The Detroit Red Wings have featured a handful of extraordinary teams over the years, but the 1951-52 team stands out as one of the best … in NHL history.
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 Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay, and Gordie Howe dominated the NHL. But the 1951-52 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.
Building Off the 1950-51 Season
After losing in the first round of the 1951 playoffs, general manager Jack Adams decided to shake things up in Detroit.
First, “Trader Jack” dealt forward Gaye Stewart to New York Rangers for pesky winger Tony Leswick – more on Leswick later. He then ssent Gerry Couture to the Montreal Canadiens for Bert Hirschfeld and cash.
In addition, the Red Wings traded George Gee, Jim McFadden, Jim Peters, Clare Raglan, Clare Martin, and Max McNab to Chicago Blackhawks for a player to be named later (Hugh Coflin) and $75,000 – worth about $764,068 today. This may seem like an odd transaction – to send so many players to another team for next to nothing. The context here is that the Norris family also owned the Blackhawks. This was essentially their way of making the bottom-dwelling Blackhawks a bit more competitive.
The Red Wings “lost” 80 goals (33.9 percent of Detroit’s total goals) from the 1950-51 team by trading away Stewart, Couture, and the others. To address this loss of offense, Alex Delvecchio, Marcel Pronovost, Benny Woit, and Johnny Wilson were given full-time roles with the team in addition to Leswick, who scored 15 goals the year prior with New York.
These five joined Howe, Lindsay, Abel, Red Kelly, Marty Pavelich, and Metro Prystai to form an impressively deep team. And don’t forget the Red Wings had Terry Sawchuk in net, too.
Tommy Ivan returned behind the bench for his fifth season as Detroit’s head coach. Overall, the team had nine future Hall-of-Famers: Adams, Ivan, Howe, Lindsay, Abel, Delvecchio, Kelly, Pronovost, and Sawchuk.
Red Wings’ Regular Season Excellence
Once the regular season kicked off, the Red Wings could not be stopped.
The team demolished opponents all year, finishing with a 44-14-12 record and a league-leading 100 points. Second-place Montreal only recorded 78 points.
This was just the second time an NHL team has reached 100 points in the regular season. The other instance? The 1950-51 Red Wings.
Clearly, this was a loaded team built for sustained excellence.
“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.)
On three separate occasions, the Red Wings followed up a loss with a 6-1 victory of their own. This team did not like to lose.
Howe finished the year with 47 goals and 86 points, leading the league in both statistical categories. Lindsay’s 69 points ranked second in the NHL behind Howe.
“Mr. Hockey” won the Art Ross and Hart Trophy. Sawchuk captured the Vezina after playing every minute of the 70-game schedule and posting a 1.90 goals-against average. He also set a Red Wings franchise record with 12 shutouts, which still stands today. In addition, Lindsay and Red Kelly joined Howe and Sawchuk on the NHL All-Star 1st Team.
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When asked about their success, Delvecchio attributed it to team chemistry.
“I think it was just about camaraderie,” Delvecchio noted. (Allen, K., & Duff, B. (2014). 100 Things Red Wings Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. Chicago, IL: Triumph Books.) “We all got along with each other.”
Dominance in the Playoffs
Back in the Original Six era, only four NHL teams qualified for the playoffs. However, that shouldn’t detract from Detroit’s case as being one of the best teams of all-time – they 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.
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 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 did not allow a single goal at home throughout the playoffs en route to the 1952 Stanley Cup.
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 1951-52 Red Wings for all the eight-legged moments throughout their history.
When considering the greatest NHL teams of all-time, the 1951-52 Red Wings certainly deserve to be part of the conversation.
They dominated in the regular season, didn’t lose in the playoffs, and—perhaps most impressively—didn’t allow a goal on home ice during the postseason. The Stanley Cup champions featured seven Hall of Fame players, plus a coach and GM who are also enshrined.
The 1951-52 Red Wings were truly a team for the ages.