Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How a simple letter, and a bit of luck put Jimmy Devellano on top


I had the opportunity, this past week, to meet Jimmy Devellano, the Detroit Red Wings’ Senior vice-president and alternate governor.

Speaking at the Toronto chapter of SIHR (Society for International Hockey Research) monthly meeting , Devellano recanted his early life growing up in Cabbagetown and Scarborough,

Despite being an admitted lousy hockey player, his passion and quest for a career in the game drove him to write a letter to Lynn Patrick, general manager of the expansion St. Louis Blues in 1966.

Devellano just wanted the opportunity to be a scout and said that he would work for free for the team. Patrick agreed and after a year, he was a full time scout for the Blues.

After a five year tenure, he was let go by the Blues due to personnel issues. As luck would have it, the NHL was expanding again.

He made a trip to the NHL draft that July  and got in contact with the expansion New York Islanders GM Bill Torre.

After a dismal first season in Long Island, Devallano and Torre quickly scouted and drafted some of the greatest players in NHL history; Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies and Mike Bossy.

He told the audience how drafting Mike Bossy nearly didn’t happen.

It was down to Bossy or Dwight Foster, who had led the OHL in Scoring.

Bossy had 77 goals in his last junior season, but couldn’t check.

Devallano said how coach Al Arbour told Bill Torre that it’s hard to find a big-time scorer. They had the playmaker in Trottier and the protector in Gilles. Arbour said he’d teach Bossy how to check.

“He’s the greatest, purest goal scorer that I ever saw in my life”, he said. “And Al Arbour was right, he did teach him how to check.”

A trade later for Butch Goring, were final pieces and in their eighth season, the Islanders were Stanley Cup champions.


Devellano was not around for the Islanders fourth straight Cup.

Little Caesar’s owner Mike Ilitch had bought the Detroit Red Wings in 1982 and his first move, as owner, was to hire Jim Devellano as their GM.

He was excited to be given his dream job with an Original Six team. At the time, the Red Wings were a struggling franchise and had just 2,100 season ticket holders.

“If (Jim) Balsillie were around then, he would have wanted to move the team to Hamilton,” he said.

By the start of his first season in Detroit, the Wings managed to double their season ticket sales but still had dismal attendance numbers.

The Wings battled through seasons of disappointments in the ‘80s. It didn’t phase Devellano or team owner Mike Ilitch’s confidence in him.

“I promised Mike and Marian Ilitch that we’d win the Cup in eight years. It took us fifteen.”

1983_feature In 1983, Devallano drafted his franchise player, Steve Yzerman , and began building a team around him.

He was one of the first GMs to scout seriously in Europe and the “Iron Curtain”.

Then scout Ken Holland found the likes of Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, and Niklas Lidstrom. These players quickly put the Wings as a playoff contender.

He felt that the 1989 draft was one of the greatest in the team’s history, if not NHL history and by 1990, Devellano was the team’s senior vice-president.

The players were there, but they lacked the right coach to get them to the pinnacle. Ilitch wanted Mike Keenan, but Devellano didn’t.

The owner put his trust in him again and couldn’t have been more happy with his choice, Scotty Bowman.

Devellano admitted that Bowman and Yzerman had their differences.

Yzerman was a scorer but Bowman wanted him to play a more defensive roll. Bowman even wanted to trade the team’s captain to the Ottawa Senators.

Fortunately for Detroit, the two worked things out and Bowman turned Yzerman into a much better defensive centre. A Frank Selke Trophy in 2000 was proof that it worked.

Finally, in 1997, the Red Wings clinched the first of four Cups in an eleven-year period. Not to mention, they are one of the most successful teams of the last fifteen years.

Devellano then briefly spoke on the tragic limousine accident involving Vladimir Konstantinov.

He told us that both Hall-of-Famer Ted Lindsay and Konstantinov still has his own stall in the Red Wings dressing room and visits it whenever he attends games.

During the Q and A session, Mr. Devellano answered a variety of topics on former players, coaches, the Phoenix Coyotes and New York Islanders situations and even offered advice for some up and coming scouts.

True story: Ilitch and Devellano signed future Hall of Fame defenceman Brad Park away from the Boston Bruins by awarding him two Little Caesar’s franchises, in Boston, as a bonus.

I asked him if there was a player that he really wanted as a scout and the team’s GM went against him . The essential “come back to bite you in the ass” player.

He couldn’t come up with a name off hand in St. Louis but that in New York he had the upmost confidence from Bill Torre.

It was interesting to learn to that the Wings initial choice before Yzerman was hometown boy Pat Lafontaine. The Islanders picked him right ahead of Detroit.

Bob Tindale, the former head of Boston Bruins scouting also in attendance, then added that Boston wanted Keith Brown in the 1979 draft but after Chicago picked him, they had to go with their second option, Ray Bourque.

Devellano concluded that the draft relies on a lot of luck, and that in his career he has been extremely lucky.

More of Mr. Devellano’s story in hockey can be found in his book “The Road to Hockeytown, Jimmy Devellano’s Forty Years in the NHL”.

1 comment:

Yves said...

Great article Kevin.