Commenter ahtrap asked in the Victoria Cougars post and in the end-of-August WIIM Radio Mailbag about the story I referenced when I made the comment that Jack Adams single-handedly cost the Detroit Red Wings a Stanley Cup. Obviously, Adams has a storied and colorful history with the Red Wings, but this particular post is the story of the 1942 Stanley Cup Final.
Path to the Final
Detroit's appearance in the Final was actually quite a surprise. The Red Wings won only 19 games in a 48-game regular season, but a favorable playoff format meant only the 16-win Brooklyn Americans were kept out of the postseason festivities.
The playoffs themselves featured a strange format. The playoffs consisted of two-team bands, meaning that first place played against second place, third against fourth, and fifth against sixth. The top-ranked New York Rangers played the second-place Toronto Maple Leafs immediately in a seven-game series. The winner would go directly to the Stanley Cup Final, and Toronto prevailed in six.
The remaining four teams played multiple short series with the winner of the mini-tournament taking the second spot in the Final. The third-place Boston Bruins won a best-of-three series against the fourth-ranked Chicago Black Hawks, and the Red Wings defeated the sixth-ranked Montreal Canadiens in three games. Detroit proceeded to sweep Boston in two straight to move on against Toronto in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Red Wings shocked the Maple Leafs by taking the first three games of the Final, and they came up with a grand strategy to do so. "In an era when teams traditionally carried the puck over the enemy blueline, Adams scrapped that plan and ordered his players to, instead, simply shoot the puck into the corners and then outskate their foes to the rubber."1 So instead of controlled entries, Adams opted for dump-and-chase hockey, and it worked.
Detroit held Toronto to just two goals per game while scoring three, four, and five goals respectively in Games 1, 2, and 3. Game 4 was at the Olympia, and the Red Wings had a chance to sweep the series and claim the franchise's third Stanley Cup in seven years.
Toronto's offense came alive in Game 4, and the Red Wings found themselves down 4-3 and desperately seeking the tying goal late in the third period. As the story goes, referee Mel Harwood assessed Detroit's Eddie Wares a misconduct penalty in the final minute of the game. Wares argued the call and never left the ice, but Harwood dropped the puck anyway to continue play and immediately whistled Detroit for having too many men on the ice.
Detroit's head coach Jack Adams was understandably incensed by the officiating, but after the final horn blared, he proceeded to attack Harwood. The fans at the Olympia were just as upset by the turn of events. They littered the ice to express their displeasure. NHL president Frank Calder was in attendance, and both he and Harwood required police escorts out of the Olympia that night. Calder immediately suspended Adams for the remainder of the series because of the attack on Harwood.
Without their head coach, Red Wings captain Ebbie Goodfellow took the head coaching reins, but Detroit was ill-equipped to handle much of anything without Adams. Game 5 at Maple Leaf Gardens was a 9-3 laugher in favor of Toronto, and momentum was surely on the Maple Leafs' side.
Still, Game 6 was back in Detroit, giving the Red Wings a second shot at clinching the Cup on home ice. Unfortunately for Detroit, Maple Leafs goaltender Turk Broda had the game of his life, and Toronto tied the series on the strength of Broda's 3-0 shutout. It was the only shutout of the series.
The unthinkable happened. A team had come back from a 3-0 series deficit to force a Game 7. Back when the Stanley Cup was contested in five-game series instead of seven, no team had come back from a 2-0 series deficit to win the Cup. Going even further back in the Challenge Cup era when sometimes a three-game series was played to decide the Cup winner, only three times had a team come back from a 1-0 series deficit. Now, a team had a chance to win the Stanley Cup after being down 3-0 in a series.
Thanks to a short-sighted temper tantrum that got him suspended, Adams left his team directionless and unable to overcome the void behind the bench. After Toronto thumped Detroit 9-3 in Game 5, the Red Wings scored just one goal the rest of the series, a second period tally in Game 7 which game them a 1-0 lead. They tried to nurse that lead only to find it wouldn't be enough to prevent the collapse in a 3-1 Game 7 loss. It was the first time in any sport a team had come back from a 3-0 series deficit, and to this day, it remains the only "reverse sweep" to occur in the Stanley Cup Final.
Funnily enough, the Stanley Cup Finals between 1941 and 1945 would feature the Detroit Red Wings four times. In 1941, the Red Wings got swept in the Final by the Bruins. The 1942 series is detailed above. In 1943, the Red Wings made it back to the Final against the Boston Bruins and returned the favor, sweeping the Bruins in four straight. It was a quick turnaround for a team that had been swept and reverse-swept in the two straight Stanley Cup Finals prior.
In an even more humorous twist, Adams was suspended again during the 1943 playoffs, though I've yet to find a source detailing when, for how long, and why. Goodfellow once again took the reins as coach during Adams' suspension, though he was injured this time around so he wasn't playing.
After a one-year absence from the Final in 1944, the Red Wings returned in 1945 and met a familiar foe: the Toronto Maple Leafs, who only three years earlier had humiliated the Red Wings with their comeback from a 3-0 deficit. Just like with the Bruins in 1943, the Red Wings had a chance for revenge. Unlike the 1942 Final, the 1945 edition was incredibly low-scoring, featuring a combined five shutouts. Toronto took the first three games, shutting Detroit out in all three. Game 4 at Maple Leaf Gardens gave Toronto a chance to sweep the Cup at home, but Detroit's offense came alive in a 5-3 victory that proved to be the outlier of the series. The Red Wings shut out Toronto in the next two games, including a 1-0 Game 6 overtime victory at Maple Leaf Gardens.
Back in the Olympia for Game 7, Detroit had a chance to avenge the 1942 result. After returning the favor against Boston two years prior, here they had a chance to return the favor against Toronto and claim the franchise's fourth Stanley Cup. But the Red Wings couldn't muster the necessary offense, losing Game 7 by a 2-1 score after Babe Pratt scored the winning goal at 12:14 of the third period and falling short of the comeback bid. It was the first time in NHL history the home team lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Hockey has a cruel and humorous way of delivering the results sometimes.
1Hockey Chronicle: Year-by-year History of the National Hockey League. Publications International, Ltd.: Lincolnwood, Illinois, 2006.