When former Red Wings forward Tim Ecclestone joined the NHL in 1968 player salaries were nothing like what they are today. But despite the lower pay during that time, Ecclestone still considers himself fortunate for being able to play in that era and experience thrills such as walking into the Detroit dressing room for the first time and sitting across from Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio.
“I had my time there in Detroit and I was fortunate enough to play with the likes of Gordie Howe and Delvecchio,” Ecclestone said. “And then I got into Toronto and Dave Keon, (Darryl) Sittler, some more Hall of Famers. Looking back on my career I was very, very fortunate to come on in the time that I did starting in ‘67-68. I was 20-years-old and all these guys had been around the league.”
Beginning his career with the St. Louis Blues in 1968 just after the league expanded from the Original Six era gave Ecclestone the opportunity to play with some of hockey’s greats, an opportunity that overshadowed the fact that players’ salaries dramatically increased in the years after the left-winger retired.
“Everybody says, ‘You could have made a lot more money if you’d just come along a little bit later,’” Ecclestone said. “I run into people all the time, and they say, ‘I wish that we’d been traded a little later on.’ I don’t even go there.”
The allure of the better contracts that he missed out on by a few years didn’t trump the fact that Ecclestone got to play with Hall of Famers such as Howe, Delvecchio and Marcel Dionne while he was with Detroit, and Lanny McDonald, Borje Salming and Norm Ullman when he was traded to Toronto.
“An average player – and I think I was an average player – probably makes about $1.5 million a year,” Ecclestone said. “I look at that and I say I enjoyed my time, probably would’ve had more fun with $1.5 million, but I wouldn’t change the people I played with and the people I met in the game. It was great.”
It wasn’t just the Hall of Famers who made Ecclestone’s time with the Wings so memorable. He had spent much of three seasons in St. Louis playing with center Red Berenson, and the two friends were traded together to Detroit in February 1971, the same season that Ecclestone posted a career-high 53 points (19 goals, 34 assists).
“We played in St. Louis for three and a half years and then another three and a half or so in Detroit,” Ecclestone said of Berenson. “We played most of our career together. I still stay in touch with Red on occasion.”
After playing 191 games with Detroit and posting another 53-point season in 1971-72 (18 goals, 35 assists), Ecclestone was offered a change of scenery from Delvecchio, who had recently been appointed head coach.
“I played with Alex on the same line with Mickey (Redmond) for I think over a year,” Ecclestone recalled. “And then (Delvecchio) took over in the management and he said, ‘We’re thinking of making some changes here, you’ve got an opportunity. Atlanta’s looking at you and Toronto’s looking at you.’ And so I said, ‘It’d be kind of nice to go home and play.’”
Home for Ecclestone was 240 miles northeast of Detroit, where he had grown up rooting for the Maple Leafs, and in late November 1973, the forward was traded to the Leafs in exchange for Pierre Jarry.
“I grew-up in Toronto, born and raised there, and I’d watch ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ every Saturday night, just sitting right there like every other kid playing hockey, in peewee and bantam and all the way up,” Ecclestone said. “They made the trade and I went home and played in Toronto for a year, and I had family members around and friends, and so growing up watching Toronto and then all of a sudden having an opportunity to play with them … yeah, that was a fun time.”
Over the course of two seasons, Ecclestone played in 51 games with the Leafs before being traded to the Atlanta Flames in 1974. By the time a knee injury forced his retirement in 1978, he had played in 692 total NHL games and acquired 359 total points.
But his 11 seasons in the league exposed him to more than just Hall of Famers. Another perk of playing in the early years of expansion was having an opportunity to play in each of the Original Six arenas.
“My first game was ‘67-68 in Madison Square and so I was fortunate,” said Ecclestone, of playing in New York City. “I played in all those old arenas that are all replaced nowadays, so I was fortunate to play in all of those, the history of that, it was kind of fun to go through that era.”