When the Detroit Red Wings suited up for the opening game of the 1950 playoffs against Toronto, revenge was very much on their minds. In each of the two previous years, they had met the Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Finals, only to be swept each time. Jack Adams’ squad, coached by Tommy Ivan, had finished the 1949-50 regular season on top of the standings, their second of an eventual seven straight first-place finishes. But if they were going to end their streak of frustration against the third-place Leafs—a team gunning for a fourth straight Stanley Cup and Detroit’s most bitter rivals—they needed their star player, Gordie Howe, to be at the top of his game.
Howe was the slope-shouldered right winger on Detroit’s famed Production Line, centered by captain Sid Abel and featuring left winger Ted Lindsay. Howe had led all playoff performers in scoring the previous spring. Although Lindsay had won the scoring title in ’49-50, it was Howe, just three days short of his 22nd birthday when the playoffs began, who was already widely regarded as the league’s emerging superstar. But Gordie didn’t have much of a chance to strut his stuff when the Wings faced off with their old nemesis on March 28, 1950 at Olympia Stadium. In fact, in the most serious incident of Howe’s long career, he almost lost his life. The result was a wild, white-knuckle ride to a Stanley Cup championship—the first of four the Wings would capture during the 1950s — which Gordie’s teammates struggled to win without him.
The Leafs jumped out to a 3-0 lead in Game 1. In the second period, Howe came charging towards Ted “Teeder” Kennedy as the Toronto captain led a rush across center ice. Seeing out of the corner of his eye that he was about to be hammered into the boards—the referee already had his his arm up to signal a charging penalty — Kennedy suddenly pulled up.
Howe, hurtling like a runaway locomotive, stumbled, glanced off his intended target, and plowed head-first into the top of the boards right in front of the Detroit bench. Wings defenseman “Black Jack” Stewart, who’d also had Kennedy in his sights, couldn’t check his momentum and fell over Howe.
It took a few moments to take in what had just happened. There was blood all over the boards and ice. Stewart got up, but Gordie was stretched out, unmoving. He was bleeding and unconscious. As the full house at Olympia watched in stunned silence, Howe was placed on a stretcher, taken into the dressing room for assessment, then rushed by ambulance to Harper Hospital.
The young star was in critical condition. He had broken his nose, shattered his cheekbone, seriously scratched his right eye, and—worst of all—possibly fractured his skull. His brain was hemorrhaging. Shortly after midnight, a neurosurgeon started a very delicate, life-saving operation. He drilled an opening in Howe’s skull, then drained fluid to relieve pressure on the brain. After the 90-minute operation, the patient was put in an oxygen tent. Meanwhile, all of Detroit and Saskatoon — Gordie’s hometown — listened to radio updates on Howe’s condition.
The news came later that morning and was good. The patient had been stabilized and his condition was now graded serious. He would pull through. The fourth graders at a local Catholic school concluded that they’d had a hand in his recovery. Their teacher was Ted Lindsay’s sister, and she had asked them to pray for a special friend of hers.
Charges and counter-charges flew between the teams as they prepared for Game 2. Although Kennedy was widely vilified, a league inquiry would later clear him of any blame in the accident. Kennedy always maintained that the only thing he was guilty of was getting out of the way. It was a view privately held by several of the Wings, including goalie Harry Lumley, who perhaps had the best view of what happened. Publicly, however, the organization expressed outrage, claiming that Kennedy had deliberately hit Howe in the eye with the butt end of his stick, causing him to pitch into the boards. The controversy gave Detroit a clear rallying point, one that was desperately needed after being smoked by a 5-0 score.
To nobody’s surprise, Game 2, played two nights later, turned into a body-slamming, stick-swinging grudge match. The game exploded into open warfare when Lindsay was taken off his feet by Leafs defenseman Gus Mortson.
“Everybody in the rink saw it, except the referee,” Red Kelly later recalled. “There was no call but a few seconds later our defenseman, Lee Fogolin, hit somebody on the Leafs and he got two minutes. Before you knew it, everybody was fighting….the two goaltenders, our Harry Lumley and Turk Broda of Toronto, met at center ice and with all their equipment on went at it, rolling around on the ice. By now everyone was on the ice and people were throwing chairs form the stands at Olympia. It was almost a riot.”
Howe’s mother, who had flown in from Saskatoon to stand watch over her son, was attending her first NHL game as a guest of Wings management. The violence moved her to tears. “If this is hockey,” she cried, “I hope my son has to quit!” The Wings beat Toronto, 3-1, to knot the series at a game apiece. It was their first victory after 12 straight postseason losses to the Leafs.
The teams continued to exchange victories. Broda posted two more shutouts in Games 3 and 5, while Wings defenseman Leo Reise scored an overtime goal in Game 4 and Harold Lumley whitewashed the Leafs in Game 6.
Lumley and Broda, the league’s top two goalies, maintained their outstanding netminding in Game 7, played on Easter Sunday in Detroit. At the end of regulation, neither had allowed a puck to get past. Then for the second time in five nights, Reise settled matters. The 27-year-old defensive specialist, who would never score more than five goals in any of his nine NHL seasons, tried to throw the puck in front of the Toronto net.
“I can still see the puck going in,” Kelly said, years later. “Leo backhanded it at Broda and it bounced once and it bounced twice and at the second bounce, Broda kicked it and it went over the top and into the net, eight and a half minutes into overtime.” The 1-0 nail-biter avenged Howe’s injury and squashed Toronto’s bid for a fourth straight Stanley Cup.
Reise’s heroics put the Wings in the Cup Finals against the fourth-place New York Rangers, surprise winners over Montreal in the other Semifinals match. With Madison Square Garden booked for its annual circus, the Rangers were forced to open in Detroit, followed by two “home” games on neutral ice—in Toronto!
The upstart Rangers wound up giving the favored Wings all they could handle. With Gerry “Doc” Couture (a 24-goal scorer during the regular season) and Joe Carveth (a former Wing reacquired from Montreal) ably filling in for Howe, the Wings administered a 4-1 thumping in Game 1 before the action shifted to Toronto.
In Toronto, the fans adopted the boys in blue and white as their own. Of course, they didn’t really like the Rangers; they simply hated the Red Wings. Their lusty cheering helped New York to a 3-1 decision in Game 2. The Wings regrouped in Game 3, blocking out the booing and catcalls while zipping past the Rangers, 4-0.
With the Wings up two games to one, Detroit fans were confidently expecting their team to make short work of the Rangers when the series moved to the friendly confines of Olympia. Thanks to a beanpole center named Don “Bones” Raleigh, the Wings instead found themselves on the brink of an unthinkable collapse. In Game 4, Raleigh banged the puck off the post and into the net at 8:34 of sudden death, giving the underdog Rangers a 4-3 win and fresh life.
And then in Game 5, Raleigh let loose a 10-footer that—shades of Leo Reise—whistled through Lumley’s legs for his second OT winner in a row. Raleigh, described by one New York paper as “a toothless, frail-looking 150-pounder, who casts no shadow when he stands sideway,” thus became the first man ever to score overtime goals in back-to-back playoff games. Thanks to Bones, New York’s orphans were now just one more victory away from an improbable Stanley Cup championship.
Game 6 had originally been scheduled for the Rangers’ home ice—that is, Toronto. But a league rule prohibited the potentially decisive game of a series to be played at at a neutral site, which is what the Maple Leaf Gardens, for all its newfound New York partisanship, technically was. Therefore, the league office ruled, the Rangers must stay in Detroit for the duration of the series.
The fired-up Rangers barged out to a 3-1 lead in Game 6, but Sid Abel and Couture countered for Detroit. The Rangers’ Tony Leswick scored early in the third period for a 4-3 lead; however, Lindsay restored the tie at the 4:13 mark. Six minutes later, Abel scored what proved to be the game winner on an incredibly acrobatic play. He rushed the New York net, tripped over goalie Chuck Raynor’s pads, and while still in flight managed to somehow steer the puck around the fallen goalie and into the yawning yarn.
The Wings’ 5-4 victory set up Game 7 on Sunday, April 23 at Olympia. The tired, displaced, but still overachieving Rangers, who had now been on the road for three weeks, had enough steam left in them to race out to a 2-0 lead. Power-play goals by Pete Babando and Abel, spaced 21 seconds apart in the second period, wiped out that advantage. Buddy O’Connor restored the Rangers’ lead midway through the period, but Detroit’s Jim McFadden responded with a goal of his own. With the scoreboard reading three goals apiece, both teams then fought through 52 minutes of excruciating scoreless hockey before a winner was finally determined.
The decisive moment was engineered by George Gee, a clever center that Jack Adams had acquired from Chicago the previous season. A little over eight minutes into the second overtime period, Gee took a pass from left winger Pete Babando and sailed in on Rayner. The Rangers’ goalie moved 15 feet out of his cage to smother the shot. Before taking the ensuing faceoff to the left of the New York net, Gee skated over to Babando. “Move over behind me,” he instructed. “You’re too far to the left.”
Babando, a 24-year-old finishing up his first season in Detroit after spending the previous two seasons in Boston, did as he was told, moving over about 18 inches to his right. Gee won the draw, whipped the puck to Babando, who in turn wristed a backhander towards the scramble in front of the net. From 15 feet away the puck hummed through a tangle of arms and legs and past the screened Rayner into the far righthand corner of the net.
It took a moment for the players and the crowd to react. The red light went on. Goal! For the first time ever, an overtime goal in the seventh game of the Finals had determined the Stanley Cup champion. The draining, dramatic 4-3 win created pandemonium at Olympia. Against a backdrop of ear-splitting cheering and chants of “We want Howe!”, Detroit players threw their gloves into the air, lifted Tommy Ivan onto their shoulders, and wore wide gap-toothed grins as Sid Abel skated around the far reaches of the Olympia ice pushing a little wooden table holding the Stanley Cup.
Howe, his head shaved from emergency surgery three weeks earlier, made his way from the stands to participate in the celebration. Lindsay deliriously snatched the fedora off Gordie’s head and tossed it into the seats. Then Lindsay launched a Stanley Cup tradition by hoisting the trophy high over his head and skating around the rink with it. Television cameras caught that moment—one that generations of hockey-mad youngsters have since grown up emulating with trash cans and old tires.
“Our team was on top of the hockey world and the sky was the limit for us,” said center Max McNab, who that evening joined Howe, Lindsay, and the rest of his teammates in a rowdy champagne party at the Book-Cadillac Hotel. “As long as Gordie could return in good shape, the team figured to be a winner for years.”
And it was. In 1950-51, Gordie won the first of four straight scoring championships. By the spring of 1955 he had led the Wings to three more Stanley Cups, giving them four in a six-year span. Despite his brush with death and the motivational effect his injury had had on his teammates, Howe always discounted his contribution to the 1950 Cup victory. Sure, his name was inscribed on the trophy along with the others from that season, but he felt like he hadn’t really contributed. “I like to earn things,” he explained. “To be on the ice, and sweat and bleed with the boys.”