Few people have had a more transcending impact on the NHL than legendary coach and general manager Jack Adams. For 36 years, Adams led the Detroit Red Wings organization in some capacity, coaching the likes of Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Sid Abel and Larry Aurie.
Today, more than 100 years after Adams first became involved with the NHL, he is still very much a part of the game. Because of his accomplishments as the Red Wings’ coach, the NHL honors its best head coach with the Jack Adams Award every year. (That, and his former employers just drafted a forward with the same name, guaranteeing references to the former coach and GM for years to come.)
From humble beginnings in Fort William, Ontario—now part of Thunder Bay—Adams rose through the ranks of junior hockey, enjoyed a lengthy playing career in the NHL and the defunct Pacific Coast Hockey League (PCHL), started his post-playing career in Detroit and never looked back.
Jack Adams – Professional Hockey Career
Adams began his professional hockey career as a 22-year-old center with the Toronto Arenas back in 1917. Before long, Adams joined the Vancouver Millionaires of the PCHL where he really hit his stride as a player. In his second season out west, Adams registered 30 points in 24 contests. The next year, he matched that total but managed to score 26 goals. What constitutes an assist has changed over the years, so it’s possible Adams recorded more than four assists that season by today’s standards.
Following his impressive third year with the Millionaires, Adams headed back to Toronto to join the St. Patricks – derivative of the Arenas and the direct predecessor of the Maple Leafs. There, he continued to flourish as a point-per-game producer before ending his career as a member of the first installment of the Ottawa Senators for one season.
In his time as a professional hockey player, Adams won two Stanley Cups – one in his first season and the other in his last. He would add more later in his post-playing career.
Jack Adams – The Coach
Following his 1927 Stanley Cup win, Adams was hired to become the Detroit Cougars’ coach and general manager. After changing their name to the Falcons in 1930, Adams’ franchise was purchased by long-time owner James Norris in 1932 and became the Red Wings. With a new identity, success soon followed for Adams and the Red Wings.
In 1936 and 1937, Adams led the Red Wings to Stanley Cup victories over the Maple Leafs and New York Rangers, respectively. After losses in the Finals during the 1941 and 1942 playoffs, Adams earned his third Stanley Cup as a coach in 1943, guiding a talented squad which included Abel, Syd Howe (no relation to Mr. Hockey), Mud Bruneteau, Jack Stewart and Ebbie Goodfellow.
Following the 1946-47 season, Adams relinquished his coaching duties to Tommy Ivan so he could focus solely on his general manager duties. In his 20 seasons as coach, Adams accumulated 413 wins, 15 playoff appearances, seven Stanley Cup Finals appearances, and three championships. Only Mike Babcock has won more games with the organization (458) than Adams. Additionally, Detroit’s’ 35% rate of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals during Adams’ tenure as coach was only topped by the Maple Leafs, who made 10 trips to the finals in those 20 years.
Calling the Shots
The Jack Adams legend that most Red Wings fans remember today stems from his time as the team’s general manager. “Trader Jack” was known to flip players left and right in an attempt to bolster his roster. Some trades worked out, others flopped.
Adams was also known as a fierce negotiator when it came time to re-signing his players. Back then, there was no Collective Bargaining Agreement, player agents did not exist and players negotiated their own pay. Given these circumstances, Adams took full advantage of his position of power. According to long-time Red Wings columnist Bob Duff in his book, 100 Things Red Wings Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, Adams would often play hardball when negotiating deals with players, with the ultimate goal of keeping the organization profitable.
In addition, Adams was aware of the influence he had over players. Duff noted that he would use scare tactics to get more out of players, such as carrying around bus tickets as a reminder that some were close to being sent down.
However, Adams was not always a monster. Like Scotty Bowman, he had his tough side, but also deeply cared for his players. In his book, Duff details stories of Adams giving Ted Lindsay tickets to Florida so he could kick a bad cold and letting Mud Bruneteau visit a dying family member during the stretch run. For as many tough love stories there are about Adams, there are just as many lesser-known tales of kindness.
After his infamous decision to trade Lindsay in 1957, the organization began to decline, resulting in Adams’ firing in 1963. Heartbroken, Adams left the organization that followed his lead for 36 years.
Legacy & Award
As the NHL began to create individual awards based on seasonal performances, the choice was clear after whom the trophy for the best coach would be named. Adams had passed away a few years prior and the league felt it was right to honor the long-time coach because “his lifetime dedication to hockey has served as an inspiration to all who aspire to further the game.”
Starting in 1974, the NHL presents its best coach, as voted on by the NHL Broadcasters Association, with the Jack Adams Award at the conclusion of every season. Each winner was “adjudged to have contributed most to his team’s success” by the voters. During his tenure in Detroit, Adams added his fair share of success, whether it was his in-game strategy, player motivation or other tactics.
John Tortorella took home the honors this past season after an inspiring campaign from his Columbus Blue Jackets. Legendary coaches Bowman, Al Arbour, Pat Burns, Red Berenson, and Joel Quenneville have all received the award. Each of these coaches have found ways to get the most out of their teams, regardless of the amount of skill their players had, just as Adams did nearly a century ago.
“The award is special and so was Adams. He’s the only person to win the Stanley Cup as a player, coach and general manager,” said Red Wings radio play-by-play broadcaster and Jack Adams Award voter Ken Kal.
Adams had a great impact on the game, one that will last for generations.