When Sid Abel, the pivot on the Detroit Red Wings’ famed “Production Line,” asked to be traded to Chicago after the 1952 playoffs, management had few concerns over who was going to fill Ol’ Bootnose’s skates. A 20-year-old third-line forward named Alex Delvecchio took over at center, and the retooled Production Line kept rolling along with nary a hiccup.
Delvecchio, nicknamed “Fats” because of his round face, was a fixture of Detroit hockey for decades. While not the box-office draw that his line mates Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay were, he was a graceful skater with deceptive speed and amazing endurance. In 24 NHL seasons, all of them spent with the Wings, he missed just 43 games, in the process setting a team iron-man record of 548 consecutive games played. He was a choirboy compared to his more temperamental wingers, winning three Lady Byng Trophies while averaging just 16 penalty minutes a season. “I don’t think I had five fights in my life,” Delvecchio once recalled, “and most of them were just grappling with the other guy.”
Delvecchio grew up in Fort William (now Thunder Bay), Ontario, and as a teenager his talent impressed Wings general manager Jack Adams. He quickly graduated from the Oshawa Generals and Indianapolis Capitals to the big time. In 1951-52, he popped in 16 goals in his first NHL season as the Wings steamrollered Toronto and Montreal en route to an unprecedented postseason sweep to the Stanley Cup. Alex would go on to celebrate two more Cup victories, in 1954 and ’55. In the ’55 playoffs, he starred with seven goals and 15 points in 11 games.
In his early years, Delvecchio, like most players, feared answering to Adams. “Jolly Jack” was humorless when it came to losing, Delvecchio remembered. “Whenever you’d make a mistake on the ice, you’d sit in front of your locker with your head down. You’d hope he wouldn’t show up, but he always did. You’d be looking down at the carpet, and you’d see those pigeon feet in those black shoes, and you’d know it was coming. He’d start giving it to you good. He’d call you every name in the book. You sat there and took it. You didn’t dare look up for fear he’d whack you on the head.”
Delvecchio was listed as being 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds. In an era where a 20-goal season was the benchmark of a productive scorer, Alex reached that figure 13 times; twice he scored 19 goals. He was a productive set-up man, regularly ranking high in assists. When Frank “Big M” Mahovlich joined the team in March 1968, a new Production Line was born. In 1968-69, the Howe-Delvecchio-Mahovlich trio combined for 118 goals, setting a new goal-scoring record for a line.
Like Howe, his longtime teammate, at times it seemed as if Delvecchio would go on forever, accumulating points and recognition as the seasons rolled along. He played in 13 All-Star games and was the Wings’ captain for a dozen seasons. A versatile forward, he was only the third player to gain All-Star honors at two positions, being named as a center in 1953 and as a left winger in 1959.
Delvecchio was approaching his 42nd birthday when he retired early in the 1973-74 season. He had already joined Howe as the first NHL players to spend 20 or more seasons with one club. Upon retirement, Alex had 456 goals, 825 assists, and 1,281 points in 1,594 games, and was second to Howe in almost every significant offensive category. Off the ice, Delvecchio raised a family, ran a successful engraving business, and contributed to various charitable causes.
Delvecchio spent the next several years in the front office and behind the bench. He was less successful in those positions; nonetheless, the honors kept coming. He was a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame in 1977 and his uniform number (#10) was retired in 1991. In the fall of 2008, the club unveiled a statue of Delvecchio at Joe Louis Arena. “All we wanted to do,” the humble honoree said at the time, “was play hockey and try to win some hockey games.”