The Detroit Red Wings organization has been home to some of the greatest players in NHL history. Players like Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Red Kelly, Ted Lindsay, Sid Abel, and Terry Sawchuk starred in the Original Six era. Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, and Henrik Zetterberg then spearheaded the team during the 1990s and 2000s.
With such abundant talent sprinkled throughout the franchise’s existence, it is easy to forget about some of the underappreciated players that helped make the team successful. Marcel Pronovost, a hard-hitting defenseman who played over a decade with the team, is the perfect embodiment of an oft-forgotten Red Wings’ legend.
Pronovost’s Humble Beginnings
Pronovost was born in the small town of Lac la Tortue, Quebec in 1930. He had 11 siblings, two of whom also went on to play in the NHL. He starred as a forward for his high-school hockey team in Shawinigan, but surprisingly, the Montreal Canadiens did not scoop him up. They had the best French-Canadian scouting department in the league and routinely found talented Quebec youngsters before anyone else.
Larry Wilson, another young player from Shawinigan, was signed by the Red Wings and gave Pronovost rave reviews. The team took the advice and snagged Pronovost before anyone else could. He joined the Windsor Spitfires, who served as the Red Wings’ farm team at the time, and the team transitioned him into a role on defense.
He performed admirably with the Spitfires and Detroit’s team in the International Hockey League (IHL) before joining the Ohama Knights in the United States Hockey League (USHL). As a 19-year-old defenseman, getting his first taste of professional hockey, he produced 52 points in 69 games for the Knights. He firmly established himself as one of the top prospects in the Red Wings’ system.
A Playoff Opportunity
During the first round of the 1949-50 playoffs, the Red Wings were set to face off against the Toronto Maple Leafs. In the first game of the series, Ted Kennedy was battling in the corner with Gordie Howe. The Red Wings’ star player tumbled headfirst into the boards and lay motionless on the ice. Howe suffered a brain hemorrhage, broken cheekbone, and broken nose in the accident. He luckily survived, but his playoff run was over.
The Red Wings lost the game 5-0, and things looked bleak without their best player. Alas, Red Wings’ management decided that rearguard Red Kelly will step in as a forward in Howe’s absence, and the rookie Pronovost will fill in on the blueline.
Pronovost made his NHL debut in Game 2, and he ran with it. He tallied one assist and played steady defense in his nine playoff appearances. The Red Wings managed to outlast the Maple Leafs in a grueling seven-game series, before defeating the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final. Pronovost had his name on the Cup before he ever played a regular-season game.
Pronovost started the 1950-51 season back in Omaha, but he was an NHL regular by 1951-52. He delivered 18 points and 50 penalty minutes in the regular season, before helping the Red Wings grab another Stanley Cup victory in the playoffs. At the age of 21, he already had two championship rings of his own.
A Decade of Dominance
Pronovost helped the Red Wings capture two more Stanley Cup wins in 1953-54 and 1954-55. He became one of 11 players in franchise history to win four championships with the team. Playoff success aside, his best stretch of play came between 1957-58 and 1960-61. He was voted to the Second NHL All-Star Team twice, the First NHL All-Star Team twice, and finished no lower than fifth in Norris Trophy voting during each campaign.
He tallied 297 points over his career in the Motor City, which is an impressive point total as defenseman were not offensive contributors in the Original Six era. He also tallied 713 penalty minutes. He was a formidable physical force but had one of the smoothest skating strides in the league.
Pronovost played for the Red Wings for 15 seasons, ranking eighth in franchise history with 983 games played. The team only missed the playoffs twice during his tenure. His poised defensive presence allowed the team’s offensive stars to take more risks in the attacking zone. While Kelly received a ton of media attention due to his flashier play, Pronovost was just as integral to the team’s success.
Move to the Maple Leafs
Before the 1965-66 season, Pronovost went to the Maple Leafs in a multi-player trade that revolved around forward Andy Bathgate. Despite the change of scenery, Pronovost continued to perform at a high level. He battled through an injury-plagued campaign in his first year in Toronto, appearing in just 54 games. Nevertheless, he bounced back in a big way the next season.
Pronovost helped the Maple Leafs win an unexpected Stanley Cup in 1966-67. The group was referred to as the Over-the-Hill Gang, as the roster was full of wily veterans nearing the end of their careers. He also reunited with some former Red Wings on the team, as Kelly and Sawchuk joined him in Toronto.
Pronovost managed to play three more seasons, but the Maple Leafs did not win another playoff game during that time. Pronovost retired from the NHL following the 1969-70 season at the age of 39.
Pronovost’s Life in Hockey
The famed defenseman was not out of the hockey world for long, as he was coaching the Chicago Cougars in the World Hockey Association (WHA) in 1972-73. He spent a few seasons with the organization before moving behind the bench with the Hull Olympique in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).
By the 1977-78 season, Pronovost had graduated to the NHL ranks as the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres. His induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame also came in 1978. He led the Sabres to back-to-back playoff appearances before joining the Red Wings’ staff as an assistant coach for two seasons.
If all of that was not enough, Pronovost became a scout with the New Jersey Devils in 1990. He won three more Stanley Cups as a member of their front office. He peacefully passed away in 2015 at the age of 84.
Not only was Pronovost a fantastic defenseman, but he was as dedicated to the game of hockey as anyone. Upon his passing, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said, “He devoted his life to the pursuit of excellence in our sport.” He spent over six decades in hockey, in various positions, and success seemed to follow him wherever he went.
He was unassuming but fierce. A fiery competitor, but a gentleman. An antagonistic opponent, but a beloved teammate. Pronovost was a lot of things, but before anything else, he was just a humble kid from Lac la Tortue.