By Rob Del Mundo
Book review: The Road To Hockeytown by Roger Lajoie, John Wiley & Sons Canada Ltd.
The year 1967 was a milestone for hockey. Canada’s centennial year marked the final season of the “Original Six” NHL, and also subsequently the league’s first big expansion. For reasons that need no further repeating, Leafs fans have committed the year to memory, for all the right – and wrong – reasons.
For Detroit Red Wings Senior Vice-President Jimmy Devellano, 1967 represents the long-time executive’s first year of employment in the NHL, breaking into the ranks as a volunteer scout with the expansion St. Louis Blues. Through over four decades of hockey, Devellano has amassed an astounding 14 championship rings in the sport, seven of which represent Stanley Cup titles. The Road to Hockeytown, written by FAN 590 radio broadcaster Roger Lajoie, examines Devellano’s journey through the sport, from his initial scouting days with the Blues to his managerial position with the New York Islanders, and eventual executive perch with the Red Wings.
“Jimmy was a guest on The FAN 590 on a regular basis,” recalled Lajoie of laying out the foundation for the book. “We connected and both decided we’d like to tackle the project.” The result of Lajoie’s and Devellano’s collaboration is an in-depth perspective of the management portion of the game as observed by one of the sport’s most respected executives.
Fans of long-suffering teams, such as the Maple Leafs, can be inspired (after being envious) in knowing that a floundering hockey club can eventually find championship success, provided that sound decision-making principles are applied. Devellano’s first season with the New York Islanders – in which he was hired as a scout after being dismissed by the Blues – was a forgettable campaign that saw the team win just 12 games. However, on Jimmy D’s recommendation, the team hired the coach that would lead them to a dynasty in the early 80’s, namely Al Arbour. Four future Hall-of-Famers would be drafted by the Islanders with Devellano on board as either the main scout, or Director of Scouting: Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Clark Gillies. While the contributions of these superstars was irreplaceable, Lajoie’s book also notes that a good part of the supporting cast was acquired through trades for players such as Butch Goring and Ken Morrow.
In a move ultimately paving the way (no pun intended) to the Motor City, and ultimately giving his biography its title, Devellano left the Islanders to become general manager of the Red Wings in 1982. The fortunes of the Detroit hockey team a quarter-century ago were the polar opposite of their present-day excellence; the team averaged just 7,800 fans a game and owner Mike Illitch was giving away a car at every home game. At the June draft the following summer, Devellano’s first at the helm in the new GM position, the Wings selected the player who would become the face of their franchise for the next two decades: Steve Yzerman.
Over the course of the next decade, the Wings continued to stockpile draft picks while building a management team with a keen focus on scouting. The Road to Hockeytown chronicles many of the key points in Devellano’s construction of a foundation that has led to 4 Stanley Cups for Detroit in the past eleven seasons. For example, the 1989 draft is arguably the best draft by a single team in one year, with the likes of Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom and Vladimir Konstantinov among the players chosen. Yet even the resurgent Red Wings who dominated regular season play for so long in the early 90’s were fraught with many playoff disappointments prior to finding the Promised Land. The tribulations that the team endured prior to finding its ultimate triumph included first-round losses to the Maple Leafs and the San Jose Sharks, a Stanley Cup Final sweep at the hands of the New Jersey Devils, and bitter six-game defeat to the rival Colorado Avalanche.
With Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman behind the bench, Detroit finally ended its 42-year cup curse in 1997, a better-late-than-never result for Jimmy D., who by then had become Director of Hockey Operations and Senior Vice President. “When I arrived in Detroit in the summer of 1982, I had promised our ownership a Stanley Cup in 15 years, “ remembers Devellano in The Road to Hockeytown. “I am a person who likes to keep his promises and, here it was, year 15 of our regime – and we finally got it done!”
The Road to Hockeytown outlines not only Devellano’s rationale in hiring certain coaches and scouts and drafting specific players, but also his philosophies in interacting with people; lessons that can be applied to any vocation. The book has been well-received by many of Jimmy D’s colleagues who have shared in his successes. “Scotty Bowman and Ken Holland in particular were very kind in their comments, and Al Arbour and Bill Torrey were also both terrific,” said Lajoie. “People in the hockey world really know and appreciate what Jimmy D has accomplished so they were all encouraging.”
It’s hard to believe that – through all of his achievements – Devellano has yet to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, considering that many of his modern-day (and well-deserving) counterparts such as Bowman, Cliff Fletcher and Glen Sather have already received their due.
Lajoie makes no secret of his opinion on the matter, but accepts that the final decision as always rests with the Hall’s Selection Committee. “I learned a long time ago not to concern yourself about things you can’t control. If the powers that vote don’t think his 40 years and seven titles is enough, so be it.
“One way or the other, he’s a Hall of Famer in my mind, and in the minds of people who really know the game.”
Rob Del Mundo is the author of Top Shelf, a regular column at TMLfans.ca