Red Wings' Alex Delvecchio got phone calls mid-game from 'hammered' owner about players

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Bill Dow, Special to Detroit Free Press
·9 min read
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As part of his series on former Detroit sports figures, Bill Dow caught up with Detroit Red Wings legend Alex Delvecchio.

How we remember him

The last Red Wing legend from the Original Six era became one of the game’s greatest and most durable centerman, playing parts of 24 seasons (1951-73) for Detroit, the most in professional sports by a player who competed for one team in his career. Following Sid Abel’s trade in 1952, Delvecchio frequently centered a new “Production Line” with Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. In his first four seasons, he helped the Wings capture three Stanley Cups and was the hero of Game 7 of the ’55 Final when he scored two of Detroit’s three goals.

Remarkably, he only missed 43 games due to injury, and in the process set a team record of 548 consecutive games played. The captain for the Wings from 1962 until his retirement in 1973 finished in the top 10 in NHL scoring 11 times, scored 20 or more goals in a season 13 times, appeared in 13 All-Star games, became the third player to amass 1,000 points, and won three Lady Byng trophies (’59, ’66, ’69) “for sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with high playing ability.” Throughout his career he was penalized 383 minutes and engaged in only a handful of fights. When he retired, Delvecchio was second in NHL history to Howe in games played, assists, and points. In 1974, he was awarded the prestigious Lester Patrick Award for his contributions to U.S. hockey, and three years later was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. His No. 10 jersey was retired by the Wings in 1991, and in 2008, the club unveiled a statue of him that now is in the concourse of Little Caesars Arena.

After his playing career

From left: Former Red Wings stars Chris Osgood, Ted Lindsay, Alex Delvecchio, Darren McCarty and Tomas Holmstrom at the retirement ceremony for Nicklas Lidstrom before the Wings game against the Colorado Avalanche on March 6, 2014.
From left: Former Red Wings stars Chris Osgood, Ted Lindsay, Alex Delvecchio, Darren McCarty and Tomas Holmstrom at the retirement ceremony for Nicklas Lidstrom before the Wings game against the Colorado Avalanche on March 6, 2014.

Near the end of his career in 1970, he established Alex Delvecchio Enterprises, a business that sold promotional items that later expanded to manufacture and engrave plaques and nameplates throughout North America.

In November 1973, general manager Ned Harkness convinced him to retire to become the head coach in the beginning of a perennial losing era sometimes referred to as the “Darkness with Harkness.” He held the position for parts of four losing seasons and had added the title of GM in 1974 prior to his firing in 1977.

Today

Delvecchio, 89, lives in Oakland County with his wife, Judy. He has five children: Ken, Janice, Corrine, Alex Jr. and Lenny, 10 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

On joining the Wings as a 19-year-old

Alex Delvecchio.
Alex Delvecchio.

“Being new to the game, I thought it was heaven joining that tremendous team with great players like Gordie, Ted Lindsay, Red Kelly, Marty Pavelich, and Terry Sawchuk. They all helped me and wanted to see me stick around. Early on, I played on a third line mostly with Johnny Wilson and Metro Prystai. We were lucky to get on the ice in the third period maybe two or three times unless we were way ahead or way behind. Our coach, Tommy Ivan, put us on the ice to give the big guys a break. He told us, ‘just make sure the other team doesn’t score.’ We were more of a checking line. It really wasn’t until sometime later when our center ‘Dutch’ Reibel broke his jaw that I got to play on the line with Gordie and Ted.”

On developing into a player rarely penalized

“I was a bit of a hothead, was an aggressive player, and I got into some fights in junior hockey. My coach at Oshawa, Larry Aurie, instilled in me that I was better for the team on the ice then in the penalty box. Later Jack Adams (Wings GM) also said, ‘you better stay on the ice or you are back in the minors.’ That got my attention and I knew I had to change and mind my own business.”

On his role as a centerman playmaker

“I had been brought up as a center in juniors and was trained to be a playmaker by passing to my wingers. During practice, Tommy Ivan had Gordie and Ted going down their wings and I had to pass to them so they could take their shots. I was always a pretty good passer and Tommy liked what I was doing. Bob Goldham (defenseman) used to always tell me, 'Alex, just get the puck to Gordie and let him deliver.' "

On playing in the shadow of Howe

From left, Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio of the Detroit Red Wings.
From left, Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio of the Detroit Red Wings.

“When I gave Gordie, Ted, and later Frank Mahovlich the puck and they scored, I recognized to myself that I did a lot of the work and I let them finish the play. Those guys were great to play with because when you gave them the puck, you knew something good was going to happen. Gordie was either going to score or disrupt their defense and then he could open it up for me or the other winger to have the opportunity to score. The magic number of goals back then was at least 20 per season, and I wanted to get mine too. I was never one to do a lot of the talking or bragging and I enjoyed setting the other guys up for goals. To me, it was just like if I was the one scoring.”

On his durability

“I played with my head up, but either way, you’re going to get injured and you have to learn to play through it. I remember one time in Toronto I was slashed and broke my thumb. The following day in Detroit I’m in the locker room for the next game and I have a cast on my hand. Jack Adams (GM) comes in and says, ‘why the hell are you in here and not warming up?’ I said, ‘I have a broken thumb.’ He said, ‘bullshit, take that thing off.’ So the trainer took pliers, cut the cast off and I played. Back then you would play hurt because you didn’t want to lose your job.”

On Jack Adams trading 8 players after winning 1955 Stanley Cup

“Jack Adams really broke up that team and the guys we traded were really good players. We all wondered 'what the hell is going on here?' Had he not done that we all felt we would have won more Cups. When the trades happened, I looked to see if my name was on the list. When I first came up my goal was to play 10 years because that’s when you got your full pension. I always rented a house because my teammates always said don’t get too tied up because you never knew what Adams might do. I don’t think I bought a home until 1964. Adams use to follow us to all the games and sometimes he would sit at the end of the bench. I remember Benny Woit had been deked by a Montreal player who scored. I was on the bench sitting near Jack and he asked me, ‘who let that happen?” I said, ’I don’t know and he said ‘you’re full of (expletive).’ I wasn’t going to hang Benny. To hell with Adams, I wasn’t going to tell him. He was later traded. Jack was a real tyrant. Gordie liked to shorten his sticks and at practice Adams would sometimes go onto the ice and throw Gordie’s stick into the stands because he thought it was too short.”

On breaking the record in ’68-69 for most goals by a line in a season (118)

“Frank Mahovlich really made the difference for Gordie and me. When Frank played for Toronto, the word was, ‘don’t touch him, let him be and he won’t do any harm.’ If you hit him it woke him up and he was a threat. It was the same thing in Detroit. Sometimes I would send him a sucker pass. He would get hit and hopefully it woke him up. We were a very well-balanced line and playing with them was a real joy. You could always give Gordie and Frank the puck and things would happen.”

On playing for Ned Harkness toward the end of his career

“Ned was out of his class trying to coach in the NHL. He even insisted that I stop smoking cigars. He was a college coach. At our first practice, he told Gordie and me that he wanted us to skate over to him when he blew his whistle and for us to ask him some questions in front of the team. Gordie and I got together and said to hell with that. He blew his whistle but we didn’t ask him any questions and he gave us a few cuss words. When he became general manager, he got rid of some of our good players like Garry Unger, Frank, and Pete Stemkowski. I felt kind of sorry for him. He should have stayed in college hockey.”

On being coach and GM for Wings

Alex Delvecchio on the Red Wings' bench.
Alex Delvecchio on the Red Wings' bench.

“I took the job as coach because I had been here for so long and thought I could straighten the Wings out. I was given the opportunity and gave it a try but not everyone is built to be a coach or general manager. Apparently I wasn’t it. It’s a tough job but you have to have the players and we didn’t have enough good ones. We had a lot of interference from Bruce Norris (owner) and John Ziegler (team attorney) and they made a lot of the calls. Bruce would be up in his box half hammered and would phone down to the bench and say, things like, ‘don’t play that guy anymore.’ How in the hell are you going to coach or manage with that kind of interference? It was very frustrating but I’m not blaming them. They did give me a chance, it never panned out, and that’s the way it goes.”

On the Wings today

“I still follow the Red Wings and I think Stevie (Yzerman, GM) will do a great job if they leave him alone. He’s really starting from scratch.”

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Red Wings' Alex Delvecchio got calls mid-game from 'hammered' owner