DETROIT – Jimmy Devellano never met Lester Patrick, who spent 50 years in the NHL as a player, coach and general manager, and was a pioneer in the sport’s early development.
Though they never met, Devellano was greatly affected by the Patrick family. And next month when the Red Wings’ senior vice president is presented with the bronze statuette named for Patrick – and synonyms for outstanding service to hockey in the U.S. – Jimmy D will share his gratitude in his acceptance speech.
“I never met Lester Patrick,” Devellano said, “but ironically, and I will talk about this when I’m there … the man who gave me my start in the NHL was his son, Lynn Patrick. He gave me my first job in the NHL. That’s very special.”
In May 1967, a 24-year-old Devellano wrote a letter to Lynn Patrick, then the new general manager of the St. Louis Blues. Devellano made an offer that the Blues GM couldn’t refuse.
“Lynn Patrick was a very nice man,” Devellano said. “He said ‘I’ll take a chance with you.’ He had played in the NHL and won a Cup with the 1940 Rangers, and he hired this silly kid from Toronto named Jimmy Devellano, who wanted to work for free. What did he have to lose? It was a new team starting out and he let me get my foot in the door and I kicked it open.”
Devellano did more than kick the door open as an unpaid scout; he’s knocked it from the hinges, winning 14 championship rings as a scout, general manager and team executive – that includes seven Stanley Cups (four with the Red Wings and three as assistant GM of the New York Islanders).
All of the good deeds that Devellano has given to hockey in the U.S. – and the Red Wings and Hockeytown, in particularly – will be deservingly recognized when the Lester Patrick Award is bestowed upon him on Oct. 21 in New York City. He will be honored at Gotham Hall that evening with a pair of former playing legends – center Mark Messier and goalie Mike Richter.
“I got a call during the Stanley Cup playoffs in April early one morning from Gary Bettman,” Devellano said. “He said, ‘Jimmy, I’ve got some good news to deliver to you.’ He said, ‘You’ve won the Lester Patrick trophy along with Mark Messier and Mike Richter.’ Talk about special.”
Though Devellano didn’t play in the NHL, his 43-year career can be summed up as a driving force behind Detroit’s most-recent Stanley Cup success, as well as his strong influence in the evolution and improvement of the league.
“The thing that I’m most proud of is that in my 43 years in the league with three teams, I’ve only missed the playoffs five times,” he said. “I know a lot of people would say my first Stanley Cup; and believe me, they are very special. But when I look upon a 43 year career, I’ve been fortunate to be with teams that have been at least consistently good, and I’m kind of proud of that. I feel very good about that.”
Besides the four Stanley Cups and his decision to make Steve Yzerman the first draft pick in the Ilitch-owned era, Devellano is also credited with bringing the NHL’s entry draft to the fans.
Starting in 1987, the draft has rotated from one NHL city to another, and has gained notoriety through the live TV coverage that it has garnered in recent years.
“I thought it was something that the fans, certainly in Detroit, would enjoy getting,” said Devellano, regarding that first public draft held at Joe Louis Arena in ’87. “When I got here, I preached that we were going to build through the draft. So I thought that the people, our fans, would enjoy watching how it happens, the process.
“It didn’t get the television coverage that it gets today, but it certainly was a nice thing. I was the person who suggested way back when, to make the draft public. The draft, when I started in the business, was always held privately in a room with just hockey people; no media, no fans. Why don’t we make it an event to let people see how we bring young players into the game?
“I believe we were the first league to do it, without a doubt. I think (the other leagues) copied us. I based that on the fact that we were the first to make the entry draft, the amateur draft, whatever you want to call it, a fan spectacular. It’s a simple thing, yet it’s turned out to be a pretty good thing.”
Devellano is excited to be joining 23 other individuals with ties to the organization to receive the Patrick Award, joining a Red Wings’ who’s who of legendary figures, including Yzerman, Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Mike Ilitch.
“It’s very, very special,” Devellano said. “It’s funny how it all intertwines. Who hired me 28 years ago? Mike and Marian Ilitch. I come here and we had to revamp a franchise. I said we’d do it through the draft. Who is the first guy that I ever drafted for them? Steve Yzerman. So obviously I have a bond with these people.”
The obvious next stop for Devellano is enshrinement into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. While induction would be a dream-come-true for a Toronto native who grew-up just a few short miles from the hall’s front door, he won’t campaign for it.
“Of course I think about it. I’m human,” Devellano said. “If it were to happen, it would be my crowning achievement … on a personal level. I would feel, sort of, like my life is complete.”