Ten oldest living Wings left championship legacy
Detroit — Most played for the great Red Wings teams that won four Stanley Cups in six years during the 1950s.
Some, by dint of fate, scarcely missed the opportunity.
They are the 10 oldest Red Wings — Jim Conacher, 95; Steve Wojciechowski, 93; Pete Babando, 91; Ted Lindsay, 91; Red Kelly, 89; Dunc Fisher, 89; Tom McGrattan, 88; Marty Pavelich, 88; Benny Woit, 88; and Ed Sandford, 88.
They are the Wings the parents of the Baby Boom watched and the early Boomers recall from childhood.
Gone are Gordie Howe and Bill Gadsby, who died this year.
In the Hockey Hall of Fame are Lindsay and Kelly. Pavelich arguably should be. They played on all four Stanley Cup-winning squads.
“At that time,” said Pavelich, who has lived in Montana for years, “you had Gordie as a youngster, you had Ted Lindsay as a youngster, you had Red Kelly, you had myself, (Terry) Sawchuk, and you had some of the older guys, Sid Abel and Jack Stewart and Leo Reise. So it was a real mixture.
“And the chemistry was unbelievable at that time.”
Pavelich was the best defensive forward of his generation. An incomparable “shadow,” he routinely removed great offensive opponents like Maurice “Rocket” Richard from a game.
“We thought we’d win every night,” he said. “We really felt that way.”
They did win every night, in the semifinals and Stanley Cup Finals of 1952.
“That team we had in ’51-’52, when we beat Toronto in four straight and beat Montreal four straight, we could have played all summer!” Pavelich said.
“We could have played all summer and never lost.”
They were good, and they were rough and tough.
“If we ever lost two games in a row, I felt sorry for the team we played that night because we just kicked the living hay out of them,” Pavelich said, chuckling at the memory.
Kelly and Pavelich both recall the days at Ma Shaw’s, a boarding house down the block and around the corner from the Olympia on Lawton Street, where successive generations of Red Wings took rooms.
In the late 1940s, Lindsay, Kelly, Pavelich and Howe were the four tenants.
“We were all young,” Kelly said. “Off the ice, we used to bowl together; we went to dances at parties and places.
“And Lindsay and Howe and Pavelich and great guys like (Bill) Quackenbush and Jack Stewart and Leo Reise, we were a real team on and off the ice.”
And then Kelly began to laugh and said, “We had the Red Wings emblem on our backsides.”
Kelly recalls those days and others, including his two terms of service as a Member of Parliament in Canada in the early 1960s, in a book, “The Red Kelly Story,” which will be published this month by ECW Press.
In 1959, four seasons after their last Stanley Cup, with the team not playing well, it returned home from three losses on the road in which Kelly had not played because of an ankle broken during practice.
Asked to take off his below-the-knee-to-toes cast and give it a try, Kelly said he did it for the team. He played on it, not always to great effect, and in constant pain.
No one knew.
“My ankle was not bendable, it was stiff,” he said. “And I couldn’t turn to that outside.”
Asked by a reporter at the beginning of the next season about his diminished play, Kelly said, “Might have been the ankle.”
“The next day, a Saturday, Ted Lindsay’s wife calls my wife and says, well, have you got your bags packed?” Kelly said.
From his five words, he recalls, a headline writer accumulated the false suggestion Kelly was forced to play. Kelly said it was never demanded.
He went to a large newspaper stand in the city before the Rangers game that night and read the headline, “It must have been three inches high,” Kelly said. “Was Kelly Forced to Play on Broken Foot?”
“Holy man, I said. Then I read the story, and the story wasn’t like the headline.
“So, that’s when I got traded. That night.”
After the game, Adams, with owner Bruce Norris standing behind him, told Kelly he and Billy McNeill were traded to the lowly Rangers for Bill Gadsby and Eddie “Clear the Track” Shack.
Kelly needed to report to New York general manager Les Patrick at 8:30 the next morning.
What transpired next was little like anything in the history of the league, or much of professional sports, to that day.
“I said, I’ll think about it,” Kelly recalled.
“He said, ‘WHAT?’ And he almost put his finger into my eye.”
“I said, I’ll think about it.”
“I don’t know for sure whether I slammed the door or not, I don’t remember. I just decided that what they were doing was wrong.
“That wasn’t right.”
The six-time All Star said he went home, thought about it all night, called Patrick and retired.
Eventually, Punch Imlach, the Maple Leafs general manager, had his assistant, King Clancy, call to offer Kelly a slot on the team. Kelly won four Stanley Cups with the Leafs.
The grievous trade and Kelly starring with a chief rival eliminated the chance he would receive the grand retirement a career-long Red Wings star and member of the Hockey Hall of Fame is accorded by the franchise, including the likelihood his No. 4 would have been raised to the rafters.
Some older Wings fans have long argued it should be, regardless.
“Oh, I never worried about it,” Kelly said. “They can say or do whatever they want.
“I did all I could for them, when I played there. It was a hundred percent.”
Not all the 10 oldest Red Wings authored august careers. In fact, one role lasted just about eight minutes.
Jim Conacher, 95
Birth date: May 5, 1921 (Motherwell, Scotland)
Like many players of his era, Conacher’s career was delayed by World War II, and his three years in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
He played as a forward from 1945 to 1948, with many of the players who would propel the Red Wings looming Stanley Cup run.
He played in the 1948 Finals, a sweep by the Maple Leafs.
Conacher had 76 points (35 goals) in 114 regular-season games for the Wings, and seven points (five goals) in 19 playoff games.
Steve Wojciechowski, 93
Birth date: Dec. 25, 1922 (Fort William, Ontario)
Also like many other players of the era, Wojciechowski got his shot with many regulars overseas and could not keep his position in the six-team NHL when they returned.
Few were as successful, when the spotlight found them.
In 1944-45, the right wing was outstanding, finishing with 39 points (19 goals) in 49 games, and one assist in six playoff games.
He played five more games for the Wings and never scored again, before a long, successful American Hockey League career.
Pete Babando, 91
Birth date: May 10, 1925 (Braeburn, Pa.)
Babando scored arguably the biggest goal in the history of the franchise.
The journeyman, who played six NHL seasons with the four United States franchises, did it in the most-fabled way.
It came at 8 minutes 31 seconds of the second overtime in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals on April 23, 1950, vanquishing the Rangers.
He was traded in a nine-player deal with the Blackhawks, three weeks later.
Ted Lindsay, 91
Birth date: July 29, 1925 (Renfrew, Ontario)
Ht./Wt.: 5-8/163 pounds
In addition to the four Stanley Cups and induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Lindsay was an eight-time, first-team All Star and won the Art Ross Trophy for scoring in 1950.
Lindsay was captain for four seasons.
In 1,068 regular games in the NHL, he had 851 points (379 goals). In 133 playoff games, he finished with 96 points (47 goals).
After a few seasons of attempting to organize a players association, Lindsay was traded to the Blackhawks in 1957.
Red Kelly, 89
Birth date: July 9, 1927 (Simcoe, Ontario)
In addition to the four Stanley Cups and induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Kelly won the first Norris Trophy for outstanding defenseman in 1954.
He was a six-time first-team All Star and won the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship and playing ability four times.
Kelly was captain for three seasons.
His puck-carrying proficiency was integral to the Stanley Cup wins, providing an explosive transition from defense to offense.
For the Wings and Maple Leafs, Kelly played 1,316 games, had 823 points (281 goals). In 164 playoff games, he finished with 92 points (33 goals).
Dunc Fisher, 89
Birth date: Aug. 27, 1927 (Regina, Saskatchewan)
Ht./Wt.: 5-7/170 pounds
Played eight games without scoring for the Wings at age 32 in 1958-59, six years after skating in his previous NHL game.
Fisher is one of the most prolific career scorers for the Hershey Bears of the AHL.
Tom McGrattan, 88
Birth date: Oct. 19, 1927 (Brantford, Ontario)
The tallest player on the list, and it is highly unusual because McGrattan was a goaltender in an era when it was thought only smaller men were quick and agile enough for the position.
McGrattan appeared in one game, for the last eight minutes of the third period Nov. 9, 1947, replacing the injured Harry Lumley.
It was his only NHL game.
McGrattan was 20, and he retired the next season.
Marty Pavelich, 88
Birth date: Nov. 6, 1927 (Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario)
In addition to the four Stanley Cups and induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Pavelich was the most underrated player on the Wings teams of that dominant era.
One of the fastest skaters in the game, Pavelich left the scoring to the august collection of forwards and concentrated on stopping the opponents’ big guns throughout his 10 seasons.
And it made him an All Star in each of the four seasons the Wings won the Stanley Cup.
In 634 games for the Wings, he had 252 points (93 goals). In 91 playoff games, he had 28 points (13 goals).
Benny Woit, 88
Birth date: Jan. 7, 1928 (Fort William, Ontario)
The stalwart defenseman won three Stanley Cups with the Red Wings in his five seasons, and ultimately found he could play in the NHL only with them.
Traded to the Blackhawks just after the 1955 Stanley Cup win, Woit was demonstrably devoted to the Wings and suddenly less effective.
Within a year, he was in the AHL where he enjoyed a few years of success.
Sizeable for a player of the era and the ultimate rugged, stay-at-home defenseman, Woit was imbued with the characteristics of the breed: a low profile, but arguably irreplaceable.
Some said Woit's patrolling of the blue line provided the cornerstone of the team.
Ed Sandford, 88
Birth date: Aug. 20, 1928 (Toronto)
He landed at the Olympia for a scoreless, eight-game cup of coffee in 1955, after steady performance with the Bruins that included eight goals and three assists during the five-game triumph by the Canadiens in the 1953 Stanley Cup Finals.
Sandford was quickly traded to the Blackhawks for the forward Metro Prystai, and retired at the end of the season.