups as a coach. But he also hired young, unknown scouts who would go on to bigger things, guys like Neil Smith, who became the Cup-winning GM of the New York Rangers, and Holland, who become the Cup-winning GM of the Wings. He helped Holland hire Jim Nill, now one of the top assistant GMs in the league.
Jimmy D shared his philosophy – that players need to be skilled and smart, not just tough and strong; that you have to build through the draft, but you have to remember this is an entertainment business and acquiring veteran stars helps, too. He emphasized the importance of being classy and communicating well with everyone from owners to reporters, in good times and in bad. He taught the art of negotiating – that it is better to have a friendly relationship with agents and other GMs, that you have to give a little to get a little.
“You’re not going to go out and win every deal,” Holland said. “He’ll crack jokes. He makes everybody feel comfortable. And now you start to negotiate back and forth and find a way to get a deal that works for both sides.”
Like Torrey did on the Island, Jimmy D made the front office feel like a family. He hired good people, and he trusted them to do their jobs. Devellano still sticks to his roots and scouts some games, filing routine reports. But years ago, despite his origins and his emphasis on the draft, he stopped going to the draft himself. He knew he didn’t know as much as his scouts did.
“One of the really positive, good traits about Jimmy D is, he knows when to let his people do their thing,” said Holland, who has carried on the mentoring tradition with the likes of Yzerman, Pat Verbeek and Kirk Maltby(notes). “As the young people are ready to flap their wings, he’s let them flap their wings.”
Devellano didn’t hire Yzerman at first. He drafted him. But he saw something in him beyond playing ability at an early age. He watched over a young Yzerman, as he once put it, like “a mother hen.”
“It might be a Friday night at 10 o’clock or something,” Yzerman said. “I’d get a phone call from Jimmy, and he’d have a question for me – just checking in, making sure where I was.”
Devellano – a savvy investor who once famously held a large chunk of stock in Maple Leaf Gardens – would make sure Yzerman was saving his money and putting it in the right places. In the offseason, Yzerman would go home to Ottawa. Devellano would be passing through, scouting a junior playoff game. Jimmy D would call Stevie Y and ask him to come along.
Long before Yzerman retired, he talked to Devellano about working in the front office. They put a clause in his contract. When Yzerman considered retiring in 2006, he talked it through with Jimmy D. When he served his executive apprenticeship with the Wings afterward, he watched and listened to Jimmy D. When he considered leaving for the Lightning earlier this year, he asked for input from Jimmy D. He still asks for Jimmy D’s advice today and said he will in the future.
“He’s very wise,” Yzerman said. “He’s seen it all. He’s been through it all.”
And now he’s headed to the Hall, joining Imlach, his idol; Patrick, who gave him his big break; Torrey, who taught him so much; Ilitch, who made him a GM; and, players from Bossy to Yzerman, whom he drafted.
“When you understand how I got into the business, the odds of me getting into the business, the odds of me becoming a general manager in the NHL, when you think of those things, you realize how you really kind of beat the odds, somebody like myself,” Devellano said. “The odds of me getting into the NHL and becoming a guy that would get elected to the Hall of Fame, boy oh boy, those were long, long odds from where I started.”
But as any builder knows, it’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.