They were within two victories of winning the 1966 Stanley Cup only to come up short in what would have been a stunning championship triumph. Still, the Detroit Red Wings of the 1965-1966 season remain unflinchingly and unshakeably rooted in my National Hockey League, Original Six memory bank.
One of the major reasons why I was so fixated and infatuated with the Red Wings of ’65-66 is the number of times that I got to watch them live at Olympia Stadium in Detroit. I vividly recall watching four of the Red Wings regular season games and another two playoff matches from really good seats at the old Olympia.
My family spent a lot of time across the river from Detroit in Windsor visiting relatives on my mom’s side back then. And we were able to get choice tickets to Red Wings games — which were virtually always sold out — thanks to my uncle Steve Ilijanich, who owned the Grand Tavern at 1014 Howard Avenue in Windsor. My Uncle Steve had a booming business at the old Grand Tavern and he was able to get Red Wings tickets from any one of the Carling, O’Keefe, Labatt or Molson beer salesmen who wanted him to carry their products.
At any rate, even though I was a big fan of the Montreal Canadiens, I also cheered for the Red Wings. In fact, I often had a tough time deciding which team I liked best. Montreal was always the better team back then and were my Dad’s favourite. But deep down I was obsessed with the Red Wings and if I wasn’t in Detroit watching them live at the Olympia, I was falling asleep at night listening to them via transistor radio or thrilled when they were featured on the Saturday evening Hockey Night In Canada telecasts.
Anyway, the Red Wings of ’65-66 featured the likes of forwards Gordie Howe, Norm Ullman, Alex Delvecchio, Andy Bathgate, Floyd Smith, Bruce MacGregor, Paul Henderson and Dean Prentice, defensemen Bill Gadsby, Gary Bergman, Bert Marshall and Leo Boivin and goalie Roger Crozier. Established veterans and all 32 years of age or older at the time, Prentice, Boivin and forward Parker MacDonald were all acquired by the Red Wings during the ’65-66 regular season in trades that sent veteran forward Ron Murphy, young forward Pit Martin and young defenseman Gary Doak to the lowly Boston Bruins. Prentice and Boivin, in particular, would play elevated roles at their respective positions after Red Wings general manager and coach Sid Abel was able to lure them away from Bruins GM Hap Emms.
At any rate, while trades with the Bruins improved the Red Wings as the ’65-66 regular season progressed, Detroit still finished in fourth place in the standings of the six team NHL, albeit while securing the final playoff spot by a healthy margin.
The regular standings of ’65-66 had Montreal finish in first place with 90 points from 70 games. Chicago Black Hawks were next with 82 points followed by the Toronto Maple Leafs with 79 and the Red Wings with 74. Boston, with 48 points and the New York Rangers with 47, missed the playoffs.
So, it was on to the playoffs where first place Montreal faced third place Toronto and second place Chicago took on fourth place Detroit in best of seven semi finals. The Canadiens would do what every one pretty much expected in sweeping the despised Maple Leafs in four straight games in one semi final series. As for the other, it was a surprise as the Red Wings upset regular season most valuable player Bobby Hull and the Black Hawks four games to two.
I remember taking in every one of the Red Wings 12 playoff games that season, either by being there in person, watching on TV or listening in to the crackling sounds of the old transistor radio. In the semi-finals against Chicago, the Red Wings lost the opener 2-1 before rebounding to win Game 2 by a 7-0 margin. Chicago then took a two games to one series lead with another 2-1 win before the Red Wings came back to take the next three games by scores of 5-1, 5-3 and 3-2 for the series triumph.
Then it was on to face the mighty Canadiens in the Stanley Cup finals and the Red Wings shocked the hockey world by winning the first two games of the series right in Montreal, by identical 3-2 scores. Not to be denied, however, the Canadiens would win the next four games, by scores of 4-2, 2-1, 5-1 and 3-2. The 3-2 win that clinched the Stanley Cup for Montreal came in overtime as Henri Richard scored on assists from Dave Balon and Jean Guy Talbot to finally upend the fourth seed Red Wings. So good was Red Wings goalie Roger Crozier that he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP despite not being on the Stanley Cup winning team.
Hard times would follow the Red Wings after the memorable ’65-66 season though. They would miss the playoffs in 15 of the next 17 seasons before turning it around. And then came the 1996-1997 and 1997-1998 seasons in which the Red Wings won back to back Stanley Cups with the legendary Scotty Bowman as Detroit’s head coach.
Still, I often think of that ’65-66 season. I can still see myself as a 13-year old lad, sitting in good seats at the Olympia, thanks to my Uncle Steve, never wanting the games to end. I can still picture myself, falling asleep on a school night with an earplug in my ear and listening to the Red Wings on the radio. And it didn’t matter to me if I was tired at grade school the next day. I would just tune out what the teacher was saying, close my eyes, and recite every name on the Red Wings roster in my head, complete with jersey number.