Mickey Redmond, TV voice of Detroit Red Wings, was in life-altering trade 50 years ago

Detroit Free Press

Bill Dow
 |  Special to Detroit Free Press

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It’s hard to believe that a half century has passed since one of the Detroit Red Wings‘ beloved figures arrived in the Motor City.

Mired at the bottom of the Eastern Division at the beginning of what became known as the “Dead Wings Era,” the Red Wings rocked the hockey world on Jan. 13, 1971. Newly anointed general manager Ned Harkness dealt high-scoring left winger Frank Mahovlich to Montreal for promising right winger Mickey Redmond and centers Billy Collins and Guy Charron.

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With the trade, Harkness split up one of the most potent lines in NHL history: Hall of Famers Mahovlich, Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio. Mahovlich, scored 87 goals the previous two seasons.

Redmond was informed of the trade by Montreal coach Al MacNeil at an airport bookstore.

“I was disappointed and upset with the deal at the time, but all things happen for a reason,” said Redmond, preparing for his 35th consecutive season as a TV color commentator for the Red Wings. “The deal worked out for Montreal because they won the cup with Frank, but here I am fifty years later with the Wings on a ride that has been incredibly great. And as a player, the trade helped me spread my wings, no pun intended.”

And spread his wings he did.

He joined the Wings, at age 24, already a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens. As a speedy skater with an incredibly hard wrist shot and a remarkable and seemingly natural ability to find the net, in his first three full seasons in Detroit, Redmond scored 145 goals while becoming one of the game’s greatest marksman.

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“I was not particularly in favor of most of anything Ned Harkness did and losing Mahovlich was one of them,” said Bruce Martyn, the former longtime Red Wings radio announcer. “But Mickey became one of the great ones, and one of the better scorers I had ever seen.”

After netting 42 goals in his first full Detroit season, he became the first Red Wing to net 50 goals and the third player in history behind Bobby Hull and Phil Esposito to have back-to-back 50 goal seasons when he scored 52 in 1972-73 and 51 in ’73-’74.

“I was very fortunate to have great centers, Alex Delvecchio, Bill Hogaboam, and on the power play, Marcel Dionne,” Redmond said. “Having centers like that feeding you is really the key to your success. Getting the chances is one thing, and they gave it to me, but then you have to being able to finish it.”

As the son of May and Eddie Redmond, captain of the 1958 amateur world champion Canadian team, and the older brother of Dick, who played 13 years in the NHL, Mickey constantly played road hockey on the icy streets of Peterborough, Ontario, and as a 12-year-old served as a stick boy for the Petes, his hometown’s Junior A team.

“Scotty Bowman was the coach and every game he paid me $2.00 and gave me a stick,” says Redmond. “That was like a bar of gold.”

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By age 15, Redmond was playing for the Petes where he starred for four seasons before cracking Montreal’s lineup in 1967.

“I had a tremendous opportunity as a rookie to learn from Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer, John Ferguson and others,” Redmond said. “And then later to play with Gordie, Alex, Gary Bergman, Nick Libett and that bunch was really special.”

Although Redmond had perfected his wrist shot under his dad’s tutelage through hours and years of constant target shooting with a weighted puck, he credits a tip from the game’s greatest player for a big part of his success.

“In my first year in Detroit, (Howe) pulled me aside at practice while we were 20 feet from the net and pointed out that as right-handed shooters the ideal place to shoot the puck was up high into the little triangle right near the left shoulder of a left gloved goalie. He said, ‘the way you shoot the puck, if you put it there, he’s not going to stop it.’ I still give that advice to kids today.”  

On his way to what many believe would have been a Hall of Fame career, Redmond began having severe pain in his back and right leg in November 1974. A month later, he was lost for the season after surgery for a ruptured disc. He tried to play the following season and scored 11 goals by February, but team management thought Redmond didn’t want to play for the Wings. After he was suspended, and then placed on waivers, he quickly retired from the game at just 28.

“What was said was very disappointing,” Redmond said. “I had permanently lost strength in my right leg and the ability to cut in on people. That changed the whole game for me. The hardest part was to realize that I couldn’t compete at the level I once did and should have.”

“The Wings at the time were dysfunctional under the (owner) Bruce Norris and Harkness regime and there were a lot of holes in the system. It just fell apart and set the organization back big time.”

Redmond was lost for a couple of years as what his next move would be and while experiencing the lowest period of his life.

An attempted comeback in 1979 with Glen Falls didn’t last two weeks, but soon an opportunity would lead to a highly successful broadcasting career, now in its 42nd year.

“An attorney friend asked me if I would ever consider doing Red Wings television color commentary, so I ended up working 15 games for the ON cable television network in the 1979-’80 season,” Redmond said. “They just stuck a microphone in my hand and I had no training, but those games allowed me to learn from my mistakes.”

SEASON PREVIEW: Why the Wings, in mid-rebuild, shouldn’t be nearly as bad as last year

Ralph Mellanby, then the executive producer for CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada,” hired Redmond after telling him, ‘‘you’ve got some rough edges but I think you’ve got potential.”

“The best advice I received came from Ralph when he told me, “Mickey, it’s TV, everyone can see what happened, we need you to tell us why it happened, so give some intricate details.’ I was very fortunate to have had the chance to work there with the likes of Danny Gallivan, Dave Hodge, Bob Cole, Dick Irvin and that crew,” said Redmond, who received the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for his outstanding contributions to broadcasting and hockey in 2011.

After a five-year stint with CBC, Redmond was lured back to Detroit in 1986, where he became a fan favorite again.

Viewers have not only appreciated his informative insights, they also have grown to love Redmond’s often spontaneous sayings such as “bingo-bango,” “this is no place for a nervous person” and “he hit ‘em with a B.C. two-hander.”

“This is an entertainment business, and I guess I have a wee bit of Irish blarney in me.  A lot of those sayings are from when we were kids playing road hockey,” Redmond said.

Despite being a lung cancer survivor and an ongoing battle with Celiac Disease, an intestinal disorder related to an intolerance to gluten that requires a special diet and which led to his decision to stop working some road games, Redmond, now 73, has no plans of retiring.

“I’m a hockey lifer and I love what I do because it’s the greatest game in the world,” says Redmond. “It has been a most incredible journey in Detroit and it’s difficult to come up with the right words to express how appreciative I am to the Ilitch family and Red Wing fans for their support all these years. Thank God for that trade, because everything I have today probably would not happened but for it.”

On becoming a top goal scorer

“You have to look for the goaltender’s vulnerability and weaknesses. I don’t see players working today on goal scoring. A lot of the goaltenders are down and to me if you can hit that top corner you are going to score a lot more. My dad taught me to pull it and snap it. When you pull the puck it does something to the goalie and it makes him move. When I played most of them were standup up goalies and the masks were tight to the face and they still didn’t want to get hit there. When a goalie is moving his body upward because he doesn’t want to get hit in the face he can’t move his legs sideways. Sometimes I would often waste a few high and then go low. Back then a lot of the centerman would come through center without a ton of speed and the defense was not backing up quickly. So they are half asleep and then I would come flying in from behind and boom you’re catching people. “

On playing at Olympia Stadium

“The ice at Olympia was very good, it was like Northern Canada ice, very hard. Alex Delvecchio knew exactly what spot on those end boards where he could send the puck. It would come off towards the face off dot and within inches not towards the goalie.  I would scream down the right side to that spot where the puck comes back and I was in a perfect position to try and score.”

On his love for the game

“Every time they drop the puck the script is different and its made up on the fly which is so wonderful. It doesn’t bore you because there’s different things happening at light speed and that it what is so exciting and entertaining. That’s why it’s the greatest game in the world.”

On his color commentary philosophy

“It’s very important from a credibility stand point to call it like it is but to be as fair as possible for everyone involved. You can’t ignore a bad play, but there’s a way to do it without cutting a guy a new rear end. All of us who have played have all made the same mistakes 100 times over. I think it’s important that people don’t think you’re a 100% homer covering things up. As for my so called “Mickeyisms”, they are just spontaneous and it comes from my enthusiasm and I think people enjoy it. We are there to entertain people and if we can get people smiling, and laughing and feeling good it gives people an outlet for a short period of time away from a lot of the negative stuff going on in our world.”

The Red Wings this season

“When you have been the worst defensive team and the least scoring team you have to improve and we will in both departments. The new veteran players like Mark Staal and Bobby Ryan will help our young corps on and off the ice.  We will be in games longer that will bode well for all they guys under 25 like Larkin, Mantha, Zadina, Hronek who are still feeling their way around the NHL and who haven’t had a lot of success. I know watching what Steve Yzerman did in Tampa Bay with the people he developed will happen here too. We are in a rebuild and the bottom line is it’s never easy. We will regain the stature and culture of what the Detroit Red Wings should be as an Original Six team.”

On his years of supporting charities

“When I played, we did hospital visits for kids with cancer and I had a very difficult time handling that so I cut back. Over time I came to understand that any of us who are in a position to help make a difference really have to do it. I get it now. I like to help out organizations like the Jamie Daniels Foundation, and the Ted Lindsay Foundation, and I still enjoy playing when I can for the Detroit Red Wing Alumni team that has raised millions for charities since 1959. The fans at those charity games always say ‘it is so great to have you here, thank you’, but I always say, ‘thank you, you don’t know how good it makes us feel to be able to help make a difference.’”

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