Finally, inadequate JLA gets its send-off

Published September 28, 2016

If Joe Louis Arena was ever state-of-the-art, that state lasted about a week.

The parking situation was reprehensible. The stairs leading up to the entrances were punitive and heart attack-inducing. An enterprising individual could have made a mint by selling oxygen tanks near the doors.

The suites should have been equipped with plenty of facial tissue because of the bloody noses they caused due to their distance from the ice surface.

The building was plopped on the banks of the Detroit River and there was nothing to do after the game but trudge to the inefficient parking structure and wait 45 minutes to get out. There wasn’t a bar or  a restaurant within reasonable walking distance.

There wasn’t nuance to speak of once you stepped inside. The concourses were narrow and the floors were sticky.

Yet this was the hockey barn that saw the Red Wings finally break their Stanley Cup drought in 1997—17 years and some change after opening in December, 1979.

It didn’t help the Joe that it was following Olympia Stadium, an Original Six building that had personality, history, escalators and a balcony. Olympia was built in the 1920s and it showed. JLA was built in the 1970s and by opening night, it seemed like its time had passed.

By contrast, the Palace of Auburn Hills, which opened in 1988, is still a benchmark by which today’s sports arenas are measured. From its mezzanine-level suites to its massive and more than adequate parking lot—plus its expansive and attractive concourses—the Palace kicks JLA’s rear end.

But whenever there are championships won, the arena gets a bump for being associated with those teams and those years, fondly.

It didn’t start that way for JLA, however.

The Red Wings were not a good hockey organ-eye-ZAY-shun when they moved into the Joe on December 27, 1979. In fact, they may have been one of the NHL’s worst.

Contrary to what some believe in their revisionist history, Joe Louis Arena isn’t the House that Mike Ilitch built. Ilitch didn’t purchase the team until 1982; the Norris family can be blamed for JLA’s inadequacies.

First, the Red Wings moved into their new arena in mid-season, which in of itself is odd; usually you want to christen a new building at the start of a season. But again—the Red Wings in 1979 were hardly a model franchise.

There was only one playoff appearance since 1966; the decade of the 1970s was filled with coaching changes, awful hockey, horrible drafting and mind-boggling trades.

The Red Wings weren’t given the derisive moniker of the Dead Things for nothing.

But Olympia Stadium was indeed old and the neighborhood wasn’t the greatest. Despite their warts, the Red Wings did need a new arena; it was time.

They could have done so much better than Joe Louis Arena, however.

Image result for joe louis arena

The sight lines were good—I’ll grant you that. But the seats were too far away from the ice. It would have been a terrific nod to the old arena and just plain good sense to mimic Olympia’s balcony, which made sitting upstairs dramatic. I remember looking onto the ice from the balcony at the old Red Barn on Grand River and McGraw and feeling like the players could hear me call them by name with little effort.

Yet the Red Wings captured four Cups while calling JLA home, winning two of those championships in front of their own crowd. So for that, I think Red Wings fans have more reverence for the Joe than it deserves.

But after this season all that will be moot.

This is JLA’s swan song—a season-long farewell to the monstrosity on the River. A year from this October, they’ll drop the puck at Little Caesars (I know, I know) Arena to usher in a new era of live sports attendance in the Motor City.

LCA won’t just be a hockey arena; there’ll be pubs and restaurants and shopping and things to do—a new extension of Woodward’s mid-town hustle and bustle that has been drawing folks to the city by the droves in recent years.

LCA will be like nothing we’ve ever seen in Detroit. It will blow Ford Field and Comerica Park out of the water—and yes, the Palace—when all is said and done.

There’ll be plenty of time to reflect on Joe Louis Arena. The reliving of the building’s most memorable moments will go on from now until the final game is played next spring. There were the two Cups won on its ice, and the playoff heartbreak that occurred on it as well. There were the concerts with its bad acoustics and the GOP Convention in 1980.

They had Gordie Howe’s viewing there in June.

Soon JLA itself will have a viewing.

Will you be shedding any tears?

 

1954-55 Red Wings: Coach Jimmy Skinner

THE JIMMY SKINNER FILE:

Born: January 12, 1917; Died: July 11, 2007

Position: Coach

NHL games coached: 247 (all with Red Wings)

1954-55 record: W: 42; L: 17; T: 11

CAREER: W: 123; L: 78: T: 46

Jimmy Skinner pretty much did it all for the Red Wings organization.

At various times, Jimmy was coach, scout, assistant GM, general manager, farm director, Director of Player Personnel and Director of Hockey Operations.

It was as coach that Skinner made his mark with the 1954-55 Red Wings.

A rookie head coach in the NHL, Skinner made his hiring by GM Jack Adams look like a genius move as the Red Wings captured the Stanley Cup in 1955.

Skinner coached the Red Wings from 1954-55 to 37 games into the 1957-58 season, when he resigned due to health reasons. In his three full seasons, Skinner’s teams were a combined 49 games above .500.

While Ted Lindsay started the tradition of skating the Stanley Cup around the ice, it was Skinner who is widely credited with being the first to kiss the Cup following victory.

Skinner resigned during the ’57-58 season, but Jimmy was soon back in hockey, functioning in the Red Wings organization in a plethora of roles. He also won the Memorial Cup in 1962 as the manager of the Hamilton Red Wings.

After a 22-year hiatus, Skinner returned to the Red Wings at the NHL level when he replaced Ted Lindsay as GM in the summer of 1980. Skinner remained in that role until 1982, when new Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch tabbed Jimmy Devellano to be the team’s new general manager.

Skinner is a member of the Red Wings Hall of Fame (1977).

Thank you for reading this series throughout the hockey season. Go Red Wings!

1954-55 Red Wings: Ed Zeniuk

THE ED ZENIUK FILE:

Born: March 8, 1933; Died: April 14, 1996

Position: Defense

NHL games played: 2 (both with Red Wings)

1954-55 stats (Detroit): 2 GP; G: 0; A: 0; PIM: 0

CAREER: GP: 2; G: 0; A: 0; PIM: 0

If there ever was a player who personified the term “footnote,” it was Ed Zeniuk.

Zeniuk was last on the 1954-55 Red Wings roster alphabetically, last in games played and the only two NHL games he played in, were played in the ’54-55 season.

That’s it for Ed Zeniuk.

Zeniuk, a native of Saskatchewan, filled in for two games when the Red Wings got caught in an injury pinch. He didn’t register a point or any penalty minutes.

Again, footnote.

Zeniuk played four seasons (1951-55) for the Red Wings’ minor league affiliate in Edmonton, logging 188 games. Zeniuk’s pro career ended in 1956 with the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Hockey League.

NEXT WEEK: Coach Jimmy Skinner.

1954-55 Red Wings: Benny Woit

THE BENNY WOIT FILE:

Born: January 7, 1928

Position: Defense

NHL games played: 334 (262 with Red Wings)

1954-55 stats (Detroit): 62 GP; G: 2; A: 3; PIM: 22

CAREER: GP: 334; G: 7; A: 26; PIM: 170

If ever there was a personified definition of a “stay at home defenseman,” Benny Woit was it.

Woit was no Bobby Orr, but he ably manned one of the Red Wings’ blue line positions for four seasons and as a result, Woit’s name is engraved on the Stanley Cup three times.

A typical Woit season was a handful of points but a bunch of dashed hopes for the opposition.

Woit’s career is fascinating because it was front-ended with NHL time but back-loaded with minor league experience—the opposite of most pro players.

Woit broke into the NHL in 1951 and stayed until 1957. But after that, Woit played 12 more years, all in the minor leagues. He made several All-Star games playing in the Eastern Hockey League.

After winning three Stanley Cups with the Red Wings, Woit was part of an eight-player trade that shipped him to Chicago in the summer of 1955.

Woit has the distinction of being the fourth-oldest surviving member of the 1955 Red Wings, behind Ted Lindsay, Red Kelly and Marty Pavelich. Woit is 83 days older than Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.

NEXT WEEK: Our last player to profile—Ed Zeniuk, whose only two NHL games came during the 1954-55 season.

1954-55 Red Wings: Johnny Wilson

THE JOHNNY WILSON FILE:

Born: June 14, 1929; Died: December 27, 2011

Position: Left wing

NHL games played: 688 (379 with Red Wings)

1954-55 stats (Detroit): 70 GP; G: 12; A: 15; PIM: 14

CAREER: GP: 688; G: 161; A: 171; PIM: 190

In the 1950s, three things were certain: death, taxes and Johnny Wilson in the lineup.

Between 1951 and 1960, Wilson, a left winger, played in 580 consecutive games, including eight straight, complete 70-game seasons.

Five of those complete seasons came with the Red Wings, for whom Wilson played from 1949-55 and again from 1957-59.

In between, Wilson was traded to Chicago after the 1954-55 season, part of an eight-player mega-deal. He returned to the Motor City in 1957 in the famous trade that sent Ted Lindsay to the Black Hawks. Wilson finished his career with Toronto (1959-61) and New York (1961-62).

Wilson, an Ontario native, was not only known for his longevity—he was the NHL’s first “Iron Man”—he was also respected as a steady two-way player who skated up and down his wing and who was a good teammate. Wilson also managed to stay out of the penalty box, which made him an ideal penalty killer. In his 688-game, 13-year career, Wilson was whistled for just 190 penalty minutes.

Wilson, like so many of his brethren, got into coaching after retiring as a player in 1962. He started in the minor leagues, and after a stint as interim coach of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, Wilson won the AHL’s Calder Cup with Springfield in 1970-71.

Wilson returned to Detroit in November, 1971, being named head coach of the Red Wings after the resignation of Doug Barkley. Wilson’s Red Wings barely missed the playoffs in both 1972 and 1973, but despite an overall record of 67-56-22 in Detroit, Wilson got the ziggy from embattled GM Ned Harkness.

But you couldn’t take Wilson out of Detroit. In the summer of 1974, Wilson was hired to be the coach of the new Michigan Stags of the World Hockey Association. The Stags, who played their home games at Cobo Arena, didn’t survive their maiden season and the franchise moved to Baltimore mid-season.

Wilson’s NHL coaching resume also includes stops in Colorado and Pittsburgh, where his Penguins qualified for the playoffs in 1979 and 1980.

Wilson remained closely attached to the Red Wings in his post-coaching retirement, being active with the Alumni Association and participating in banner-raising ceremonies following Stanley Cups won by the Red Wings in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.

Wilson won four Cups with the Red Wings as a player.

Trivia: Johnny Wilson was the uncle of NHL coach Ron Wilson, whose dad (and Johnny’s brother) Larry also played for and coached the Red Wings. Sadly, Larry Wilson died of a massive heart attack while jogging in 1979. He was only 48 years old.

Author’s note: I had the good fortune, in my capacity as editor of a Detroit sports magazine in 2006, to moderate a hockey roundtable at Joe Louis Arena that included Johnny Wilson, Ted Lindsay and Shawn Burr. We discussed how the game has evolved over the years and the magazine published the entire conversation. As you can imagine, the experience was quite remarkable!

Next week: RW/D Benny Woit, who at age 87 is among the oldest surviving former Red Wings.

1954-55 Red Wings: Vic Stasiuk

THE VIC STASIUK FILE:

Born: May 23, 1929

Position: Left wing

NHL games played: 745 (330 with Red Wings)

1954-55 stats (Detroit): 59 GP; G: 8; A: 11; PIM: 67

CAREER: GP: 745; G: 183; A: 254; PIM: 669

When he first entered the NHL, Vic Stasiuk wasn’t really a goal scorer. Then, in the middle of his career, he was. Then, toward the end, he wasn’t again.

Stasiuk’s up-and-down playing career, goal-scoring-wise, is a little misleading, however, because he was actually known as one of the league’s best two-way players during his 14 years in the NHL.

Stasiuk, a left winger from Alberta, was originally a Chicago Black Hawk, but he found playing time hard to come by in the Windy City. For that reason, Stasiuk was no doubt excited when he was dealt to the Red Wings on December 2, 1950.

Stasiuk only scored three goals in 50 games with the Red Wings in 1950-51, but offense wasn’t his job. He was happy to be a checker and a grinder, and why not? He got plenty of ice time in Detroit fulfilling that role.

But while Stasiuk’s hard-nosed style of play was appreciated by the Red Wings, he again found ice time hard to come by because of all the depth those Red Wings teams of the early-to-mid 1950s possessed.

In 1952-53, for example, Stasiuk played just three games with the Red Wings, spending most of the season with the team’s Western League affiliate in Edmonton.

But it was in Edmonton in ’52-53 where Stasiuk found his goal scoring touch. He netted 37 pucks, by far the most goals he’d ever scored in organized hockey up to that point.

The 37 goals raised eyebrows in Detroit and it led to Stasiuk spending more time in the NHL and less in the minor leagues over the next several seasons.

But Stasiuk didn’t really become a goal scorer in the NHL until after his trade to Boston in 1955, the summer after he was on the roster of his third Stanley Cup-winning team in Detroit.

Stasiuk was part of the multi-player, blockbuster trade that also shipped legendary goalie Terry Sawchuk to the Bruins.

In Boston, Stasiuk flourished over the next five seasons, scoring 120 goals, including four straight campaigns with 20-plus markers.

Stasiuk landed back in Detroit thanks to a January, 1961 trade and he retired as a player after the 1962-63 season.

Then it was off to the world of coaching, and Stasiuk eventually landed back in the NHL after some years in the minors, coaching the Philadelphia Flyers, California Golden Seals and Vancouver Canucks between 1969 and 1973. Sadly, none of those three teams were very good at the time, so Stasiuk’s won/loss record in the NHL was a dismal 88-153-66.

Trivia: While in Boston, Stasiuk combined with Johnny Bucyk (another former Red Wing) and Bronco Horvath to form the “Uke Line”, thus named because all three players had Ukrainian roots. In 1957-58, the Uke Line became the first line in NHL history to have all three members score at least 20 goals.

NEXT WEEK:  Johnny Wilson, the Lou Gehrig of the NHL for his “Iron Man” status.

1954-55 Red Wings: Glen Skov

THE GLEN SKOV FILE:

Born: January 26, 1931; Died: September 10, 2013

Position: Center/Left wing

NHL games played: 650 (301 with Red Wings)

1954-55 stats (Detroit): 70 GP; G: 14; A: 16; PIM: 53

CAREER: GP: 650; G: 106; A: 136; PIM: 413

Hockey ran in the Skov family, but two brothers landed on opposite sides of the fence.

Art Skov started as a player, but when his NHL dreams went unrealized, he put on the zebra stripes and became a linesman in the late-1950s. He was promoted to referee in 1960 and officiated over 1,000 NHL games.

Glen Skov was three years younger than Art but the younger brother outdid big brother when it came to playing.

Glen Skov made the NHL as a forward in 1950, playing two games for the Red Wings in the ’49-50 season following several years playing in the Ontario Hockey Association for the nearby Windsor Spitfires, where he put up some outstanding numbers, including scoring 51 goals in 47 games before his promotion to the NHL.

In the NHL, the younger Skov was known as a competent player who excelled with the puck and without it. Skov wasn’t a big goal scorer (his career high was 17) but his durability was a huge asset; he played every game for five straight seasons between 1951-56 (the first four with Detroit).

In the summer of 1955, Skov was part of a blockbuster, eight-player trade that shipped him to Chicago, where he played five seasons, missing just four games total with the Black Hawks.

Skov finished his NHL career by playing three games for Montreal in 1960. He is a three-time Stanley Cup winner, all with Detroit.

Skov was part of two brother combos with the 1954-55 Red Wings, where one of the brothers was an on-ice official and the other was a player; Marty (player) and Matt Pavelich (linesman) were the other pair.

NEXT WEEK: Vic Stasiuk, who in addition to playing, authored a rather lengthy coaching career, both in the minors and at the NHL level.

1954-55 Red Wings: Terry Sawchuk

THE TERRY SAWCHUK FILE:

Born: December 28, 1929; Died: May 31, 1970

Position: Goalie

NHL games played: 971 (734 with Red Wings)

1954-55 stats (Detroit): GP: 68; MIN: 4040; GA: 132: GAA: 1.96; ShO: 12

CAREER: GP: 971; MIN: 57,194; GA: 2,389; GAA: 2.51; ShO: 103

When discussing the “best ever” at any position in any sport, certainly the arguments are subjective.

Anyone can crunch numbers to support their viewpoint.

Was Babe Ruth the best ever baseball player because of those 714 home runs and that .342 BA, plus all his other amazing statistics?

Or was it Ty Cobb for his .367 career BA and those 4,191 hits, plus the 892 stolen bases?

And so on.

Terry Sawchuk, however, seems to be widely recognized as the best goalie in NHL history. Period.

And this isn’t just coming from Red Wings fans.

Sawchuk played in nearly 1,000 games, which by itself is mind-boggling. He posted 103 shutouts, which was a league record for nearly 40 years before Martin Brodeur broke it.

But beyond raw numbers, impressive as they are, Sawchuk is considered the best because of the good old-fashioned “eye test.”

Sawchuk’s exploits exist today on grainy footage that can be found on YouTube, but the folks who actually saw him play in person—players, coaches and writers—readily rattle Sawchuk’s name off when asked who was the best goalie in NHL history.

But for as talented and blessed as Sawchuk was on the ice, he was equally as tormented off it.

He battled depression for years. He was, for all intents and purposes, an alcoholic. He was by far his own harshest critic. He didn’t smile very much, according to teammates.

Sawchuk did three separate stints with the Red Wings, but he also played for Boston, the New York Rangers, the Los Angeles Kings and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Such was the greatness of his longevity that he won his first Stanley Cup in 1952 at age 22 and his last in 1967 at age 37.

Perhaps no greater goaltending will ever be seen as what Sawchuk did in the 1952 playoffs.

There were only two rounds back in those Original Six days, and the Red Wings swept both series to capture the Cup.

Sawchuk was unbelievable that spring.

In going 8-0, Sawchuk posted four shutouts and had a tiny goals against average of 0.63.

A native of Manitoba, Canada who was of Ukrainian descent, Sawchuk’s mental darkness started when he was a youngster. A younger brother died of scarlet fever, but even worse, Sawchuk’s older brother, an aspiring goaltender who Terry idolized, died of a heart attack at age 17.

It is believed by many that the tragic death of Sawchuk’s older brother had ramifications for the rest of Terry’s life.

Another blow came in the spring of 1955, when the Red Wings traded Sawchuk to Boston not long after Detroit won the Stanley Cup. Already hyper-critical of himself, Sawchuk took the trade very hard. The Red Wings wanted Glenn Hall to be their new full-time goalie, and Sawchuk saw the trade as an insult to his abilities.

Sawchuk hated it in Boston. The fans’ criticism was relentless. He suffered a nervous breakdown and briefly retired from hockey.

The Red Wings rescued Sawchuk in 1957, reacquiring him from the Bruins for Hall of Fame forward Johnny Bucyk.

Sawchuk played in Detroit until 1964, at which point the Red Wings left him unprotected in the intraleague waiver draft because they wanted to go with the younger Roger Crozier in net.

The Toronto Maple Leafs snatched Sawchuk up on June 10, 1964 and the Leafs won the Stanley Cup three springs later with Sawchuk teaming with veteran Johnny Bower in goal.

Then it was off to Los Angeles to play for the expansion Kings in 1967.

The Red Wings brought Sawchuk back to Detroit yet again in an October, 1968 trade.

In June of 1969, the Red Wings dealt Sawchuk to the Rangers, where he finished his magnificent career.

Sawchuk was just 40 years old when he got into a scuffle with Rangers teammate Ron Stewart in late-May of 1970. The two fought over outstanding bills for an apartment they shared and planned to vacate for the summer. In the rumble, Sawchuk fell into a barbecue and suffered internal injuries. He passed away on May 31, 1970. No charges were filed against Stewart, as the death was ruled accidental.

In fact, on his deathbed, Sawchuk emphasized that Stewart was not to blame for the tragic incident.

“It was a fluke,” Sawchuk told Shirley Fischler, wife of legendary hockey writer Stan Fischler. “A complete, fluke accident.”

Sawchuk is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in Pontiac, MI.

The Red Wings retired Sawchuk’s no. 1 in 1994.

Sawchuk once summed up his career thusly.

“The day they put me in the net I had a good game. I’ve stayed there since.”

NEXT WEEK: Center Glen Skov, whose older brother Art was a longtime NHL referee.

1954-55 Red Wings: Dutch Reibel

THE DUTCH REIBEL FILE:

Born: July 21, 1930; Died: January 3, 2007

Position: Center

NHL games played: 409 (306 with Red Wings)

1954-55 stats (Detroit): 70 GP; G: 25; A: 41; PIM: 15

CAREER: GP: 409; G: 84; A: 161; PIM: 75

Between the 1950 and 1964 seasons, only one player surpassed Gordie Howe as the Red Wings’ leading scorer, and that man was Earl “Dutch” Reibel.

In 1955, Reibel’s 66 points eclipsed Howe’s 62 as the Red Wings captured the Stanley Cup that spring.

Scoring was not unfamiliar to Reibel, starting in juniors.

In 1949-50, Reibel, a center, played hockey across the Detroit River for the Windsor Spitfires of the (then) Ontario Hockey Association (it’s OHL now). His numbers in Windsor were phenomenal: 53 goals and 76 assists in just 48 games.

He turned pro in 1950 and played in 32 games for the Omaha Knights of the United States Hockey League in 1950-51, where he scored 38 points.

The following year, Reibel was off to Indianapolis of the American Hockey League, tallying 33 goals and 34 assists in 67 games.

In 1952-53, Reibel stayed hot, pouring in 34 goals and 56 assists in 70 games while a member of the Red Wings’ farm team in Edmonton of the Western Hockey League.

That performance in Edmonton finally earned Reibel a shot at the NHL, where he dressed in 69 of the Red Wings’ 70 games during the 1953-54 season and scored 15 goals while adding 33 assists.

Reibel’s scoring prowess continued the following year, when he unseated Howe as the team’s leading point-getter.

But just when it looked like Reibel was going to have a long and productive NHL career, the goals and the points mysteriously stopped coming.

After scoring 30 goals over the course of the 1955-56 and 1956-57 seasons, Reibel only managed 14 goals over his next 132 games and his NHL career was over by 1959 at age 28.

The Red Wings dealt Reibel to Chicago in a multi-player deal midway through the 1957-58 season, and the Black Hawks lost him to Boston in June 1958 in the intra-league waiver draft. Maybe there was something in the Detroit River water, because once Reibel left Detroit, he was never the same.

To this day, Dutch Reibel still holds the NHL record for most assists in his first league game (4).

Reibel won the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play in 1956.

NEXT WEEK: The greatest goalie who ever lived, Terry Sawchuk.

1954-55 Red Wings: Metro Prystai

THE METRO PRYSTAI FILE:

Born: November 7, 1927; Died: October 8, 2013

Position: Center

NHL games played: 674 (431 with Red Wings)

1954-55 stats (Detroit): 12 GP; G: 2; A: 3; PIM: 9

CAREER: GP: 674; G: 151; A: 179; PIM: 231

Son of Ukrainian parents, Metro Prystai was Saskatchewan born and it’s not a criticism to call him a role player.

Prystai was a center man and his game was predicated around fine passing, taking face-offs and staying out of the penalty box. Prystai would pop in about 20 goals a year and he was one of the Red Wings’ most solid two-way players.

But after winning two Stanley Cups with Detroit (1952 and 1954), Prystai was traded on November 9, 1954 to the Chicago Black Hawks (where he started his NHL career) for Lorne Davis.

Prystai’s goal on April 15, 1952 won the Stanley Cup for Detroit.

So he only played 12 games for the ’54-55 Red Wings, meaning that he didn’t get his name engraved on the Cup for a third time. But Prystai returned a  year later and finished his NHL career with the Red Wings in 1958.

One of Prystai’s hallmarks was his durability. From 1949-57, Prystai was in the lineup for 546 of a possible 560 games.

Prystai was a three-time NHL All-Star and scored 29 goals for the Black Hawks in 1949-50, his career high.

Trivia: Metro Prystai was the last Red Wing to wear no. 10 before Alex Delvecchio, who started his illustrious career by wearing no. 15.

NEXT WEEK: Dutch Reibel.