Countdown to Puck Drop – Day 52 – 1951-52 Red Wings the Best Ever?

Introducing The Hockey Writers’ Countdown to Puck Drop series. From now until the puck drops on the 2019-20 NHL’s regular season on Oct. 2 when the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Ottawa Senators, we’ll be producing content that’s connected to the number of days remaining on that particular day. Some posts may be associated with a player’s number, while others will be connected to a year or length of time. We’re really excited about this series as we take you through the remainder of summer in anticipation of the return of NHL hockey.

As one of the Original Six NHL teams, the Detroit Red Wings have a storied history. From Sid Abel to Henrik Zetterberg, dozens of premier NHLers have sported the winged wheel and led the Red Wings to hockey’s Holy Grail.

When thinking of the best Red Wings teams, the stacked 2001-02 lineup certainly comes to mind. But in my opinion, the 1951-52 Red Wings were superior.

Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings.
Gordie Howe and Jack Adams hammering out a deal.

Back then, Detroit wasn’t Hockeytown yet. It wasn’t even Motown at that point either, but rather  the Motor City, with the auto industry booming thanks to favorable wartime American economic policies.

And at old Olympia Stadium, the Production Line of Abel, Ted Lindsay, and Gordie Howe dominated the NHL. But the Red Wings were more than just the Hall-of-Fame trio – their depth, team defense, goaltending, and team chemistry made them one of the greatest teams of all-time.

Related: The Grind Line: Greatest Red Wings Team Ever

Setting the Stage

Coming off a first-round playoff exit, general manager “Trader Jack” Adams decided to tweak the roster a bit during the offseason. His first move was to acquire Tony Leswick from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for veteran forward Gerry Couture – more on Leswick later. 

Jack Adams and Ted Lindsay of the Detroit Red Wings.
Jack Adams shaking hands with Ted Lindsay.

Adams also cleared out a collection of depth players, sending Max McNab, George Gee, Jim McFadden, Jim Peters, Clare Raglan, and Clare Martin to the Chicago Blackhawks for minor leaguer Hugh Coflin and $75,000 in cash (equivalent to just over $750,000 today). In addition, he swapped minor leaguers Max Quakenbush and Doug McCaig, with the latter joining the organization from the Blackhawks.

Heading into the 1951-52 season, the Red Wings believed that they had the talent to win another Stanley Cup. Up-and-coming prospects Alex Delvecchio, Marcel Pronovost, and Johnny Wilson were ready to take on larger roles alongside Lindsay, Howe, Abel, and Red Kelly.

Related: Jack Adams, the Man and the Award

1951-52 Red Wings Roster

During the Original Six Era, teams rostered fewer skaters and rarely carried a backup goalie. Still, coach Tommy Ivan trotted out a deep and talented group every night.

Ted Lindsay Sid Abel Gordie Howe
Marty Pavelich Glen Skov Tony Leswick
Johnny Wilson Alex Delvecchio Metro Prystai
Vic Stasiuk    
Red KellyBob GoldhamTerry Sawchuk
Marcel PronovostLeo Reise 
Benny Woit  

Extras: Larry Zeidel, Fred Glover.

Red Wings: 1951-52 Regular Season

The Red Wings opened the season against the Boston Bruins, shutting them out 1-0. This was the first of Terry Sawchuk’s league-leading 12 shutouts on the year.

From there, Detroit obliterated the rest of the league. 

“I used to feel sorry for the teams we played the night after we’d lost, because we’d just kick the hell out of them.”

–Marty Pavelich (Allen, K., & Duff, B. (2014). 100 Things Red Wings Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. Chicago, IL: Triumph Books.)

He wasn’t kidding – the Red Wings followed up a loss with a 6-1 victory three times that season.

They finished with a 44-14-12 record, good enough to capture the Prince of Wales Trophy with 100 points – 22 more than the second place Canadiens. 

Sawchuk played every minute of every game and took home the Vezina Trophy. In addition, Howe won the Art Ross and Hart trophies after scoring 47 goals and adding 39 assists for 86 total points. Sawchuk, Howe, Kelly, and Lindsay—who finished second behind Howe in scoring with 69 points—were all named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team as well.

1951-52 Red Wings Statistical Leaders – Regular Season

Gordie HoweRW70473986
Ted LindsayLW70303969
Sid AbelC62173653
Red KellyD67163147
Metro PrystaiC69212243

Red Wings: 1952 Playoffs and the Start of a Tradition

Back in the Original Six era, only four NHL teams qualified for the playoffs. In 1952, those teams were the Red Wings, Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Boston Bruins. Detroit drew the defending champion Maple Leafs in the first round.

Sawchuk opened the postseason the same way as he did the regular season – with a shutout. He then blanked the Leafs again in Game 2. The Red Wings captured the next two games in Toronto and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals to face the Canadiens.

Ted Lindsay was a terror to play against in the 1952 playoffs.

The series opened up in Montreal and the Red Wings quickly jumped out to a 2-0 series lead, winning the first two games 3-1 and 2-1, respectively. It was much of the same for Game 3 and 4 – Detroit captured both contests with identical 3-0 victories.

Detroit’s deep offensive talent, their suffocating team defense, and Sawchuk’s stellar goaltending were simply too much for the Maple Leafs and Canadiens to handle. The Production Line combined to score nine goals in the playoffs and the checking line of Marty Pavelich, Glen Skov, and Leswick—Adams’ key offseason addition—kept Maurice “Rocket” Richard and the high-flying Canadiens grounded.

For those keeping score at home, Sawchuk allowed exactly zero goals at home en route to the 1952 Stanley Cup. 

Terry Sawchuk of the Detroit Red Wings
Terry Sawchuk kicking out a shot against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But more importantly, the Red Wings won eight times in as many games. What else is associated with that number? You guessed it – this is when Detroit’s octopus tradition began, albeit a little prematurely.

“The origin of the world-famous Detroit octopus throw is traced to 1952 when, during the third game of the final series against the Montreal Canadiens, Pete Cusimano, an east side fish market owner, celebrated the first Red Wing goal by throwing an octopus onto the ice.”

–Joe Pepper, Detroit Free Press (1984)

While not many octopi have been flying in recent years, you can thank the 1952 Red Wings for all the eight-legged moments throughout their history. 

1951-52 Red Wings Statistical Leaders – Playoffs

Ted LindsayLW8527
Gordie HoweRW8257
Metro PrystaiC8257
Johnny WilsonLW8415
Glen SkovC8145

1951-52 Red Wings: Legacy

Seven skaters—Howe, Lindsay, Abel, Delvecchio, Kelly, Pronovost, and Sawchuk—are in the Hall of Fame along with Adams and Ivan. The argument that Pavelich should be enshrined as well is valid, considering his defensive prowess, four Stanley Cups, and Guy Carbonneau’s recent induction.

When considering the greatest NHL teams of all-time, the 1951-52 Red Wings certainly deserve to be part of the conversation. But in Detroit alone, this was the best team to ever “octopi” Hockeytown.