Sunday, November 05, 2006

Detroit's Metamorphosis Into Hockeytown Began With Jimmy D.

He was, at the beginning, a rink rat without skates. A strange fellow, for who would want to prowl the cold environs of an ice hockey rink when there is no hockey to be played, and no son to watch?

Jimmy Devellano is a self-taught architect. There was no school he attended to become what he became, which is only one of the greatest NHL executives to ever wear an ill-fitting suit and crooked necktie.

Jimmy D., they call him. Too hard to pronounce Devellano, after all. Especially if your teeth are chattering, standing in a hockey rink in Guelph, Ontario, or International Falls, Minnesota, or in the redness of Moscow.

Devellano, who was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame last Monday at Cobo Hall, was Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch’s very first hire after Ilitch bought the team in the summer of 1982. He was the first in a tandem of people whose last names were funny-looking, funny-sounding, and on top of that, completely unknown when they arrived in Detroit. The second part of the tandem was an 18 year-old center from the Peterborough Petes named Steve Yzerman.

It was Devellano who drafted Yzerman with the fourth overall pick in the 1983 draft, the first that Jimmy D. presided over as Red Wings general manager. Local folks lusted after Pat LaFontaine, a wonderkid from up I-75, in Waterford. But LaFontaine was snatched off the board by the New York Islanders one spot before the Red Wings’ turn. Detroit hockey fans groaned. They had wanted the local kid, LaFontaine. But instead they were stuck with the kid with the funny-looking, funny-sounding name. Yzerman.

Pat LaFontaine had a fine NHL career, until it was ended prematurely due to multiple concussions. But it was nowhere near the swath that Yzerman cut into the NHL.

At the induction dinner, a video clip was played. It showed a much younger Devellano waxing justice about his selection of Yzerman.

“We feel he can contribute right away,” Jimmy D. said in the now familiar squeaky voice of his, laced with Canada. “My only concern is that because of his age – he’s only 18 – his strength is a question mark.

“But I think he’s gonna make it.”

Yeah – just a bit.

I tracked down Yzerman after the dinner and served up Devellano’s 1983 comments about him for his consumption.

“Well,” Yzerman said with typical bashfulness, “not many people knew for sure back then, eh?”

Au, contraire. I’ll bet the farm and the chickens that go with it that Jimmy D. knew exactly what he was getting when he selected Steve Yzerman with the #4 pick in 1983. Rink rats have good sniffers, you know.

“I got my first job in the NHL as a scout for the St. Louis Blues in 1967,” Devellano said at the podium upon his presentation as one of the Hall’s Class of 2006. It was a story that’s been often told and heard, but there are still some who should know.

“I worked with a young coach there named Scotty Bowman, and he really helped me along,” Devellano said, nodding to Bowman, who was in the audience. “Scotty and I developed a nice relationship.”

It was while working for the Blues that Devellano began to acquire his skills and knack for finding hockey diamonds in the rough. He never played the game, never coached it. In fact, his sport of choice as a spectator was baseball. He watched a lot of minor league ball in Toronto. Yet by the late 1960’s, early 1970’s, Devellano, the skateless rink rat, was building a reputation, quietly. The reputation was of someone who knew hockey players up, down, and around. Not hockey, necessarily, but hockey players. The distinction is important. Anyone can watch a hockey game and tell you what happened. Jimmy D. perfected the art of watching a hockey game and picking out the best players.

The artist that he had become was never more evident than when Devellano worked for the Islanders in their scouting department. He started with the Isles during their inaugural season of 1972-73, and he along with Bill Torrey drafted and traded for the core of players that would end up winning four consecutive Stanley Cups (1980-83). Jimmy D. stuck around for three of those before moving to the Red Wings in ’82.

Devellano’s career as an executive in Detroit is unique, because he was one of the few who was allowed to fail, and fail miserably, before getting it right.

It was during Devellano’s fourth season as Red Wings GM when the team finished a ghastly 17-57-6, giving up over 400 goals in the process. His Band Aid method of managing – signing aging veterans to plug holes until the youth arrived – had popped its stitch. Few executives in professional sports would still be employed with such a hideous record after their fourth season (save the Matt Millen jokes, please), but Ilitch stuck with Devellano. The owner remembered what Jimmy had done on Long Island, and that was with a team that was started from scratch. So he stuck with his GM.

Two things accelerated the Wings’ rise from the days of being called the Dead Things: the drafting of Yzerman in 1983, and the hiring of coach Jacques Demers in 1986. Yzerman gave the Red Wings a player around which they could build. Demers came in and took that 17-57-6 nightmare and turned it into a team that nearly finished .500 the very next season, and made it all the way to the conference finals.

It was Devellano who suggested to Ilitch that the Red Wings pursue and hire his old pal Bowman as coach in 1993. That worked out pretty well, if you recall.

The Red Wings are currently in a streak in which they have not failed to qualify for the playoffs since 1990. In fact, since Devellano joined the franchise, the Red Wings have made the playoffs 20 out of 23 seasons. Many times they’ve been the odds-on favorites to win the Stanley Cup, which they’ve captured three times under Jimmy D.’s watch. He’s no longer the GM – he hasn’t been for over a decade now – but he’s still a very active member of the team’s front office, and is consulted by current GM Ken Holland frequently.

“I wouldn’t be receiving this honor if it wasn’t for Steve Yzerman and Scotty Bowman,” Devellano said at the podium Monday night.

But what Jimmy D. failed to mention was that it was he who brought those two men to Detroit. Hockeytown, USA.

All hail the rink rats!

No comments: