It had been five years since the Detroit Red Wings last won the Stanley Cup when, in 1947, Tommy Ivan replaced Jack Adams as head coach. Ivan immediately put the two best players on the squad — Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay — on either side of future Hall of Famer Sid Abel. Although Abel was in the twilight of his career, Ivan knew that he could still be effective with the two younger, faster wingers, who could compensate for his lack of speed and bring out the best of what was left in him.
Howe and Lindsay were best friends off the ice, and, with Abel, they often stayed late after practice to perfect their play together. As a result, the trio created one of hockey’s greatest plays — the set play.
To take advantage of Howe and Lindsay’s speed, and contrary to today’s Wings strategy of carrying the puck into the offensive zone, Howe or Lindsay shot the puck into the opponent’s end. They angled their shoot-in so that the puck ricocheted off the boards to the front of the goal for the other winger to play it. After gaining control of the puck in front of the goal, a quick pass was made to Abel in the slot or a shot was taken. In that era, goalies rarely left the goal crease to cut off the shoot-in or block the pass in front. As Howe, Lindsay and Abel became more familiar with each other’s play, they found other ways to confound opponent’s blue liners and score goals.
It obviously worked since, for the 1947–48 season, the trio was tops on the team in scoring, while in 1950, the year “Terrible Ted” Lindsay won the scoring crown, the three finished 1-2-3 in league scoring, a feat that has never been duplicated. They also made it to the Cup finals in 1948 and 1949, losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs both times. They would, however, win the Cup in 1950, beating the New York Rangers.
The line of Howe, Lindsay and Abel created quite a stir with their offensive prowess, resulting in a desire to come up with a catchy nickname for the trio. In the end, a term was coined that perfectly described the importance of the line to the Wings scoring production while referencing the city for which the team played: the Production Line.
After the 1951–52 season, Abel was traded to the Chicago Black Hawks to make room for Alex Delvecchio. Along with Howe and Lindsay, the line continued to dominate the league as “Production Line II.” In 1965, when Frank Mahovlich replaced Ted Lindsay, who retired, they became known as Production Line III.
As part of the original Production Line, Howe won his first of four Art Ross Trophies in 1949, for leading the league in scoring, and he went on to finish in the top five in scoring for the next 20 seasons.