Detroit – The Red Wings did a lot of winning in Joe Louis Arena, but the team that first moved there did not do a much of it.
They were an in-between bunch, playing so poorly some dubbed them the “Dead Things.”
Thirty years earlier, the franchise under the Norris family and the coach and general manager Jack Adams launched the Gordie Howe era.
With Howe and Alex Delvecchio, Ted Lindsay, Terry Sawchuk and others, the Wings took flight after World War II, dominated the NHL in the 1950s and challenged for the Stanley Cup into the mid-1960s.
Later, beginning in 1982, Mike and Marian Ilitch hired Jim Devellano and the Red Wings drafted Steve Yzerman, snuck Sergei Fedorov across the Canadian border and out of the clutches of the Russian national team, scouted Sweden for Nicklas Lidstrom, hired Scotty Bowman and traded for Brendan Shanahan. They had significant support from other players.
And millions celebrated their Stanley Cups along Woodward and on Hart Plaza four times.
But between the two times of triumph, the Red Wings laid fallow.
In the 13 seasons before they left Olympia for Joe Louis Arena in December 1979, they made the playoffs twice, winning a total of three games.
In the first four seasons in their new home, they missed the playoffs.
The Red Wings had some good players, but not enough. And until the Ilitches made a deal with former owner Bruce Norris for the purchase in 1982, the organization was passive.
But some players persisted with fine performances amid the circumstances. Among them, a little goalie then called Jimmy Rutherford.
“We were in a rebuilding stage most of the ’70s,” said Rutherford, now general manager of the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins. “The Ilitches bought the franchise at an ultimate low point.”
In a far more offensive era, Rutherford routinely faced 40-50 shots on goal.
Four seasons before Joe Louis Arena, the Wings finished 26-44-10. Rutherford was in net for 13 of the wins.
It remains to his great credit that four of them were shutouts.
“We certainly didn’t play a defensive style,” Rutherford said.
Longing for Olympia
Paul Woods, the youngest captain in franchise history before Yzerman, scored 19 goals in his rookie season, two years before the Wings left Olympia, in 1977-78.
His energetic, 200-feet style of play and considerable speed made the future broadcaster popular with fans.
“At the time, leaving Olympia wasn’t such a good thing.” said Woods, the 97.1 FM analyst.
“We were sad. There was so much rich history.
“It was like a theater inside; the sound was just so deep. It was just such a great place to play.”
To top it off, for the hard-pressed club, Joe Louis Arena was not finished when they arrived.
“That sort of took the edge off of it, as well,” Woods said.
But the players understood the finances of a 25-percent increase in capacity, luxury boxes and the deal the City of Detroit gave Bruce Norris to keep the Red Wings from following the Lions to the suburbs.
“Economically, when we started to see the numbers, it made sense why they had to go,” Woods said.
Devellano, who arrived three summers after Joe Louis Arena opened, says he cannot answer questions about the leases between the city and the Ilitches, let alone Norris, who owned the team before he ever arrived in Detroit.
The extent to which the building helped pay for four Stanley Cups would be conjecture, on his part, he said.
Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski walks us through the press box experience at Joe Louis Arena.
“I wouldn’t have a clue on what the agreement was,” Devellano said. “That was ownership.
“My job was to come in and build a hockey club.
“Back then, when there was no cap, I would go over our player payroll with Mike and Marian, and that’s how we handled things,” Devellano said.
“Now, did the building help pay for it? I can only hope it did!”
Regardless of the favorability of the deal, it would take several seasons before the Wings began to maximize it.
Devellano may not know the terms of the lease with the city, but he firmly recalls the number of season-ticket holders three seasons after Joe Louis Arena opened, when the Ilitches bought the club – 2,100.
Only about 11 percent of the original capacity of 19,275 was paid for every game.
The team needed to sell the rest.
With Rutherford, Woods, John Ogrodnick, Dale McCourt and others, many of the Dead Things tried.
But, in the 17 seasons from 1967 to 1983, the Red Wings had 13 coaches. Only Bill Gadsby and Johnny Wilson won more than they lost, during that time. (Sid Abel’s .501 career coaching percentage was mostly before.)
The Wings barely won one-third of the games they played, compiling a 455-670-203 record.
“Hockey is the ultimate team sport, and this most important thing to my mind after all these years is the coaching,” Woods said. “If you’re not structured and you’re not organized, you’re not going to win.
“If we had Montreal’s coaching, then, with Scotty Bowman, or the Islanders’, with Al Arbour, we’d never miss the playoffs.”
Building a winner
With ownership increasingly apathetic and management left to its devices, by the time Joe Louis Arena opened, the architecture that supported victory utterly deteriorated.
Ogrodnick’s rookie year included the midseason move from Olympia to Joe Louis Arena.
The building manager and Zamboni driver walks through Joe Louis Arena with Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski. David Guralnick, The Detroit News
Ogrodnick was often a dominant player. He scored 35 goals his second season, and that much or more five other times, including 55 one season, which was then the team record.
“Normally, you practice at 10 in the morning, if we didn’t play the night before,” Ogrodnick said, of his first season. “But I remember practicing at 2 or 3 in the afternoon.
“We had to let the construction guys continue completing the building.”
Ogrodnick bridged the remaining gap to the Yzerman years, eventually playing on a line with him.
“At first, I played on a line with Dale McCourt and Nick Foligno,” he said. “We had a pretty good line. It was a thrill.
“But after being there for a couple of years, the losing kind of wears on you.
“Hockey is a sport where you need all 20 guys going. You are only as strong as you’re weakest link.
“It’s not fun. I was kind of used to winning.”
Things began to perk up. The Wings acquired Ivan Boldirev, a playmaking, scoring forward, and they drafted Yzerman, who had an immediate impact.
“I know the Red Wings were struggling for a lot of years,” said Ogrodnick, who was 20 when he arrived.
“I remember the building not being that full, and I remember the Ilitches giving a car away every game, just to get people in there.
“I know they got a hell of a lease on the building. But they put their heart and soul into that organization to better it.
“As a player, you can sense that.”