The next team on our list of previews for the 64-65 season is the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings have taken a huge risk going into this season, a risk that Coach-GM Sid Abel hopes will yield a high reward in the Motor City.
For the most part, the Red Wings were not a bad team last season. They cruised into fourth place, 17 points ahead of the New York Rangers, solidly ensconced in a playoff position. They weren’t the league’s highest scoring team, and were not the worst defensive outfit either. They were just good enough to get by. But in the playoffs, the Wings took flight, knocking off the vaunted Chicago Black Hawks in a gruelling seven-game series before losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs, also in the maximum seven contests. The Wings actually had Toronto down three games to two before fate intervened in overtime in game six. The Leafs won that one on a goal in extra time by Toronto’s Bob Baun, playing on what was reported to be a broken leg. The emotion of that victory, destined to be legendary in the annals of Stanley Cup history, gave Toronto the momentum needed to carry them to their third straight Stanley Cup.
The Wings were a veteran group last year, led by the greatest veteran of them all, the incomparable Gordie Howe. The big guy once again was Detroit’s best player and he led the team in scoring with 26 goals and 47 assists. Now 35, Howe seemed to be on the ice in every crucial situation for the Wings, and he missed only one match all season. While some observers claim that Howe may have lost half a step, he was always there when it counted and certainly couldn’t be blamed for the playoff loss. In 14 playoff games, he had 19 points on nine goals and ten assists.
The other mainstays of the Red Wings forward unit were Alex Delvecchio, Norm Ullman and Parker MacDonald, all veterans with Ullman the youngest of the three at 27. Each exceeded the 20-goal mark, and Ullman was particularly strong in the playoffs, nearly matching Howe’s point total with 17.
Other forwards who contributed some offence were Bruce MacGregor, 22, with 32 points (11 goals), Floyd Smith (18 goals) and Larry Jeffery, another 22-year-old (10 markers). Teenager Pit Martin, the former captain of the OHA Junior A Hamilton Red Wings, had a satisfactory rookie year at age 19 with nine goals and twelve assists, while showing great promise.
The Wings’ blue line corps was also a veteran crew, led by greybeard Bill Gadsby. At 36, Gadsby still did a creditable job, ably assisted by veteran Marcel Pronovost, 33. The real bright spot on defence was the play of red-headed Doug Barkley. In his second full NHL season at 26, Barkley blossomed offensively, scoring 11 goals while performing solidly on the blue line. The Wings also picked up veteran Al Langlois in a trade for Ron Ingram in February, and the former Canadien performed quite capably down the stretch for the Detroiters. The fifth defence spot was split between Polish-born John Miszuk, and all-purpose skater Irv Spencer, who can also play on the forward line.
In goal, Terry Sawchuk, the NHL’s all-time leader in shutouts, was the main man. He had some down time due to injury and was capably replaced by young rookie Roger Crozier for 15 games. Sawchuk had good numbers for the Wings and at 34, didn’t give any indication that his skills had eroded to the point that the Wings should be concerned. At least that’s what everyone thought.
After coming so close to winning the Stanley Cup last spring, Sid Abel must have felt that his club was in pretty good shape coming into 64-65. But Sid was never one to stand pat and he felt that the veteran netminder Sawchuk was nearing the end of the line, despite having had a pretty good season. With that in mind, Abel felt that he had seen enough of the youthful, slightly built Crozier during his 15-game trial to anoint him heir apparent to Sawchuk. However, at the intra-league draft, Abel may have out-manoeuvred himself when, to hedge his bets on young goaltenders, he claimed Boston prospect George Gardner and took a calculated risk by dropping Sawchuk. Sid felt that since Toronto hadn’t gone after Montreal’s Gump Worsley in the two earlier rounds, the Leafs were no longer interested in a veteran backstop, so Terry would be safe. Much to Sid’s chagrin, Toronto swooped in, claimed the one they call Ukey, leaving the Wings with two inexperienced kids to man their goal. To date, Gardner hasn’t shown much in training camp, certainly not enough to justify dropping the future hall of famer.
The Wings also pulled off a deal with the Chicago Black Hawks. Detroit sent the aforementioned Miszuk, along with minor leaguers Art Stratton and Ian Cushenan to the Windy City in return for left wing Ron Murphy and defenseman Aut Erickson. Murphy is a workmanlike forward with some decent speed and the ability to score 20 goals if healthy. He is expected to line up with Norm Ullman and Floyd Smith on the second forward unit. Erickson will likely toil in the American League with Pittsburgh.
Abel also utilized the intra-league draft to pick up former Montreal farm hand Gary Bergman. Bergman is one of those sleepers that just might surprise if given a real chance with the Wings. He scored 13 goals with Springfield in the AHL last year and is described at a mobile defenseman with a bit of a nasty side.
Rookies to watch
Crozier is the man on the hot seat here – all eyes will be on the 22-year-old right from the get-go as he tries to replace a legend in goal. Crozier has been likened to a smaller version of Chicago’s Glenn Hall, which might not be surprising, since he played his junior career in the Hawks organization before being dealt to Detroit in the summer of 1963. Crozier is a nimble, acrobatic little guy who prefers to use his considerable athletic ability to get whatever part of his body he can in front of the puck, rather than stand up and play the angles. Many observers around the NHL feel it’s a huge risk on Abel’s part to invest so much in a smallish goalie with such an unorthodox style. For Roger’s part, thus far in training camp, he has given every indication that he’s completely up to the task.
Other than Crozier, there aren’t really a lot of kids ready to make the jump to the big league. Speedy Paul Henderson, 21, is likely the best bet to take the next step. Not known as a big scorer, Henderson played 32 games for the Wings last year, netting three goals. If he can learn to harness that abundant speed and gain the knack for converting the numerous scoring chances that speed generates, he can be an asset. A couple of other young former Hamilton players given a chance to make it at some point are Jimmy Peters and Bobby Dillabough.
A rookie defenceman to keep an eye on down the line is Bobby Wall, another Hamilton alumnus. Wall is a stay-at-home type who was known as a leader in junior. Big (6-2) Jim Watson is another blue liner with some potential. He had a cup of coffee with the parent club last year and did well. Draft acquisition Bergman is also in the mix.
Aside from goalies Crozier and Gardner, another keeper the Wings are high on is Detroit native Carl Wetzel. The 25-year-old had been toiling in the minors until two years ago, at which time he embarked upon a stint in the U.S. Army. Back in civilian life now, Wetzel is attempting to resurrect his hockey career with the Detroit organization.
How they’ll do this year
The Red Wings finished fourth last year but came to within one game of winning the Stanley Cup, so things seem to be on the rise. However, any enthusiasm should be tempered by the fact that Abel’s group is going into this season with a rookie goalie who has the added pressure of replacing one of the great netminders of our time. If exhibition matches are an indication, throughout training camp the Wings have looked like a team that must be reckoned with. The rookie goalie looks to be cool as a cucumber and ready for the challenge.
The firepower Detroit has up front should serve them quite well. Howe shows very little sign that age is gaining on him, Alex Delvecchio is smooth as ever and industrious Norm Ullman seems to be getting more of a scoring touch every year. He could be poised for a big season, given his fine playoff performance.
The defence is aging, but that veteran experience provided by Gadsby and Pronovost should help players like Bergman, Wall and Watson come along. Other than Barkley, there just doesn’t seem to be enough defensive depth to give an untested rookie goaltender the support he’ll need.
For the Wings to live up to, or even exceed expectations this year, it all boils down to these critical factors:
- Roger Crozier has to be superb if he is going to replace Terry Sawchuk. It’s all on him.
- Gordie Howe has to keep rolling along, like Old Man River .
- Norm Ullman has to continue to develop into an offensive force.
- The “Old Men of the Blue Line” have to be able to maintain their levels of play for at least one more year.
It says here that gambling on such a slightly built youngster to carry the load between the pipes isn’t the best idea that Sid Abel ever came up with. Letting the only veteran big league back-up he had in Sawchuk get away put the Wings in a very risky spot. Without great goaltending they will be touch and go to make the playoffs. With it, the sky is the limit, but you shouldn’t bet the farm on the latter.
Retired police detective, involved in hockey at all levels for over 50 years. Member of Society for International Hockey Research and presently a video analyst for the leader in advanced hockey analytics (we work exclusively for 2 NHL clubs, and provide advice on an ad hoc basis to many other clients). Currently the Assistant General Manager for the Pelham Pirates of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League. Previously owned the Faceoff computer hockey simulation and also provided all player ratings for the EA Sports series of NHL computer games from the late 90’s into the mid 2000’s.