James Norris was not fooling around that April morning in 1935.
The 56-year-old Montreal commerce czar had just bought Detroit’s NHL club – then called the Falcons – and phoned Jack ‘Jolly Jawn’ Adams, the coach-manager he had acquired in the franchise purchase. “I’ll give you a year on the job,” Norris warned him. “You’re now on probation.”
Those who knew Norris best translated the “probation” part to mean win a Stanley Cup, pronto, or else. If that wasn’t intimidating enough, there was the new owner’s physical presence: very scary. “I remember the afternoon we met,” said Adams during an interview in 1961 when he was 67. “Norris was bald and he had heavy black eyebrows and a round face. His nose was broad and flat, like somebody had hit it.”
While he was at it, the new boss laid a few other things on the line with his new employee. “We’ll call the team the Wings. In fact, we’ll call it Red Wings. Our emblem will be a winged wheel which ought to sit good with Henry Ford and the car people,” Adams recalled.
The habitually argumentative Adams instantly realized he should never quarrel with his new boss – just do what the millionaire said and quickly go about the business of making him happy. The results were amazing, to say the least. He gifted Norris with back-to-back championships, while earning a second nickname, ‘Trader Jack.’ Producing consecutive Cup winners had never been done before by an American-based NHL team, so how did Adams do it? Trade, of course, and trade some more. His first target was Boston Bruins boss Frank Patrick.
In a conversation with Patrick, Adams unequivocally said, “If I had your Marty Barry, Detroit would win the Stanley Cup!” Adams relinquished Cooney Weiland and placed Barry between Larry Aurie and Herbie Lewis. They formed the Wings’ original ‘Production Line’ and were chiefly responsible for Detroit winning the American Division in 1935-36 and topping the league (24-16-8) while bringing the Motor City its first Stanley Cup.
A pair of other acquisitions were just as pivotal. Adams bought Syd Howe (no relation to Gordie) from St. Louis for $35,000 and spent $17,000 to obtain Hec Kilrea from Toronto. Adams scored another coup when he acquired goalie Norm Smith from the Montreal Maroons. In his first playoff run with the Wings, Smith was the stopper for the team’s historic 1-0 win over the Maroons in six overtime periods. Smith also was instrumental in the 1937 Cup win, at one point going 248 straight minutes without giving up a goal.
Like the post-Second World War powerhouses that featured the other ‘Production Line’ (Sid Abel-Ted Lindsay-Gordie Howe), Adams’ original champs boasted great depth. Ebbie Goodfellow was from the Gordie Howe mold. Johnny Sorrell and Gord Pettinger were underrated forwards. For physical play, ‘Bucko’ McDonald, a barrel-chested
defenseman, was one of the hardest hitters of his era.
The Wings beat the Leafs 3-1 in the 1936 Cup final. But Norris wanted another title, and Adams knew it. “I called Mr. Norris ‘Pops’ and never signed a contract with him,” Adams said. “Pops was the bankroll and boss. After he took over, Detroit hockey never looked back.”
For an encore in 1936-37, the Wings improved to 25-14-9, but the route to the Cup had speed bumps. To win the semifinal against the Canadiens, Detroit was extended to triple overtime in the deciding fifth game before Kilrea scored.
In the 5-1 Game 1 Cup final loss to the Rangers, Smith was injured and replaced by
minor-leaguer Earl Robertson for the rest of the playoffs. With New York up 2-1 in the series, the 26-year-old Robertson pitched a pair of shutouts – 1-0 and 3-0 – for the Wings’ second straight title. They became the first team to finish first and win the Cup in consecutive seasons.
Adams had reason to believe a team with the likes of Aurie, Barry, Lewis, Howe and Goodfellow was good enough to last. Instead, they plummeted to last place in the American Division in 1937-38. For that, Adams blamed himself for not doing what he did best: trade. “I stood pat,” he said, “and I should’ve been dealing. After this flop, I’ll never hesitate to bust up championship clubs.”
Adams wasn’t kidding, either. The Wings won five more Stanley Cups under his direction.