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100 Greatest NHL Players

100 Greatest Players

Alex Delvecchio: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Captained Red Wings for 12 seasons, centered two versions of 'Production Line' with Gordie Howe

by Stu Hackel / Special to NHL.com

He was the superstar nobody knew, a marvelously gifted athlete who was, in the game's best tradition, exceedingly modest. For decades he skated in the shadow of Gordie Howe, who was known as "Mr. Hockey" to most everyone, but "The Big Guy" or "Power" to his teammates.

Alex Delvecchio's nickname was considerably less glorious. His Detroit Red Wings teammates called him "Fats."

 

Video: Alex Delvecchio was third member of 1,000-point club

 

But Delvecchio was a player's player, and all who took the ice with or against him knew his true value.

"When you think of the Red Wings, you think of Howe," Hall of Fame center Phil Esposito, then of the Boston Bruins, told Sport magazine in 1971. "But Alex is the most underrated player in the game today -- underrated by everyone but the players."

"You got to be sure to take the body when you check him," said another Hall of Famer and Bruins great, defenseman Bobby Orr. "You can't play the puck on him because he's so quick and smart with the puck, he'll go right around you."

 

ALEX DELVECCHIO CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 1,549 | Goals: 456 | Assists: 825 | Points: 1,281

 

Bruins goalie Eddie Johnston called Delvecchio "a deceptive shooter, maybe the most deceptive in the league. He doesn't take a big windup, just sort of slaps at it, but he gets an awful lot on it."

"He's like a magician with the puck," former New York Rangers goalie Ed Giacomin said in a TV interview. "He is so good that you think you have direction on him, for some reason he's able to change it in flow. And how he does it, I'll never understand it."

Delvecchio was "a great artist, that's what he was," Howe told author Ted Kulfan. "I had no idea how much of one until I played with him. Ted Lindsay and I would sit on the bench when Alex was just a rookie and talk about what a good player he could become."

How good did he become? Delvecchio's achievements are somewhat staggering.

He retired on Nov. 7, 1973, to become coach having played 1,549 regular-season games, finishing with 456 goals and 825 assists for 1,281 points. At the time he ranked second to Howe in all three categories. He had 35 goals and 104 points in 121 playoff games.

By 1960-61, his 10th full season with the Red Wings, he had very quietly become the seventh leading scorer in NHL history. In 1969, he became the third NHL player to score 1,000 points, joining Howe and Jean Beliveau.

During his prime, Delvecchio finished among the top 10 scorers 10 times in 14 seasons from 1955-56 to 1968-69. And he had his two most productive seasons -- 83 points and 71 points -- after turning 36.

He scored 20 or more goals in 13 of his 22 full Red Wings seasons (plus two seasons with 19) and had 30 or more assists 17 times, including nine seasons of 40 or more and two of 50 or more.

Including his one appearance for Detroit on March 25 in 1950-51, his NHL debut, Delvecchio played parts of 24 seasons in the League, all with the Red Wings. Howe played longer (32 seasons in the NHL and World Hockey Association), but also played elsewhere. No one in pro sports has had a longer career spent with one team than "Fats." His 1,670 games between the regular season and playoffs are the most anyone has played for one NHL team.

"I think that all records can be broken, and I don't know how much of a record that is, if you even want to call it a record," the typically humble Delvecchio told Dave Stubbs of NHL.com in 2016. "I guess I was one of the fortunate ones who was able to stay in the League that long. And playing with guys like the late Gordie, and with Ted Lindsay and Red Kelly, that sure helped to keep me in the NHL."

Yet, despite playing that long, he was assessed 383 penalty minutes, his most for a full season 37. "The fact that he had fewer penalty minutes in 24 years with the Wings than some players rack up in a single season says a lot about his game," Howe said. "He played good, clean hockey."

He didn't always. As a junior playing for the Red Wings-sponsored Oshawa Generals in 1950-51, he admittedly was "a hothead then, getting too many penalties for fighting and popping off." He told writer Kevin Shea that his Oshawa coach, former Red Wings star Larry Aurie, who "emphasized to me the finesse of stickwork and playmaking," also "smartened me up in a hurry about keeping out of trouble." After Delvecchio arrived in Detroit, general manager Jack Adams similarly warned him that if he didn't stay away from cheap penalties he'd be sent to the minors.

Delvecchio played six games in the minors -- and scored nine points -- before Adams summoned back him to the Wings on Oct. 27, 1951, and he was not interested in going back, playing 65 games this season, scoring 15 goals with 22 assists. He won the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship three times, finishing second or third three times. It wasn't really an award he sought; in Delvecchio's era, NHL GMs who prized aggressive play, including Adams, would routinely grumble that they didn't want Lady Byng winners.

But "Fats" brought much more to Detroit than clean play. He was an exceptional skater, efficient and fluid, who never tired and could react instantly in any direction to a change in the flow of play. He constantly circled to get open for a pass or to zero in on an opposing puck carrier. "There is no wasted motion," said Garry Unger, when he was a Red Wings center in the late 1960s. "I don't think he even sweats out there."

"I don't like to play on the same line as 'Fats'," Howe half-jokingly told Hockey Illustrated in 1969. "He is such a smooth skater with that almost delicate toe-dancing style of his that he is worth watching. I can only watch him when he is playing on a different line than I am."

Of course, Howe actually loved playing with Delvecchio, who assisted on more of his regular-season goals than any other player (210). No one else is close; Lindsay is second with 147. No. 9 and No. 10 were frequently linemates, beginning in Delvecchio's second full season, on the "Production Line" with Lindsay (Delvecchio replaced Sid Abel, who became player/coach of the Chicago Black Hawks, as they were then known, in 1952). Howe and Delvecchio were also regularly together on the power play and penalty kill.

"I can thank Alex for a lot of good years," Howe told Kulfan. "We read each other very well. I played with some great hockey players but none came to his order."

With Howe, Delvecchio could throw the puck into an area, if necessary, and Howe would get it. But when Frank Mahovlich was traded to Detroit from Toronto on March 3, 1968, and became the left wing on the "Production Line II," the passes had to land right on the tape of the stick of "The Big M" while he was in full flight with his big, sweeping strides. "It was tough for centers to judge where he'd be for a pass," teammate Bruce McGregor said. "Alex would hit him almost every time, right on the money. Alex was the best center man at making consistently perfect passes that I've ever seen."

With Howe and Mahovlich as his wings, Delvecchio had his best season in 1968-69, with 58 assists, fourth best in the NHL, and 25 goals. So did Mahovlich, who scored 49 goals. And so did Howe, with a career-best 103 points. 

 "Alex was one of those players who made people around him better," teammate-turned-broadcaster Mickey Redmond told Kulfan. "He was an extremely unselfish player. The game slowed down for him. He was a top-notch, excellent passer."

Delvecchio often defined his job as "getting the puck to the scorers and they'd get the job done." But he had to come through at big moments, too, which he did as a member of three Stanley Cup-winning teams and another five Cup finalists.

He was tied with Howe for the Detroit playoff scoring lead with nine points (seven assists) during the Red Wings' run to the Stanley Cup in 1954. He was third on the Red Wings in playoff scoring with 15 points (seven goals) in 1955, when they won the Cup again. In Game 7 of the '55 Stanley Cup Final, Delvecchio scored the first goal and later scored on a breakaway in a 3-1 win against the Montreal Canadiens. And when the Wings again advanced to the Final before losing to the Canadiens in '56, Delvecchio was Detroit's leading playoff goal scorer with seven. Ten years later, when the Red Wings again lost to the Canadiens in the Final, he led Detroit with 11 playoff assists.

Delvecchio was not only productive, he was also incredibly durable. He played in 548 consecutive regular-season games and, after missing 22 games with a broken ankle in 1956-57, played in all but 14 over his final 16 full seasons.

"You don't get hurt in this game if you keep your head up and watch what's going on around you," he told Sport, making it sound easy.

Delvecchio had a great ability to read the game. As Howe told Sport, "He is unbelievable at anticipating what I'll do, what an opponent will do, what every man out there will do."

"He's not the brawniest hockey player I ever saw," longtime Red Wings trainer Lefty Wilson said, "but he is one of the brainiest."

Delvecchio was born in Fort William, Ontario, on Dec. 4, 1932. The son of a railroad engineer, he started playing shinny at 5. "You went at it until you were tired, and then you played goaltender until you were rested, and they you went at it some more," he said.

His pudgy cheeks made his nickname fitting for a teenage rookie in 1951, but a decade later he'd be a solid 6 feet, 195 pounds, big for a hockey player of that era. Named Red Wings captain in 1962, he was "handsome enough to be a movie actor, possessing the build of a football player and the grace of a ballet dancer," in the words of Lewis H. Walter in "Hockey Pictorial." He'd be captain for 12 seasons, second most in Red Wings history to Steve Yzerman (19 seasons). 

Delvecchio matured in the hockey spotlight, with thick brown hair first worn as a brush cut, before he gradually grew it longer, showing flecks of grey at his temples. Eventually, he'd be grey all over, looking the part of the respected NHL elder statesman that he'd become.

Yet for all his accomplishments, including his Hall of Fame induction in 1977, he never made the NHL First All-Star Team and was selected to the Second All-Star Team twice.

"I never did play the game to have them hang my jersey in the Joe Louis Arena or anyplace, or be a Hall of Famer or whatever," Delvecchio said. "I just wanted to play the game, play it as best as I could, contribute to your hockey team and I feel that any of those other honors are like bonuses."

 

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