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100 Greatest Players

Sid Abel: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Center of famed 'Production Line' with Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay

by Stu Hackel / Special to

The paperback book is old, its pulpy pages now a yellow-brownish color and its pasty binding worn. It has no publication date, but reading it reveals it's from 1952. Although entitled "Detroit's Big Three," it's not about the local automakers General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, but the trio of Red Wings pictured on its cover who made up one of the top lines in NHL history.

Author Ed Fitkin wrote of Sid Abel, the line's center and the eldest of the three, "Abel will go down in Detroit's club history as the greatest competitor and inspirational force the Red Wings ever had."


Video: Sid Abel formed 'Production Line' with Howe, Lindsay


Abel's youthful wings Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe -- also terrific competitors and inspirations -- would always agree. They eventually went on without him, each to an extraordinary career, but the veteran Abel helped mold them into Hockey Hall of Famers. He'd settle down the fiery Lindsay and motivate the laid-back Howe, while directing their movements and setting their tactics on the ice. 

"I don't know where I'd be without him," said a young Howe. "He just has to whack me with his stick when I'm not playing well and say, 'Get going,' and that's all I ever need." 

"Abel is the greatest of them all," Lindsay said. "He seems to know more about what I'm going to do than I do myself and he's always in the right spot."


Games: 612 | Goals: 189 | Assists: 283 | Points: 472


The three were more popularly known as the "Production Line," a fine pun coming from the Motor City at a time when the huge auto factories hummed day and night, dominating the Detroit economy and culture, while the Red Wings dominated the NHL, driven by Abel, Lindsay and Howe.

Their three retired numbers -- Lindsay's 7, Abel's 12 and Howe's 9 -- hang side by side in the rafters of Joe Louis Arena, and his seasons as their center brought him the greatest acclaim -- and his legendary nickname, Boot Nose, gained after Howe had decked Maurice Richard in a fight. Abel skated by the Rocket, asked, "How did you like that?" and punctuated it with an anti-Francophone slur. Richard retaliated with a punch that busted Abel's beak, causing his teammates to teasingly reward their swollen-faced captain with a descriptive moniker that was often shortened to Boot.

Old Boot Nose was a cornerstone of the rebuilt Red Wings of the early 1940s, long before getting his nickname and long before Lindsay and Howe pulled on a Winged Wheel sweater. Abel's Detroit career had two distinct phases, separated by his military service in World War II.

He had come to Detroit from his hometown of Melville, Saskatchewan. The man who spotted his well-rounded hockey talent was Red Wings scout Goldie Smith, Melville's postmaster, who in 1924 had discovered Eddie Shore. But Abel's road to stardom required dodging a few potholes.

At Red Wings training camp in 1937, coach/general manager Jack Adams liked him but had concerns that 19-year-old Abel might be vulnerable at 155 pounds. After another year in junior hockey, his play at Red Wings camp in 1938 led Adams to call Abel "the best recruit in camp." He began his pro career with Detroit's Pittsburgh Hornets farm team, with former Red Wings captain Larry Aurie as coach. Aurie helped refine Abel's game and his leadership qualities.

Abel became a full-time member of the Red Wings in the fall of 1939 until a shoulder injury curtailed his season and he landed back in the minors. By the time the 1940 playoffs arrived, he had returned to Detroit, where his aggressive play despite a shoulder issue further impressed Adams. Abel had the offseason to prepare for the 1940-41 season, when he established himself with 11 goals and 22 assists. He was second on the team in scoring and tied for 17th in the League.

Abel broke out the following season. Adams shifted him to left wing on a line with center Don "The Count" Grosso and Eddie Wares. Each had struggled with injuries on his path to the NHL, so they were dubbed "The Liniment Line." Abel finished fifth in the League in scoring, with 49 points in 48 games, and helped Grosso to his best season (53 points, third most in the NHL). He was selected to the NHL Second All-Star Team as a left wing. Also, enthusiastic crowds returned to Detroit's red-bricked Olympia for the first time since the days when Aurie and his linemates Marty Barry and Herbie Lewis helped lead the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup in 1936 and '37.

One of the League's fastest skaters, Abel became a fan favorite, not just for his offense but also his hustle. Detroit employed an aggressive dump-and-chase, forechecking style, and Abel was a main cog in the scheme. It worked well, and the Red Wings appeared poised to bring the Stanley Cup back to Detroit in the spring of 1942. But after jumping out to a 3-0 lead against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Red Wings collapsed, losing their composure and the next four games. During the painful offseason, Adams made changes and selected Abel -- 24 years old and with only two full NHL seasons of experience -- as the new captain.

Seeking redemption in 1942-43, Detroit finished atop the NHL for the first time in six seasons despite Grosso's broken wrist. Eliminating the rival Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs, the Red Wings then drew the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final. An injury forced Adams to move Abel back to center between Mud Bruneteau and Carl Liscombe, and he responded with five points (goal, four assists) in Game 1, helping spark Detroit to a sweep and the championship. Abel tied two Stanley Cup Final records with five points and four assists in one game. Abel had 13 points in 10 playoff games.

Later in 1943, Abel enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, putting his NHL career on hold. Used as a physical training instructor, he remained mostly in Canada during the war and continued playing hockey for military teams. He would not return to the NHL until late in the 1945-46 season and was immediately slowed by injury and illness.

There was concern that Abel's NHL days might have been over. He and other servicemen had returned to a different league. Rule changes that allowed passing into the neutral zone up to the new red line had sped up the game. But Abel, 28 at the time, spent the summer of 1946 getting in better shape, and it paid off: He scored 19 goals and had 29 assists in 1946-47, playing all 60 games and skating mostly between 21-year-old Lindsay and 23-year-old Pete Horeck, with 18-year-old rookie Howe occasionally skating in Horeck's spot.

In the fall of 1947, new coach Tommy Ivan and GM Adams decided to try Howe as the regular right wing with Abel and Lindsay, and things began to click. Lindsay led the League with 33 goals, and Howe doubled his previous output. But the team faltered down the stretch, and Abel slumped in the 1948 postseason. He finished with no goals in 10 games, and the Red Wings were swept by the Maple Leafs in the Cup Final.

To start 1948-49, Ivan relegated the 30-year-old Abel to a depth role, inserting Max McNab in his spot. But after McNab was injured against the New York Rangers in the season's fifth game, Ivan put Abel back between Lindsay and Howe. It took 37 seconds for Abel to break a 2-2 tie with the game-winner, and suddenly there was no stopping him.

Abel scored with regularity and set up his linemates. He reached 20 goals for the first time that season, getting a League-high 28, and kept scoring. Asked about his rejuvenation, he said, "Maybe because I'm slower. Gordie and Ted do all the work. I just come in and pick up the garbage." The "Production Line" had 66 goals, and the Red Wings finished first, beginning a run in which they would win the Prince of Wales Trophy, given to the team with the best regular-season record, a record seven consecutive seasons.

Selected to the NHL First All-Star Team as a center, Abel became the first player in League history to be make a postseason All-Star team at two positions. Most significantly, he won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, in a season he had begun as a spare part.

The young Red Wings players, such as Howe, Lindsay, Red Kelly and Marty Pavelich, all looked up to Abel. They'd gather in his room on road trips, and he'd analyze the game the way a coach would and get them ready for their next opponent. "Abel is the real leader of the team," Hall of Fame defenseman Bill Quackenbush said. "Other players like Howe and Lindsay may be more spectacular, but he's the guy they look to when the going gets tough."

Although Ivan would dismantle the "Production Line" on occasion, looking for a more balanced attack, it never took long to reassemble it. The Red Wings were always better when that line skated. The three finished 1-2-3 on Detroit in scoring for three straight seasons, beginning in 1949-50. They worked out plays that confused opponents. Abel's 69 points (including an NHL career-high 34 goals) in 1949-50 placed him second on the Red Wings in scoring behind Lindsay (78), and he again made the First All-Star Team.

In their quest for the Cup in 1950, they were nearly denied again by Toronto, which Detroit defeated in a rough, seven-game semifinal series, when Howe sustained a serious head injury. Abel and Detroit pushed on, and then defeated a stubborn Rangers team 4-3 in the second overtime in Game 7 of the Final, on a Pete Babando goal. It was the first time the Cup was captured in overtime of Game 7. Abel went into the subdued Rangers dressing room afterward and said, "Don't you guys know when to quit?"

Abel knew all about perseverance and continued his All-Star-caliber play in 1950-51 with 38 assists (fifth in the League) and 61 points (tied for fourth). The first-place Red Wings, who had 101 points in the regular season, were upset by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, but the next season, after finishing with 100 points, they pulled off the unprecedented feat of sweeping their way to the Cup, with 4-0 series wins against Toronto and Montreal. But when League president Clarence Campbell presented Abel with the Cup, no one knew it would be the captain's last act in a Red Wings sweater.

Realizing he was on the wane and looking to transition into another area of the game, he stunned the hockey world that offseason by requesting a trade to the Chicago Black Hawks, becoming a player/coach with them. He played 39 games in 1952-53 and helped guide Chicago to its first playoff berth in seven seasons.

In 1953-54, the 35-year-old Abel played in three games before hanging up his skates. As recounted by Detroit sportswriters Joe Falls and Jerry Green in their book, "The Glory of Their Game," the Black Hawks were playing the Bruins when rugged Boston defenseman Leo Labine flattened Abel. "He was waiting for me to get up so he could knock me down again," Abel said. "I said to myself, 'That's it, old man. You've had enough.' I crawled back to the bench and never went back again." He retired after playing 612 games, many in the low-scoring pre-war era, with 189 goals and 472 points.

A long, successful coaching and management career followed, as did a lengthy stint as a Red Wings color commentator on radio and TV. Abel was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969.

''There was never any question about his leadership,'' Howe said after Abel died at age 81 on Feb. 8, 2000. ''Sid was very much respected. I learned a lot from him from just listening. When I was around Sid, that's the way it was. He was our captain and leader."


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