One of the most talented and classiest stars ever to play in the NHL, Alex "Fats" Delvecchio spent more than two decades with the Detroit Red Wings. He was a superior playmaker and team leader and one of the game's true gentlemen. When he retired in 1973, he trailed only long-time teammate Gordie Howe in games played, assists and total points. His career extended from Detroit's glory years of the early 1950s to their dismal 1970s.
As an amateur, Delvecchio starred in his home town of Fort William in northwestern Ontario before heading south to play for the Oshawa Generals under the tutelage of former Red Wings great Larry Aurie. In 1950-51, he led the OHA with 72 assists and had a one-game trial with Detroit. After starting the 1951-52 schedule with the Indianapolis Capitals of the AHL, he joined the Red Wings for good and began by playing on the third line with Metro Prystai and Johnny Wilson.
Delvecchio impressed as a rookie by helping Detroit win the Stanley Cup in 1952. In 1952-53, he replaced Sid Abel on the Production Line between Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay and was named to the NHL Second All-Star Team.
The powerhouse Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1954 and 1955. In the second of these two triumphs, Delvecchio starred with seven goals and eight assists. A serious ankle injury forced him to sit out 22 games in 1956-57, but over the balance of his career, he missed only 21 contests in becoming one of the most durable stars in hockey history. He was also a versatile forward, earning All-Star selection at both center and left wing, and followed Dit Clapper and Sid Abel as only the third player in NHL history to be so honored at two positions.
In 1959 he won his first of three Lady Byng trophies. Throughout the 1960s, he was a consistent 20-goal scorer and solid playoff performer. A popular player in the dressing room, Delvecchio was given the affectionate nickname "Fats" as a tribute to his round face. More important, the esteem in which his peers held him led to his choice as team captain in 1962, a position he held until he retired. In 1966 he helped the Red Wings reach the finals with a playoff-leading 11 assists. Delvecchio was presented the Lady Byng Trophy again in 1966 and 1969.
Following the acquistion of Frank "Big M" Mahovlich from Toronto on March 3, 1968, Delvecchio enjoyed a short period where he formed a lethal forward line with the Big M and Gordie Howe. In 1968-69, the trio scored 118 goals to break the NHL standard set by the Habs' Punch Line of Toe Blake, Elmer Lach and Maurice Richard in the 1940s. Their success didn't last long, however, as Mahovlich was traded to Montreal in January 1971.
In the latter stages of his career, Delvecchio shared a host of milestones with long-time colleague Gordie Howe. On October 30, 1970, Fats stole the puck from Bruins phenomenon Bobby Orr to score his 400th goal. Later in the same game, Howe registered his 1,000th assist on Delvecchio's second goal of the night. Delvecchio also set up Mr. Hockey's 700th goal, while another Howe goal marked Delvecchio's 1,000th NHL point.
By the early 1970s, the Red Wings were in decline and Delvecchio was among the oldest players in the league. He remained one of the clubs few bright spots courtesy of his fluid skating style and quickness while handling or shooting the puck. In June 1970, Delvecchio's renamed home town of Thunder Bay held a day in his honor that attracted 30,000 admirers.
Early in the 1973-74 season, Delvecchio retired after spending parts of 24 seasons in the NHL. His career totals of 456 goals and 1,281 points carved him a permanent place in hockey history. Later that year, his service to one of the oldest U.S.-based franchises was acknowledged when he was awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy. Following teammate Gordie Howe, Delvecchio was only the second player in league history to play more than 20 seasons with the same team. His old linemate tried to convince him to jump to Houston of the WHA, but Delvecchio decided to stay in the NHL.
On retiring, Delvecchio remained in the Red Wings fold as head coach, a posting that took in parts of four seasons from 1973 to 1977. When he replaced harsh disciplinarian Ted Garvin in November 1973, Fats used the same savvy that served him as a player to win over his team. They started winning and thinking about the opposition instead of dreading their coach.
Delvecchio handled the coaching duties for the entire 1974-75 campaign before stepping down in favour of Doug Barkley so he could focus on his duties as general manager. Barkley lasted only until November 1975, when Delvecchio stepped in on an interim basis before hiring Billy Dea on New Year's Eve. He moved back behind the bench on December 17, 1976, in yet another effort to improve the sad plight of the club.
Alas, several years of poor drafting and questionable personnel moves put the Wings in such a hole that not even Delvecchio's experience and charm could improve the fortunes of the franchise or mollify the fans. The sting from his firing in 1976-77 subsided when he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame later that year.
The classy Delvecchio also proved to be a success in the business world. He founded his own company, which manufactured and engraved signs for plaques and nameplates all over the United States. On November 10, 1991, the Red Wings paid tribute to one of their icons by raising his number 10 to the rafters of Joe Louis Arena.