He was Detroit’s Jean Beliveau, a graceful playmaking center and longtime captain who assisted on more of Gordie Howe’s regular-season and playoff goals (231 assists) than any other player in Red Wings’ history.
As Alex Delvecchio prepares to celebrate his 90th birthday on Saturday with his wife Judy and with many of their five children, 10 grandchildren and four great grandchildren at their home in Rochester Hills, the comparisons to Beliveau are hard for Delvecchio to comprehend.
Beliveau won 10 Stanley Cups as a player with the rival Montreal Canadiens, including five straight from 1956-60. Delvecchio and the Red Wings beat Beliveau’s Canadiens in three straight finals in 1951, 1954 and 1955.
“Jean Beliveau was a great, great hockey player and it was an honor to play against him,” Delvecchio said. “He was a gentleman, a big guy who had a bull’s-eye on his back and on his team but he went about his business, played well and was successful in Montreal. He was quiet, which is kind of like me.”
Former Red Wings teammate Bruce MacGregor says the Delvecchio-Beliveau comparisons were accurate in many respects.
“When you think of all the great and different players over the years, Alex did everything without taking a lot of penalties just like Beliveau,” says MacGregor, who scored 151 goals in 11 years in Detroit from 1960-1971 and won five Stanley Cups as assistant general manager with the Edmonton Oilers from 1984-1990.
“The thing that always amazed me was his (Alex’s) playmaking ability. Nobody could pass the puck like Alex. Hockey has changed a lot but his peripheral vision was unbelievable. He knew where people were and how to get the puck to them.”
Statistically, Delvecchio outscored Beliveau 1,281 points to 1,219 during his 24-year regular-season career with the Red Wings. Beliveau played four fewer years and outscored Delvecchio in the playoffs 176 points to 104.
When Delvecchio retired in 1973, he was second in NHL history to Howe in games played (1,550), assists (825) and points (1,281).
He was also a three-time winner of the Lady Byng Trophy as the league’s most gentlemanly player and had only 383 career penalty minutes, 15 fewer than Bob Probert had in one season (398) with the Red Wings in 1988.
Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Esposito said he “loved watching Alex play because he played the game smart, the way it was supposed to be played.”
The two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Boston Bruins remembers his first NHL shift when he was with the Chicago Blackhawks and lining up for a faceoff against the Production Line of Delvecchio, Howe and Ted Lindsay at the old Olympia Stadium in Detroit in 1951.
“(Chicago’s) Bobby Hull says to me, ‘You take that old son of a gun (Howe) and Alex just smiled,” Esposito said. “They dropped the puck and Gordie gave me an elbow and cut me for six stitches. We’re in the penalty box and I said, ‘I can’t believe you were my idol.’ Gordie said, ‘What did you say to me?’ I said, ‘Nothing, Mr. Howe.'”
“I also remember coming home (Sault Ste. Marie) to see my grandmother after my rookie year and she said, ‘Where are you now, Fillipo?’ I said, ‘I play hockey, grandma. You listen on the radio.’ She said, ‘I listen but all I hear is Delvecchio and Howe, Delvecchio and Howe. Where are you?”
The Delvecchio-Howe combination began in 1953 after Sid Abel, the original center on The Production Line, was traded to Chicago and became the player-coach with the Blackhawks. Abel played only four years with Howe and Lindsay and ranked fifth with 65 assists on Howe’s goals behind Delvecchio (210), Lindsay (147), Norm Ullman (88) and Red Kelly (84).
“I sat on the bench for years and watched Sid pass the puck and get out of the way,” Delvecchio said. “I figured that’s the way to play with these guys. I kind of followed his pattern. As (defenseman) Bob Goldham told me, ‘Feed the big guy the puck.’ I remembered that the rest of my hockey days.”
MacGregor says Delvecchio’s backhand passes to left wingers like Lindsay and Frank Mahovlich were legendary, tape-to-tape and a lost art. Esposito says he understands why Delvecchio passed to Howe on his right because Howe was the “best all-around player in the history of the game.”
“He (Howe) delivered the mail,” said Delvecchio, who led the Red Wings with 21 assists on Howe ‘s 67 playoff goals and 210 assists on Howe’s 760 goals in the regular season. “They usually had the checking line out against us but they couldn’t handcuff Gordie. He would barrel in there and take his shot and a lot of times he scored. I was fortunate to play on a line with him.”
Nick Libett joined the Red Wings full-time during Delvecchio and Howe’s greatest offensive seasons in 1967-68. Delvecchio won his third Lady Byng trophy with 25 goals, 83 points and was plus-42 with only four minor penalties. Howe had 44 goals, 103 points and was plus-45 with 58 penalty minutes.
“As a kid growing up in Stratford, I idolized players like Alex Delvecchio and Gordie Howe,” said Libbett, who scored 217 goals in 12 years in Detroit from 1967-1979 and played just one game alongside the two Hall of Famers.
“Alex was an icon. He could see the ice like a modern version of (Wayne) Gretzky. He used that Northland Pro hockey stick that didn’t have a curve in it. It was dead straight and he would pass the puck, left or right, to people where you thought he had no sightline.”
Delvecchio still ranks among the Red Wings’ all-time record holders. The native of Fort William, Ontario is first with 548 consecutive games played, second in years as captain (12) behind Steve Yzerman’s 20 years and he’s third in games played (1,550) behind Howe (1,687) and Nicklas Lidstrom (1,564), third in goals (456) behind Howe (786) and Yzerman (692) and third in points (1,261) behind Howe (1,809) and Yzerman (1,755).
Elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007 and named one of the “100 Greatest NHL Players” in 2017, his No. 10 jersey was retired in 1991 and a 7-foot-tall bronze statue sits in the concourse of Little Caesars Arena around the corner from the statues of his old linemates Howe and Lindsay.
Delvecchio was also on the ice this year for a pregame ceremony with Libbet and eight other Red Wings captains at the home opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I’ve had a pretty good life with the hockey club, the Detroit Red Wings,” said Delvecchio, who also served two stints as the team’s coach and was the general manager from 1973-1977 before starting Alex Delvecchio Enterprises, a Detroit company which produces promotional products.
“I never thought I’d live this long but I enjoy life and I appreciate still getting invited down there for different deals. They’re a good team now and it’s great to see them doing well again.”