Saturday, 12 October 2013

The “ Trader Jack” Myth (Part 1)

Terry Sawchuk in his early days with the Detroit Red Wings (www.beehivehockey.com)

Sportswriters had 2 nicknames for him, “Trader Jack” and “Jolly Jack.”  Baby Boomers and those older certainly remember him. He was Jack Adams and he holds the record for being the longest-running National Hockey League GM in the history of the game, a total of 36 years starting in 1927. And all with one team. He helped build the Detroit Red Wings into an awesome force. Then he single-handedly destroyed the organization with several bad player transactions done out spite, arrogance, and bad judgment. Some of the trades seemed to be done as a smoke screen, just for the sake of moving around a lot of players like they were part of a jigsaw puzzle.

Born in 1895, Jack Adams was a pro hockey forward of distinction with the Vancouver Millionaires of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association; and the Toronto Arenas, the Toronto St. Pats, and the Ottawa Senators of the NHL. After retiring as a player in 1927, Adams heard through NHL president Frank Calder that the Detroit Cougars (as they were called then) needed a coach and a general manager.  Adams approached Detroit’s president Charlie Hughes, applied for both jobs and quickly got them, probably because no one else wanted them.  Adams was still there in 1930 when the team had changed its name to the Falcons. By then the team was going nowhere and approaching bankruptcy it not for wealthy grain dealer James Norris buying the club in 1932. The first thing Norris did was change the name of the club again, this time to the present-day  Detroit Red Wings. Suddenly, the team had money. Norris, at that time the largest cash grain buyer in the world, told Adams that a budget of $100,000 in player salaries was available to start the 1932-33 season.  Over the course of the next few years, up to 1947, when he retired as coach to take on the sole duty as GM, Adams had won three Stanley Cups for Norris. To date, Adams is still the winningest coach in Red Wings history with 413 wins.

As GM, Adams’  best years were a 7-year span from  1949-1955, when the Wings finished first every regular season and won 4 Stanley Cups to boot. In 1957, they finished first again, making it 8 of 9 first-place seasons. In 1956, the season they missed at top honors, the Wings finished a distant second and lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the finals.

Adams’ first major deal followed the 1949 Stanley Cup win. To make room for the upcoming , young Terry Sawchuk in net, Adams came up with a whopper on July 13, 1950 by swapping number one goalie Harry Lumley, Jack Stewart, Al Dewsbury, Pete Babando and Dan Morrison to the Chicago Blackhawks for Metro Prystai , Gaye Stewart, Bob Goldham  and another goalie Jim Henry.  The 9-player trade, history proved, did work out a little more in Detroit’s favor, although they did have to give up an excellent all-star defenseman in Jack Stewart. Prystai, a good two-way forward, and Goldham, an excellent shot-blocking defenseman, were two decent players for several years with the Wings, tremendous contributors to 2 and 3 Stanley Cups, respectively.  

That December, once the new season started, Chicago traded 24-year-old Bert Olmstead, a 20-goal scorer the year before, to Detroit with Vic Stasiuk for Stephen Black and Lee Fogolin Sr., only to have Adams turn around and trade Olmstead to Montreal 17 days later before Olmstead  could even throw a Detroit jersey over his chest. In Montreal, he helped the Habs win 4 Stanley Cups over the next 8 years. Twice he led the league in assists and was one of the best left wingers in the game, making the second all-star team twice.  Then he went to Toronto and helped the Leafs win the Cup in 1962. He’s now in the Hall of Fame. Who did the Wings get from the Canadiens in return? Leo Gravelle, who played a big whoop  18 games in the Motor City, then was sent to the minors, never to return to the Big Time.

On August 20, 1951, Adams ripped off another major transaction by sending  six Red Wings players, Rags Raglan, Jimmy Peters, George Gee, Max McNabb, Jim McFadden, and Clare Martin to Chicago for Hugh Coflin and $75,000 cash. Coflin, an average defenseman at best, spent the rest of his career in the minors, finishing with the WHL Edmonton Flyers in 1960. The six new Hawks players went on to play a combined 697 NHL games, with Peters the most at 210 games. It’s undocumented what Adams did with the cash.

On June 8, 1951, Adams made an even-up deal by swapping high-scoring forward Gaye Stewart to the New York Rangers for  Tony Leswick, an in-your-face defensive forward who was best known for tailing such stars as Habs Rocket Richard during his career. Stewart scored another 16 goals in the NHL, then went to the minors to stay.

Skip ahead to early 1952. On a road trip aboard a train, Wings defenseman Leo Reise said to a teammate that he liked Detroit, and after playing there for 6 solid years and helping win 2 Stanley Cups,  he wanted to stop renting and buy a house. One problem, though, when he looked around the train compartment that day, he noticed  that  Jack Adams was within earshot. Adams didn’t like complacent players. Reise knew right then and there that he was gone. Sure enough, that August, he was traded to the New York Rangers for Reg Sinclair and John Morrison. Sinclair played only one year as a Wing, then retired, while Morrison never made the NHL. Meanwhile, Reise put in 2 more solid years on the Rangers defense before calling it a career.

Then Jim Norris died later that year, leaving his empire in the hands of his family, sons Bruce and Jimmy (who was already running the Blackhawks) and daughter Marguerite, who eventually won out as president of the Red Wings, a post she took on with vigor for the next 3 years. In her time, Detroit finished first every year and won the Stanley Cup twice. While her father got along quite well with Adams, Marguerite detested the short, little man. On many occasions, she wanted to fire him but just couldn’t do it for fear of a backlash from the family. For some reason, though, Adams’ trading seemed to die off under her leadership. Then in 1955, when Bruce took over the presidency, the trading took off again, more than ever.

The Wings won the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1955 with 25-year-old Terry Sawchuk minding the net, finishing with an impressive season of 40 wins, 12 shutouts and 1.96 goals against average. To date, he had 57 shutouts in only 5 full regular seasons.  Some were calling him the greatest NHL goalie ever. But Adams liked what he saw in Glenn Hall the times he had been called up in the previous two seasons from the farm team in Edmonton. The butterfly-styled Hall seemed to be the future. Sawchuk was expendable. 

There were rumors about a trade with Montreal, all-star defenseman Doug Harvey for  Sawchuk, even up. But a different deal was made June 3, 1955. Instead of trading Sawchuk—at the height of his career—one-for-one  for another star or superstar in the league such as Harvey, Adams handed Sawchuk to the Boston Bruins on a silver platter along with Marcel Bonin, Lorne Davis and Vic Stasiuk for Gilles Boisvert, Real Chevrefils, Norm Corcoran, Warren Godfrey and Ed Sandford. “We didn’t get crap for Terry,” said Wings defense star Marcel Pronovost years later about the trade that saw Sawchuk get buried in the mix.  By this time, the Wings players were in complete shock. Just a week earlier, Adams had engineered a trade with Chicago where the Wings Tony Leswick (remember him?), Glen Skov, Johnny Wilson and Benny Woit headed to the Blackhawks for Dave Creighton, Gord Hollingworth and John McCormack.

Adams didn’t just tweak his Stanley Cup team the way most GMs would do, he blew it up. It must have been one disheartening summer for the Red Wings players. Going into camp for the 1955-56 season, only 9 players remained from their championship team the previous spring. Before the press, Wings star left-winger Ted Lindsay criticized the loss of Glen Skov. This act of treason irritated Adams to no end. Skov believed he was traded because he dared to get married during the hockey season, a Jack Adams no-no. Wings players weren’t supposed to concentrate on sex, only hockey. Quite the dictatorial era the players lived in when they couldn’t even get married when they wanted to.  Adams also expected his players to be dumb and uneducated, dependent only on hockey. Very few players prior to the 1967 expansion finished high school, and even fewer had their own off-ice businesses. It ticked Adams  something fierce that Lindsay and teammate Marty Pavelich had started a partnership in 1952 to supply plastic to the Detroit car industry.  For years, Lindsay had been the team leader and captain, someone the players looked up to. Adams believed Lindsay was influencing the players too much, turning them against management, thus taking away Adams’ control over the team. By this time, Lindsay was barely on talking terms with the GM.  On one occasion, he even told Adams to FO, loud enough for the smirking Wings staff outside Adam’s office to hear.

Adams began to look dimly on goalie Glenn Hall too. Although he appeared to be a tall, innocent, easy-going country boy from the Saskatchewan prairies, Hall had a mind of his own and refused to be pushed around. Adams didn’t like the fact that Hall was getting too friendly with Lindsay. The GM now had two players he couldn’t control. On one occasion, Hall was warned, through coach Jimmy Skinner –who was nothing more than a door-opener coach according to many Wings players--to stay away from Lindsay. According to Hall, he told Skinner to tell Adams to do something to himself that started with the letter F. It was another point against Hall. At contract time in the fall of 1956, after his first full season in the Wings net where he recorded a league-leading 12 shutouts, he had no alternative but to settle for a slight raise from Adams. Adams then told  the goalie not to tell anyone what he was making, something Adams told every player at contract time.

“Don’t worry, Mr Adams,” Hall replied, sadly. “I’m too ashamed to tell anybody. “
 (Part 2 next week…the 2 worst trades are yet to come)

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