50 Years Ago in Hockey: The Coaches – Sid Abel

Sid Abel, or “Old Bootnose” as he is known to his National Hockey League contemporaries, is one of two men who hold the dual role of general manager and coach of a National Hockey League team. While many feel that in today’s modern hockey world of the 1960’s both jobs are far too complex for one man, Abel and Punch Imlach of the Toronto Maple Leafs are proof that the right man can have success.

Sid Abel with the 1950 Stanley Cup/
Sid Abel with the 1950 Stanley Cup.

Discovered By the Postmaster

The 47-year-old Abel, a native of Melville, Saskatchewan, played his minor and junior hockey in that prairie town. The community’s postmaster was a part-time scout for the Detroit Red Wings and he arranged for the youngster, 19 at the time, to be invited to the Wings’ training camp in 1937. General manager-coach Jack Adams wanted to sign Abel and have him play with a farm club, but Sid declined, choosing instead to play senior hockey closer to home.

A year later, the Wings signed Abel as a free agent out of the North Saskatchewan Senior League. He split his first pro season between the Pittsburgh Hornets of the International-American Hockey League and Detroit. After another season divided between the NHL and IAHL, Sid was in the NHL to stay in 1940-41. The very next season he scored 49 points in 48 games and became known as one of the finest centres in the league, named to the Second All-Star Team.

Captain at 24

In 1942-43 Abel became captain of the Red Wings at the tender age of 24 and led the team to the Stanley Cup. He remained the Detroit captain throughout his career in the Motor City.

As with so many players of that era, Abel’s career was interrupted by World War Two. He spent most of three seasons in the Canadian military, returning late in the 1945-46 season.

The “Production Line”

It was the next season, 1946-47, that Abel was put at centre between a couple of youngsters.  Left wing Ted Lindsay was in only his third NHL season, and a rookie right wing named Gordon Howe was making his NHL debut. The trio clicked almost immediately and went on to become one of the most feared offensive units in NHL history. Dubbed “The Production Line”, an apt moniker for a Motor City threesome, they stayed together as a unit until Abel moved to Chicago for the 1952-53 season to become the playing coach of the Black Hawks. The line’s greatest season was in 1949-50, when they finished 1-2-3 in NHL scoring.

The famed Production Line.
The famed Production Line.

Abel spent two seasons as player-coach in Chicago, getting into only three games in 1953-54 before hanging up his skates for good.

During his playing career Abel potted 189 goals and added 283 assists. He was an NHL first-team all-star twice and was named to the second team an equal number of times.  He won three Stanley Cups with the Wings and also led the Detroit to four consecutive first-place finishes between 1948-49 and 1951-52. He was awarded the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player in 1948-49. Abel was known as the heart of the Detroit powerhouse, a leader with a team-first, take-no-prisoners attitude. Many call him the greatest leader the Red Wings have ever had.

Sid the Coach

Sid’s coaching career did not begin as successfully as his playing days. During his two seasons in the Windy City, the team finished fourth and sixth. At the end of the 1953-54 season, Abel resigned, citing business pressures. Despite his lack of success, Abel found he enjoyed coaching and he always knew he’d return to the bench at some point.

Sid Abel as playing coach of the Black Hawks
Sid Abel as playing coach of the Black Hawks

After leaving Chicago, Abel became a broadcaster with Detroit. Half-way through the 1957-58 season, Jimmy Skinner, then coach of the Red Wings, had to leave the post due to illness. Abel was asked to take over the reins of the team and did a fine job, as the Wings rallied to finish third in the NHL standings. He has been behind the bench for the Red Wings ever since.

Sid Abel behind the bench with the Red Wings.
Sid Abel behind the bench with the Red Wings.

At the end of the 1961-62 season, legendary Jack Adams was fired as the Detroit general manager and Abel added the GM title to his portfolio. Over the past three seasons, Abel re-tooled the Motor City crew, culminating in last season’s first-place finish. The club disappointed in the playoffs, losing in the semi-finals to Chicago, causing Abel to engage in another revamp of the club over this past summer.

As the Red Wings look to take that final step and capture their first Stanley Cup since 1955 one thing is clear – Sid Abel is in charge of the franchise and this is his team.

Training Camp Notes

  • Rookie forward Brian Conacher has left the Toronto Maple Leafs training camp after Punch Imlach refused his request for a two-year contract and guaranteed NHL roster spot with the Leafs.
  • Marcel Pronovost signed his 1965-66 contract with Toronto yesterday.
  • King Clancy says veteran Allan Stanley has been the best defenceman in Toronto’s training camp so far.
  • Montreal Canadiens opened training camp yesterday with almost the same squad that won the Stanley Cup last spring.