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Alex Delvecchio still hockey icon in Detroit

Longtime Red Wings center was inducted into Hockey Hall of Fame 39 years ago Thursday

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

Alex Delvecchio, who played all of his 23-season NHL career with the Detroit Red Wings, vividly remembers the car he bought with his first hockey paycheck.

"Two-hundred-something dollars," Delvecchio recalled when asked about the cost of the antique Ford roadster he purchased in the early 1950s, when he was barely out of his teens. "I had to give it a little push and run beside it to get it going."

Six-plus decades later, the 83-year-old Red Wings icon is behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Silverado, a truck that comes with its own challenges.

"I don't have to push it to get it started," Delvecchio said with a laugh, "but it's got all kinds of stuff in it that I'm still trying to figure out."

Delvecchio was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Aug. 25, 1977, along with defenseman Tim Horton and builders John "Bunny" Ahearne, Harold Ballard and Joseph Cattarinich.

"How often do you get to be in the Hall of Fame, let alone just play in the NHL?" Delvecchio said Wednesday when reminded of the anniversary.

He was speaking from a Detroit grocery store, "from the meat aisle, which I hit now and then." He was delighted to revisit his Hall of Fame induction 39 years ago and the remarkable career that took him there.

Delvecchio played 1,670 regular-season and Stanley Cup Playoff games for the Red Wings; no one has ever played as many games for a single 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," said Delvecchio, who was Detroit captain from 1962 until his retirement in 1974. "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."

The native of Fort William, Ontario, hardly could believe he had made it to the NHL when he arrived. Six years after he played organized hockey for the first time, Delvecchio got the call to Detroit for the season finale, on March 25, 1951, filling in because the Red Wings wanted to rest a few bodies for the playoffs.

He was back in Detroit full-time a few games into the 1951-52 season, breaking in at the front end of a Red Wings dynasty headlined by the "Production Line" of Howe, Sid Abel and Lindsay, along with the brilliant Terry Sawchuk in goal. Detroit won the Stanley Cup that season, Delvecchio's first championship in any level of hockey. The Red Wings won the Cup twice more in his first four seasons.

The silky playmaker laughs when he's reminded that he just as easily could have wound up with the Montreal Canadiens, whose sponsorship of his wartime Knights of Columbus Canadiens supplied the team's wool sweaters.

"I just never made the Canadiens' big team," he said with a laugh.

Happily for Detroit.

Delvecchio joked he barely saw the ice his first few seasons with the Red Wings, getting just a shift or two if the game wasn't close.

His style of play had been reshaped in 1950-51 with the junior Oshawa Generals. Coach and 1930s Red Wings forward Larry Aurie steered Delvecchio away from the rough stuff that had made him a penalty-box regular.

"Larry told me I was no value to the Generals in the box," he said. "And when I got up to Detroit, [general manager Jack] Adams said the same thing when I took a few chippy, foolish penalties. He told me if I wanted to stay up, I had to stay out of the box."

Delvecchio was a player transformed; he won the Lady Byng Trophy as the NHL's most gentlemanly player three times and was assessed 383 penalty minutes in 1,549 regular-season games.

His durability was astonishing. Delvecchio missed 22 games in 1956-57 with a broken ankle, then just 21 more in his next 16 seasons.

"I remember Sawchuk would get hurt -- he'd get hit in the face with a puck -- and say, 'There's no way I'm going to sit out because someone is going to take my place and I may lose my job,'" Delvecchio said. "That kind of stuck with me. I said, 'I'll play injured, to the best of my ability, until they kick me off the team.' You kind of wanted to play hurt, or maybe the hurt wasn't that bad.

"I look at the guys nowadays who get hurt or whatever you want to call it and are sitting out, and I look at it like he's got a hangnail or something and he gets three games' or three weeks' rest."

He chuckled, then qualified the comment.

"But it's a whole different story nowadays. Years ago, once you were in the League, you wanted to stay there at all costs. You played come hell or high water. Now these guys are skating nearly 12 months of the year. I remember we'd play the last game and you'd throw your skates aside and you wouldn't look at them until training camp the following September.

"We'd intentionally put on 10-12 pounds over the summer so you had something to lose in training camp and make it look good, make it look like you were really trying, I guess," he said, laughing again.

Delvecchio endured two long, painful droughts with Detroit, first in the late 1950s when Adams traded away Sawchuk, outstanding young goalie Glenn Hall, Lindsay, Kelly and promising young forward Johnny Bucyk, then a decade later at the start of what would be known as the Dead Wings era.

Loyal to a fault, he was convinced to coach the team from 1974-77, doubling as GM as the Red Wings clung to the hope that his sterling name would distract fans from the shabby product on the ice. But he was too much of a gentleman for either job, taking every loss personally while he chugged antacid like it was water.

Delvecchio retired from the Red Wings organization in 1977. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame that year as much for his leadership and grace as for the 13 seasons in which he scored 20 or more times and his career NHL totals of 456 goals and 1,281 points, plus 35 goals and 104 points in 121 playoff games.

Forty-two years after he skated in his final game, Delvecchio remains hugely popular in Detroit. The fan mail still arrives and shoppers still stop him in the meat aisle for a word.

He'll attend a dozen or so games this season, a fan of the NHL's Original Six teams if few others. Delvecchio misses the long-since-demolished Detroit Olympia, his old home and one of hockey's great arenas, but he likes what he's seen of the city's still-rising new rink that will become the Red Wings' new home after one final season at Joe Louis Arena.

"I'm looking forward to seeing the new place," he said, then laughed once more before setting off to finish his grocery shopping. "I just hope I'm still around to see it."

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