Detroit Red Wings legend Sid Abel was aptly named. He was a supremely able guy, whether it was on the ice as the playmaking All-Star center and captain of Stanley Cup-winning teams in the 1940s and ‘50s, behind the bench for 14 seasons in Chicago and Detroit, or in the booth for many years as the distinctively voiced commentator on Wings broadcasts. Ol’ Bootnose, who died in 2000 at age 81, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969. Today his retired number hangs from the rafters at The Joe.
In a lifetime crowded with accomplishments, however, one achievement eluded Abel: winning a Stanley Cup as a coach. In fact, he lost in the Finals four times—still the NHL record for frustration among coaches. All four came within a six-year span in the 1960s, the Wings’ last stretch of competitiveness before falling into a long funk in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Admittedly, it was a less onerous path to the Finals back then. In the days of the Original Six, four of six teams made the postseason each spring and there were only two rounds of playoffs. In a 33-season stretch between 1934 and 1966, the Wings made it into the Finals more often than not, appearing in 18 Finals and winning the Cup seven times: in 1936, 1937, 1943, 1950, 1952, 1954, and 1955. If not for some fluky plays, the Wings might have added another chalice or two during Abel’s tenure in the ‘60s.
Abel, who had spent two seasons as a player-coach in Chicago, was in his fourth season as Wings coach when he guided a sub-.500 fourth-place team into an unexpected Finals appearance against the third-place Black Hawks in 1961. The ’61 Finals was the first ever to feature the third- and fourth-place finishers. The high-flying Hawks, featuring Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, and Kenny Wharram, kept the heat on Detroit’s goaltending duo of Terry Sawchuk and Hank Bassen. After rookie Bruce MacGregor’s goal lifted Detroit to a 2-1 victory in Game 4 that knotted the series at two games apiece, Chicago erupted for six goals in Game 5 and five more in Game 6 to capture the Cup. It would turn out to be the only Stanley Cup not won by either Detroit, Montreal, or Toronto during the entire six-team era.
Two years later, the fourth-place Wings made another run at the championship. The ’63 Finals featured Gordie Howe — who had just won his sixth (and last) Art Ross and Hart trophies — against the tight-checking Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs prevailed in five games, despite Howe leading all playoff performers in scoring.
The loss to the Leafs in the ’63 Finals wasn’t nearly as painful as the one in the ’64 Finals would be. Once again the Wings finished fourth, and once again they upset the second-place Blackhawks to earn a berth in the Finals against Toronto. It was a thrilling, closely fought series, with the Wings hammering out a 2-1 victory in Game 5 to put them within one victory of the championship.
Game 6, played April 23, 1964 at Olympia, immediately became an integral part of hockey lore. The score was tied at 3-3 late in the third period when Leafs defenseman Bob Baun took a slap shot off his skate and was taken off the ice by stretcher to the locker room. Despite the pain, Baun insisted on having the trainer tightly wrap what was later diagnosed as a broken ankle. At 1:43 of the first overtime period, the hobbled Baun shoveled the puck from just inside the blueline towards the Detroit net. The harmless looking shot turned deadly, however, bouncing off Wings defenseman Bill Gadsby and finding its way past Doug Barkley and Sawchuk into the net. The 4-3 victory gave Toronto new life. Two days later, the Leafs beat Abel’s demoralized squad, 4-0, in Game 7 in Toronto.
Abel’s best—and last—chance to coach the Wings to the Stanley Cup came two years later, in 1966. The fourth-place Wings, huge underdogs, put the first-place Canadiens in an unprecedented hole by winning the first two games of the Finals at the Montreal Forum. It was the first time the Canadiens had ever lost the first two games of a playoff series on home ice.
The Wings took the Detroit-bound train home filled with confidence. The next two games were scheduled for Olympia. More important, Detroit’s acrobatic goaltender, Roger Crozier, was in top form. Nonetheless, Montreal won Game 3, 4-2, then squeaked by in Game 4 by a 2-1 score. Both goals were scored on backup Hank Bassen, who was called to replace Crozier early in the game after he was injured in a goal-mouth collision. Playing with a wrenched left knee, Crozier was subpar in Game 5 as Montreal waltzed to a 5-1 victory. Afterwards, Abel defended Crozier, explaining that “we didn’t give the little guy any protection. With his heavily taped knee, he just couldn’t move out there.”
With Montreal suddenly up 3 games to 2, the series shifted to Detroit. On the evening of May 5, 1966, the Red Wings hosted the last Finals game ever played at Olympia. It wound up being one of the most controversial games ever seen at the corner of Grand River and McGraw. With Detroit down by a goal midway through the third period, Floyd Smith scored to knot the game at 2-2. It remained that way through the first couple minutes of overtime, when Henri Richard steamed towards the Detroit net. Wings defender Gary Bergman was in hot pursuit as Canadiens left winger Dave Balon passed the puck from the corner towards the crease. Richard, who by now had been upended by Bergman’s check and was sliding towards Crozier like an out-of-control sled, arrived at the same time as the puck. The puck hit Richard as both slid past Crozier and into the net for the Cup-winning goal. Abel and the Wings were livid, maintaining that Richard has shoved the puck in with his glove, arm or elbow, but the goal counted.
After that discouraging and controversial defeat, the Wings quickly slid into mediocrity, missing the playoffs the next three seasons. It would be nearly three decades before the Wings appeared in the Finals again. Abel moved on to St. Louis and Kansas City for a spell in the 1970s before settling into the broadcast booth, where his easy and informed banter with Bruce Martyn made him a fan favorite and the inspiration for George Baier’s impersonation of him on rock station WRIF.
Abel’s failure to win a Cup from behind the bench in no way detracted from a sterling hockey life. All the same, Sid occasionally admitted, it certainly would have been nice.