The late Wally Crossman, the son of a Montreal tool-and-die maker, was born in 1910. The family moved to Detroit when he was 14. “Our house was on Vinewood, which just happened to be by Grand River and Grand Boulevard,” Crossman once told me. “The place where they were building the Olympia was just down the street toward McGraw.”
Olympia opened in 1927. Wally, who was only 5-foot-4, was a fine skater but too small to be a competitive hockey player. “They knocked me around quite a bit,” he admitted. He watched the Wings of Ebbie Goodfellow and Normie Smith during the 1930s and began hanging around the locker room after games. Eventually he was put to work as a stick boy. He’d take the sticks out to the bench and bring them back in. He’d tape some of the sticks for players who asked. Over the years his duties shifted, from sharpening skates to doing laundry to general housekeeping, but nobody ever told him not to come back.
“The 1950s were really something,” he said. “Howe would be my personal favorite. Then Lindsay and, oh, there’s been others down the line I’ve really liked. Alex Delvecchio was another one.” Subsequent generations of players also were friendly with Wally and good end-of-season tippers. The one person he feared most in the locker room was coach and GM Jack Adams, who oversaw the team’s first seven Stanley Cups between 1936 and 1955. “I used to pass the oranges around a tray,” Wally remembered. “We cut the oranges into quarters and passed them around to the players. Well, if the game wasn’t going good, between periods Jack would come over to my tray and pick one of the oranges off and throw it at a player. He’d bawl him out for doing something wrong on the ice.
“Some of them would kind of grumble,” said Wally, who recalled one player making the mistake of talking back to Adams. “Jack said, ‘Tomorrow you’re going to Springfield.’ That was one of our minor-league teams. And the next day the fella was shipped out to Springfield. Of course, at that time, players were really under Jack’s thumb. If a coach tried to do that today, there’d be quite a repercussion. Could you imagine Scotty Bowman throwing an orange at Bob Probert?”
Aside from tips, Wally was never paid for his work. He received two tickets for each game, which he would give to his wife. He retired from Edison in 1967, the final season of the Original Six era. He kept rolling along, getting the Wings’ dressing room prepared before each game. “I get the water and the Gatorade on the table. Between periods I fill the players’ cups with whatever they prefer. We do the laundry. We do the towels, the underwear. And then we have to clean up after the game is over, get everything back in shape again for the next day.”
Wally’s career was split between two venues: Olympia and Joe Louis Arena. “Olympia was a nice place,” he said. “It was very friendly, what with the players going from the locker room to the bench. They had the big wide corridor and a lot of people were standing around, congratulating the players and talking to them as we came out of the locker room to the ice. It was quite a warm feeling.” The Joe was different, he said. “Now we have security and all that stuff, so the people don’t get to talk to the players. In a way that’s good, but in another way it’s not so good.”
Wally was one of the few people who saw Olympia go up and then, some 60 years later, watched it get torn down. It was an emotional experience for him. The best moments of his life seemed to revolve around the building, including meeting his wife of many years, Margaret. “I used to be a soda jerk at one of the drugstores across the street from the arena,” he said. “She used to come down nights to visit me, and we got acquainted. Everything seems to have worked from Olympia. That’s why it was so sad to watch the Olympia go. I saw the old bulldozer clearing things out, and they had the big machine there with the wrecking ball knocking it down. I got a few bricks from it, but it was sad to see it come down after so many years.”
After being part of several Stanley Cup celebrations under Jack Adams, Wally, along with all Wings fans, went through a decades-long drought. “If they can win again,” he said during Scotty Bowman’s first season at the helm, “then maybe I’ll retire.” He didn’t, of course. After the Wings won back-to-back Cups, Wally still kept at it, as much out of habit as for love for the team.
After 61 consecutive seasons, Wally retired before the start of the 2001-02 campaign, one in which the Red Wings beat Carolina (a franchise whose “hockey tradition includes what happened yesterday,” quipped USA Today’s Kevin Allen) in the Finals. He died at Providence Hospital in early 2003, age 92, with his beloved Wings still the reigning Stanley Cup champions. Leaving on a winning note was an appropriate exit for the man who had long been an integral, if overlooked, part of the club’s storied past.