Detroit Red Wings, 1982-1990, 1994-1997
Norris Division Titles, 1987-1989, 1991-1992
Central Division Titles, 1993-1996
Playoff Appearances: 1984-1985, 1987, 1989, 1995-1997
Stanley Cup Finals Appearances: 1995, 1997
Stanley Cup Victory: 1997
In 2010 Jim Devellano was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder. Never was that appellation more appropriate than in this case because Jim Devellano was a builder or should I say a master re-builder of one of the greatest sports franchises in American sports history: the Detroit Red Wings.
When he began in 1982 the Red Wings were mere chaff, easily scattered by the prevailing hockey winds. When he stepped aside in 1997 the Wings were already on a glorious run where they made more Stanley Cup finals appearances and won more Stanley Cups than any other NHL franchise from 1994 to 2009.
Jim Devellano is the architect of Hockeytown, U.S.A.
He was born in Toronto and was, by his own admission, an indifferent student; hockey was his passion. When he left school early to work in the garment district he never lost his love for the sport—working as an unpaid scout for the local junior teams. It was through this work that Devellano developed contacts and connections that served him well in the years and decades to come.
His big break came in 1967 when Devellano met Craig Patrick who was GM of the expansion St. Louis Blues. Eventually he began to move up the scouting ladder: going from unpaid work to working on spec to working full-time on the company payroll. During his years in St. Louis, Devellano worked with other future hockey luminaries like Scotty Bowman, Cliff Fletcher, and Al Arbour.
It’s one of the great ironies of NHL history.
The Blues had just had their third consecutive Stanley Cup finals appearance and were stocked not only with great playing talent but great executive talent too and yet by 1972 all of these top-notch men would be gone, fulfilling their great destinies with other NHL franchises while the Blues would never return to the Stanley Cup finals ever again. It remains one of the greatest what-ifs in NHL history.
Cast aside by St. Louis, once again, Devellano took advantage of NHL expansion and linked up with the newly founded New York Islanders franchise. It was here he came in contact with the man who did more to mold Devellano’s managerial style than any other person: Bill Torrey.
Torrey hired Devellano to be a regional scout. Two years later he was Director of Scouting, running a staff that year after year brought in prime draft choices that Torrey used to augment the Islanders roster or use as prime bargaining chips when making trades. It was Jim Devellano who touted Al Arbour to Bill Torrey when the latter was searching for the right head coach to mold these budding future talents into Stanley Cup champion. Al Arbour confirmed Devellano’s judgment by becoming one of the greatest NHL head coaches of all time.
As the Islanders rose in stature so too did Devellano. He was managing the Islanders Central Hockey League affiliate and by the 1980s was Torrey’s assistant GM. When the Islanders had won two of their four consecutive Stanley Cups other teams took notice of him and made offers to manage their teams.
Devellano explains quite clearly in his memoirs that he wanted the same patience and leeway that his mentor Bill Torrey had with the Islanders in building the team, hiring coaches, and watching the team develop carefully and methodically. Jim had a shot at managing the Colorado Rockies (soon to be the New Jersey Devils) but turned the offer down when the Rockies owner refused to make the guarantees that Devellano wanted.
(Consider this: what if the Rockies owner had been more patient and flexible and had given Devellano the conditions he wanted? How would the destinies of the New Jersey Devils, the Detroit Red Wings, Lou Lamoriello, Scotty Bowman, Ken Holland, Jacques Lemaire, the late Pat Burns, Bryan Murray, Jacques Demers, and Jim Devellano been altered if Devellano had become the GM of the future New Jersey Devils? The mind boggles at the alternative historical possibilities).
He didn’t have to wait long for the next opportunity. When brand new Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch approached Devellano to manage the team the man and the hour had met.
The Ilitch family’s takeover of the Red Wings was momentous because the Wings were at the absolute nadir of their existence. The Ilitchs had the liquidity and the willingness to invest in the team; they possessed the courage and patience to do anything and everything it took to restore the Detroit Red Wings back to their flagship franchise status. It took time and there were bumps in the road but the end result was glorious.
Once installed as GM Devellano began the long road back. His first draft in 1983 spoke volumes for the future: Steve Yzerman, Bob Probert, Petr Klima, and Joe Kocur were the foundation stones of the rebuilding effort. Yzerman justified all his superlatives and then some. Probert and Kocur added muscle to the Wings blue line. Petr Klima marked a new trend. Jim Devellano was anxious to mine European prospects. Klima was the first of many great European players who would give flight to the Wings and lead them to greatness in the years and decades to come.
Devellano (like Pat Quinn securing Pavel Bure’s draft rights) used every stratagem to secure European talent; especially during the years before the collapse of the former Soviet Union. In his memoirs Devellano devotes pages to discussing how he got players like Sergei Federov and Vladimir Konstantinov to defect and sign with the Wings; passages that read like a John Le Carre spy novel.
Devellano’s persistence (and the Ilitch family’s willingness to spend the money needed to do so) eventually gave the Wings one of the greatest European contingents in the NHL. The immortal Nicklas Lindstrom came in 1989 and Tomas Holmstrom in 1994.
It took time for the pieces to jell together. The Wings finished last in his debut season and didn’t have a winning season until 1987/88. But like the Islanders were doing in the 1970s every season brought bigger and better talents to the team. The arrival of head coach Jacques Demers was a psychological shot-in-the-arm for the team. In 1987 and 1988 the Wings reached the conference finals.
The team relapsed and finished last in 1989/90 which led to a shake-up in the team’s management structure. Devellano replaced himself as GM with Bryan Murray (who also served as head coach) while Devellano remained as eminence grise to the Ilitch family but even Murray could not lead the Wings to the Stanley Cup. When Mike Ilitch expressed a desire to make another head coaching change Devellano pulled off another great coup when he suggested Scotty Bowman. After one season with Murray as GM and Bowman as head coach failed to produce the Stanley Cup Ilitch asked Devellano to return as GM.
Devellano did so with one proviso: he would serve as GM while allowing Bowman to become Director of Player Personnel (thus giving Bowman the power to make trades with Jimmy D’s approval) and hiring his protégé Ken Holland (a former goaltender) to become assistant GM—and heir apparent.
The arrangement worked wonders. In 1995 the Red Wings were Stanley Cup finalists for the first time since 1966. In 1996 they were conference finalists. In 1997 they won it all—ending Detroit’s 42 year drought.
It was time for Jimmy D to call it a career as an active GM. In 1997 he yielded the managerial reins to Ken Holland while remaining a trusted advisor to the Ilitch family and the Wings.
(My next column will feature the late David Gill).