What was the greatest team in Detroit Red Wings’ history? Younger fans might be understandably partial to one of Scotty Bowman’s squads, particularly the one that brought home the ’97 Stanley Cup. Fans with longer memories, as well as many hockey historians, consider the 1951-52 Wings the finest in franchise history. In fact, the team that ripped through the National Hockey League that year may have been the best single-season team of all-time.
The team was loaded with perennial All-Stars and future Hall of Famers: Gordie Howe at right wing, Ted Lindsay at left wing, Red Kelly on the blueline, and Terry Sawchuk in goal. For the second consecutive year, this quartet grabbed four of the six spots on the First All-Star Team. Sid Abel and Alex Delvecchio, both also destined for the Hall of Fame, were part of a talent-rich roster that also included forwards Johnny Wilson, Metro Prystai, and Marty Pavelich, and defensemen Marcel Pronovost, Bob Goldham, and Leo Reise, Jr. The head coach was Tommy Ivan, and Jack Adams was the general manager (Hockey HOFers both).
The ’52 championship represented the zenith of the Wings’ decade of dominance. Between 1948-49 and 1956-57, Detroit finished on top of the standings in eight of nine seasons and won four Stanley Cups, twice with thrilling overtime goals in the seventh game of the Finals. What were the keys to the Wings’ success? Well, talent, first and foremost. But chemistry was just as important, maybe even more so. “We had great unity,” recalled Glen Skov, the pivot on a checking line that included Marty Pavelich and Tony Leswick. “We did a lot of things together off the ice. On the ice, we defied anybody to beat us.”
The Red Wings of that era were like an extended family. As shopworn as that characterization has become, in this case there is no other way to describe the team’s storied harmony. To a degree, it was less a matter of choice than a reaction to the environment they found themselves in. Most of the players were single, pink-cheeked lads from small towns in Canada, suddenly plunked down in a noisy, crowded, confusing metropolis. Adams, a church-going teetotalist, was their surrogate father, while the prim, gray-haired matrons of the neighborhood boardinghouses they stayed in during the season—Ma Shaw, Ma Tannahill—served as substitute mothers. The wives of married players, most notably Sid Abel’s wife, Gloria, also filled the role, hosting dinners and barbecues for team members.
These players genuinely liked each other. They sneaked beer onto trains and whiled away hours playing pinochle or hearts for a penny a point. They reserved Monday nights for get-togethers at a local Italian restaurant, took in movies at the Fox Theater, and bowled in leagues at the Lucky Strike, three blocks from Olympia. Many attended mass or started offseason businesses together. They double- and triple-dated, served as best man at each other’s weddings, and buried their smiles when Adams—wholly convinced that sexual relations, even with a wife, robbed a player of his game legs—screamed at Skov during one of his locker-room tirades that he was “spending too much time in the crease!”
It wasn’t a perfect world, of course. There was always the fear that, in an era of stiff competition, capricious management, and 17-man rosters, one might suddenly find himself without an NHL job. Salaries were so low that even superstars like Howe had to find summer employment. But all in all, most Wings from that period considered it a wonderful life, getting paid to play a game they had loved since childhood.
The Wings started the ’51-52 regular season on October 11 in midseason form, beating Boston, 1-0, at Olympia. It was the first of Sawchuk’s league-leading dozen shutouts. They ended it on March 23 with a 7-2 walloping of the Canadiens. The Wings’ final record of 44-14-12 allowed them to reach the century mark in points for the second straight year—the first two 100-point seasons in league history. The 44 wins also tied their NHL record for victories in a season. Montreal finished a distant second, 22 points behind.
Howe won the Hart Trophy and his second straight scoring title with 86 points, including 47 goals. Lindsay finished runner-up with 30 goals and 69 points. Sawchuk won his first of three straight Vezina Trophies with a 1.94 goals-against average. The team was stacked with star power.
Detroit’s juggernaut made quick work of the 1952 postseason, sweeping the Maple Leafs and Canadiens behind a bulletproof blueline and Sawchuk’s sensational goaltending. Sawchuk surrendered but five goals in eight games. He posted four shutouts—two each against Toronto and Montreal, and all on home ice—as the Wings became the first team to skate through the playoffs undefeated. Counting the last third of the regular season, the Wings dropped just three of their last 32 games. They seemed invincible. They could have played all summer and kept on winning.
Montreal coach Dick Irvin refused to acknowledge the Wings’ superiority, despite being beaten decisively in the title round by scores of 3-1, 2-1, 3-0, and 3-0. “Why should I pretend something I do not feel?” he said bitterly. “Let them celebrate their victory if they wish. I don’t lose easily.” After a shocking loss to Boston in the first round of the 1953 playoffs, the Wings rebounded to grab two more Cups, in 1954 and 1955, each time beating Montreal in a seventh game in the finals. They were the last championships of the Jack Adams era.
But, oh, that ’51-52 team! “Those eight games, that was the ultimate,” Leo Reise said of the unprecedented playoff sweep over the Wings’ two most hated rivals. “The team we had was great. The Canadiens were great. Toronto was great.”
The public reaction to a championship was nothing like it was to become, however.
“Now they have a street parade, they meet the president. It’s a show,” Reise said. “We just got a pat on the back.”