Hockey Central

Jack Adams

Red Wing Architet

It wasn't easy to know Jack Adams, although thousands of people on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border throught they did. But which Jack Adams?

The citation that accompanied the first presentation of the Lester Patrick Trophy helped to identify one Jack Adams. It stated the award was for long and meritorious service to hockey in the United States. Which was a gross understatement, of course. It could have stated that Jack Adams was responsible for making the city of Detroit almost as famous for its hockey team as it was for putting wheels under humans.

You're talking about the gregarious Jack Adams, now, the one who spent countless days beating the drums for his favorite sport as the ultimate in competitive entertainment or as a career for sons and nephews. Few professed to know or understand the Jack Adams of the rinks. There was no hint of the "Jolly Jack," as he liked to be called at rinkside. Once he glimpsed the red line, "Jolly Jack" was like a chameleon which changed color. He became the terror of referees; he berated opposing coaches and managers; he demanded justice, at league level, for his Red Wings, whom he saw as victims of malfeasance. He was fined. He was suspended. He was vilified by the media in other league cities. Some professed to want his expulsion, without ever getting around to claiming he was bad for hockey.

It sure would have been difficult to prove Adams had been bad for hockey in Detroit. Going into a town where the game was a little-known, back-burner operation, with a club that was broke, Adams won the NHL championship a dozen times as a manager; seven times he won the Stanley Cup. In three of those seven seasons, he also was the coach.

Frank Calder, the first president of the NHL, recommended Adams to Detroit in 1927, hoping to get the faltering club on its skates. Adams mistook the assignment as a permanent job and spent 35 years with the team. During most of that time, he never had a contract. When the original Jim Morris, a Canadian-born multi-millionaire, took over the bankrupt team in the early 1930s, he was asked whether Adams would remain as coach. He replied that Adams was entitled to probation for a year or so.

Norris was almost as fierce a competitor as Adams was. In the early years of ownership, he played a hands-on role in the team's operation, making his opinions known on player deals, sharing in the assessment of talent at training camp and even making road trips. In later years, his doctors told him he should no longer attend the games. His blood pressure couldn't stand it. He still demanded a phone call from his manager or coach the moment a game was over. Adams used to say that phone call was salt in the wound when the Red Wings lost.

"Pops," as they called Norris when he wasn't listening, never did learn to get philosophical about losing. He owned the Chicago Stadium, where the Black Hawks played, as well as the Olympia in Detroit. He also was a major shareholder in Madison Square Garden, home of the New York Rangers. This duplication of ownership gave hockey critics live ammunition. They citied the Norris interests and influence, sometimes sneering at the NHL as "the Norris House League." No one ever suggested, though, that Norris had a friendly thought for any club except the Red Wings.

Nor was Jack Adams ever accused of having lingering loyalty to the Toronto Maple Leafs or the old Ottawa Senators, although he had won the Stanley Cup in both cities as a player. The Toronto club was not yet known as the Maple Leafs but Adams, at $900 per year, was said to be its highest-paid player. Once he took the Detroit job, Toronto almost immediately became his most detested enemy.

Although he was born in Canada (Fort William, Ontario) Adams never could understand why people who lived right across the river from Detroit in Windsor, Ontario would cheer for the Leafs whenever they met the Red Wings at the Olympia. To him, it was like disloyalty in a neighbor. Adams had become a naturalized American citizen himself. His reasoning was logical: "This city has been good to me." He entered vigorously into community affairs – even ran for city council. He lost. The voters might have decided the Jack Adams brand of democracy belonged in the Olympia.

Like most of the managers and coaches in the early years of professional hockey, Adams was a product of the frozen ponds that dotted Canada from December to early April. A kid learned quickly to skate and stickhandle if he wanted a share of the puck because play was a disorganized free-for-all. Adams did learn quickly. Before he was 17, he was playing for a senior team in northern Michigan. He turned pro officially with Toronto in 1918 and soon was lured to the Pacific Coast Hockey Association by the Patrick brothers, Frank and Lester, who had decided to raid the eastern leagues for talent.

Adams proved to be a good choice. He led the league with 26 goals in 1921-22. After three seasons with Vancouver, he returned to Toronto, where he remained until 1925-26. Then, the scent of another Stanley Cup took him to Ottawa. It was good thinking. The Senators were loaded: King Clancy, Frank Nighbor, Hooley Smith, Cy Denneny and other quality players. They won the Stanley Cup in 1927. Although no one could have suspected it then, this was an historic occasion. It marked the last time the Cup has been won by a team from Ottawa, where its donor, Lord Stanley of Preston, had the original inspiration for the trophy.

Although he had moved around freely enough as a player, Adams, in later years as manager and coach, had no trouble defending the rigid control which the NHL exercised over the movement of its players. The reserve clause in their contracts dictated that once a player signed, he was the property of that club until his contract was sold or traded. Even young, unsigned players whose names appeared on the various teams' reserve lists were unapproachable.

Adams, like his contemporaries, argued the system was fair. They offered careers which were unavailable anywhere else and they were entitled to protect their talent. Amazingly there were few challenges to the arrangement. Playing in the NHL was a dream that wasn't to be threatened by talk about free agency.

One of Adams' big coups, of course, was the signing of Gordie Howe, especially since Howe, one of the greatest prizes in the history of the game, had slipped through the fingers of Lester Patrick. Although deservedly pround of his coup. Adams found excuses for Patrick. He preferred to point out that Howe was only 14 when he showed up at the New York Rangers tryout camp in Winnipeg. The Rangers scouts had provided Patrick with a rich crop of hopefuls more experienced than Howe was. In short, Patrick was a victim of his own riches. He had no time for 14-year-olds.

Adams claimed he might have missed Howe, too, if he hadn't broken up his own candidates into small groups, separating them from the regulars. That way, he got a better look at individuals. As soon as he saw Howe, he claimed, he knew he had something special. He had that right. Howe played 1,767 games in the NHL, scored 801 goals, then took a couple of years off before coming back for a second career in the World Hockey Association.

As Adams used to point out, though, the road to success in the NHL was pitted with traffic bumps, and few hockey personalities suffered greater embarrassment than he did in the 1941-42 Stanley Cup final. After winning the first three games from the seemingly outclassed Toronto Maple Leafs, the Red Wings went into a tailspin and lost the remaining four. This never had happened before (or since) in the Stanley Cup finals. Adams himself had contributed to his team's undoing when, frustrated with the officiating, he went on the ice, with seconds remaining in the fourth game, in an attempt to attack referee Mel Harwood. League president Frank Calder ignored the Detroit manager's contention that he merely wanted to question the official. Adams was fined and suspended.

Naturally, he took a severe beating in the press, especially outside Detroit. Some of the reviews were so vitriolic that Adams consulted a lawyer and threatened libel suits against some of his critics. None of them ever had to appear in court, but a few considered it advisable to skip assignments in Detroit until tempers cooled. When Adams was presented with a Lincoln car by his admirers in Detroit, 10 years later, congratulations came from many of the typewriter jockeys who had been most caustic.

They didn't make the mistake of concluding Adams had mellowed, however. And, within a year, they had evidence that the fires of competition still burned within his ample belly. the headlines read that Adams had put himself in jeopardy of a $1,000 fine for barging into the referee's room between periods of a game in Detroit. The opposition was the Montreal Canadiens, who were high on Adams' hate list, right behind Toronto. Again, Adams insisted a mistake had been made. He had been invited into the room, he said, to discuss something that had come up during the period. Unfortunately, referee Red Storey couldn't recall issuing the invitation.

As had happened to his boss, Jim Norris Sr., Adams eventually got the news: he shouldn't even watch games in which the Red Wings were involved. He compromised by leaving the games and walking the streets after the second period. Construction of the Yonge Street subway was under way in Toronto at the time, and Adams used to joke that he supervised the project. It didn't help his blood pressure much, though, because he was constantly asking the workers if they had heard any score from Maple Leaf Gardens.

Adams suffered the inevitable fate of managers and coaches in 1962. He got fired. He was 66 by that time and maybe it was time to go. But, after 44 years in the NHL, counting his years as a player, even his most relentless critics agreed he deserved better.