Devellano's fingerprints on many title teams
When hockey fans think of men who have achieved greatness in this sport, they think of Gordie Howe. They think of Wayne Gretzky. They think of Mario Lemieux.
Obviously, the credit always goes to the players first. But when it comes to those who have achieved greatness in the front office, one would experience a tremendous amount of difficulty finding anyone with a resume like Jim Devellano's.
The Red Wings' senior vice president and alternate governor has been involved in the game for more than 40 years. He broke into the NHL as a part-time scout with the St. Louis Blues in 1967. In 1972, he joined the New York Islanders.
It was on Long Island where Devellano really made a name for himself. While then-general manager Bill Torrey is considered the architect of the franchise that won four straight Stanley Cups, it was Devellano who was responsible for the amateur drafts that brought the likes of Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Bob Nystrom and John Tonelli -- the core of a group that won a record 19 straight playoff series.
"He's had what I would consider an outstanding career," Torrey said. "He started from the very, very bottom and has worked his way up to, I would say, the top echelon in the League."
Devellano truly did start from the ground floor. When St. Louis was awarded a franchise in 1967, Devellano wrote a letter to Blues general manager Lynn Patrick. He applied to be a scout -- a position he landed with the club after meeting with Patrick face-to-face.
"I was in Toronto coaching minor hockey as a 21, 22-year old," Devellano said in an exclusive interview with NHL.com. "I was very involved in minor hockey. I wrote a letter to Lynn and offered my services. My goodness, he gave me the opportunity. He gave me a chance. I worked my way up from there. The rest is history. I kicked the door open and just kept working and working and working to get to where I am today."
Where is Devellano today? In Detroit with the Red Wings as they prepare for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals, now just one win from the Cup, which would be Devellano's seventh.
Half of that success came on Long Island, as Devellano was a part of New York's first three titles. He arrived in 1972, when Torrey received a phone call from legendary coach Scotty Bowman.
"Scotty had called me and recommended Jimmy," Torrey said. "He said, 'No matter where you put him or what you want him to do, start him anywhere.' He was a part-time scout for us in Toronto. The next year, I made him a full-time amateur scout, scouting throughout the East. No matter what assignment I gave him, he was obviously very hard-working. His whole life, day and night, was nothing but hockey. He was very organized and very explicit in his opinions. He was never afraid to take a stand. Jimmy is not physically the most imposing guy, but he was a persistent guy."
Not only did Devellano play a huge role in the construction of the Islanders' dynasty, but at the same time he was fortunate to learn the ropes from Torrey as far as learning the duties of a general manager.
Devellano was asked how often he reflects upon his days and success on Long Island. Sitting in his office, he immediately pointed to a picture on his wall. It was the Islanders' 1980 team photo.
"Very, very often," he said. "They were great, wonderful years, working with two great individuals in Bill Torrey and Al Arbour. A guy couldn't have had better mentorship than I had there. They're really responsible for me being where I am today. I really paid attention when they spoke. I was fortunate to work closely with those gentlemen. I was able to learn a lot. Bill Torrey was a real good boss and really allowed me to flap my wings. My profile kept getting bigger there. They were really good people."
Devellano left the Islanders in July of 1982, when Mike and Marian Ilitch gave him the position he had coveted -- general manager. While the Red Wings were an Original Six franchise, Devellano would have to basically construct the club from scratch -- much like he did with Torrey on Long Island.
"Jimmy was just a little bulldog," Torrey said. "He didn't work just during the season, but throughout the year. He's smart, industrious … nothing but hockey 24 hours a day. I put him in charge of our amateur scouting and player development, and then I made him assistant GM. I made him look so damn good, Mike Ilitch called me and stole him to Detroit."
It certainly was a tremendous opportunity for Devellano to restore pride to the Detroit franchise. With the Joe Louis Arena less than half-full on most nights, it truly would be the biggest challenge of his career.
"I dwell on it a lot -- probably more than I should," Devellano said of his early days in Motown. "You have a tendency to do it. Mike and Marian Ilitch bought the team in June of 1982, and I was their first hire in July. When we came here, the team was really in bad shape. It had missed the playoffs five years in a row and 14 of the previous 16 years. Attendance was down to four or five thousand people. It certainly wasn't 'Hockeytown' when we took this thing over. In saying all of that, it took us five seasons just to get respectable."
Torrey certainly didn't want to see Devellano go, but he understood the magnitude of the opportunity. Actually, he helped convince Devellano to take the job.
"As I recall saying to him, I said, 'Look, it's an Original Six team. They have a tremendous history. No matter what you do, you can't help but improve them,'" Torrey said. "It was a good place for him to go. They had good staff. You knew once you started to win there, you wouldn't have any trouble selling tickets. That's a big thing. For a general manager, where you have to win just to sell tickets, that's one thing. It's another when you're going to a city with that kind of a history and background. It was a good situation for him."
More importantly, Torrey felt Devellano was ready to run a franchise. It was time for him to take a stab at it on his own.
"The thing about Jimmy and the one thing I always tried to do with my key staff members was to let them know all of the problems of the business," Torrey said. "It wasn't like that anything was hidden from them. In Jimmy's case, it was a great way for him to learn the business inside and out. By the time he took over (in Detroit), he knew all about scouting, having started at the bottom. He had run our minor-league system, so he understood that aspect and what it took to win in the minors and how important it was. He knew all the financial aspects of signing players, because I gave him some responsibilities in those areas. It was good training for him."
While the process would be slow, Devellano helped the club make its first strides towards respectability in June of 1983. With the fourth overall selection in the draft, Devellano selected an 18-year-old named Steve Yzerman.
Truth be told, Yzerman wasn't the player Devellano was keyed on selecting that year.
"The player that we were targeting was Pat LaFontaine," Devellano admitted. "As it turned out, Pat went No. 3 to the Islanders. But you have to understand the situation. At that time, you would say that Pat and Steve were very comparable-type players. They were both high-scoring junior players. But the advantage to LaFontaine would have been that he was born and raised and bred in Detroit. We were down to four or five thousand tickets here. It was a factor. Not only did we think that LaFontaine would have been a good player, but we also thought he would be a wonderful marketing tool. We got lucky -- we got Steve Yzerman. We got very, very lucky. But Pat LaFontaine is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, so he had a wonderful career, too."
With each passing year, Devellano continued to build a winner through the draft. In 1984, he plucked Shawn Burr. In 1985, he came up with Brent Fedyk, Steve Chiasson and Randy McKay. In the first two rounds in 1986, he selected Joe Murphy and Adam Graves, while goaltender Tim Cheveldae was grabbed in Round 4.
In 1989, Devellano was behind the wheel for arguably the most successful draft in NHL history. By the time the draft was over, the Wings had Mike Sillinger, Bob Boughner, Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Dallas Drake and Vladimir Konstantinov.
At the time, though, not even Devellano knew what he and his staff had just accomplished.
"I sure as heck didn't -- none of us did," he said. "It really turned out to be a draft for the ages. It turned out to be a draft that really virtually made our team through the 1990s, and even today with Lidstrom still being here. When we got those talented-type players -- Lidstrom, Fedorov and Konstantinov -- it really raised the talent level and skill level of our team."
Throughout much of the 1990s, the Red Wings were a powerhouse. They lost in the Stanley Cup finals to the New Jersey Devils in 1995, but returned two years later and won their first championship since 1955.
Two months after that, Devellano handed the general manager duties to his right-hand man, Ken Holland. Detroit repeated as champions in 1998 and delivered another title four years later in 2002.
"He's my mentor," Holland said. "He gave me my first opportunity to get into the business. When he came to Detroit, one of the things he talked about was he was never going to trade a draft pick. He was going to build the team through the draft, and he obviously built that foundation. By the late '80s, our owner was real aggressive and told Jimmy D to sign college guys. Adam Oates was one of those guys. He's a tremendous architect. The '89 Draft was really the one that finished it off. We're still living off it today with Nick Lidstrom."
In the end, the relationship Devellano and Holland share seems to be similar to the one he had with Torrey on Long Island during the 1970s and the early '80s. Devellano said he had never thought of that way until he was asked, but admitted there are similarities.
"I'd like to think I'd be to Ken what Bill Torrey was to me," Devellano said. "I'd like to think I've been a good mentor to Ken. We hired him as a scout and promoted him to chief scout and promoted him to assistant general manager. In '97, I gave him my job. I'd like to think there's a real similarity."
Devellano's career, however, was and remains far from over. In 2001, Ilitch asked him to help fix Major League Baseball's Detroit Tigers. After his appointment as senior vice president, the franchise went from an annual laughingstock to a World Series appearance in 2006.
Is there anything this man touches that doesn't turn to gold?
"We were having a little bit of trouble on the business side," Devellano said. "We didn't have a good ball club, and Mr. Ilitch asked me to help out. I did a little bit of counseling for some of the baseball people, and helped them a little bit on how to deal with certain situations. It's worked out real good. I'm still the senior VP, (but) I don't do a whole lot. I don't have a big role over there, but I do enjoy going over there and I do appreciate the position with them. It's sort of honorary now, I would say, but I like it."
Hockey, though, is Devellano's first love. Seeing his team in the Stanley Cup finals makes all the hard work worthwhile, and his ability to draft well continues to be a model for the other 29 NHL franchises.
"It really starts with good players, whether it was Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan or Igor Larionov or (Nicklas) Lidstrom or (Kris) Draper or (Kirk Maltby) … you hate to leave anybody out, but it all starts with the players," Devellano said. "We've been blessed with two real great coaches in Scotty Bowman and Mike Babcock. Both have been really top-notch coaches. We've been able to keep things together here for a long time. Our scouting, or management people have been together a long time, and I think it's worked to our advantage. Besides all of that, a lot of luck. It helps to have a little bit of luck."
Over time, though, luck runs out. The fact that Detroit has been at or near the top of the standings each and every year for close to two decades now is an indication of what Devellano and his staff have brought to the table since his arrival more than 25 years ago.
Through the course of Devellano's tenure with the Red Wings, Detroit has participated in nine conference finals and five Stanley Cup finals, while collecting six Presidents' Trophies, eight regular-season Western Conference championships and 14 division championships.
"It's a funny thing, and I don't want this to come across as cocky or arrogant, but I have felt the last 15 years -- and I say this from the bottom of my heart -- any of the teams we've had the last 15 years were capable of getting to the finals," Devellano said. "But we've done it five times in 15 years, not 15 times in 15. But I felt our teams were good in any one of those years if things fell into place, our team was capable of making the Final."
This year, the Red Wings have delivered the goods. After winning the Presidents' Trophy with a 115-point regular-season, they have reached the Stanley Cup finals again and are just one win away from another championship.
Indeed, Devellano is running out of fingers for all of his Stanley Cup rings.
"It's always an exciting time. I've been in the NHL for 41 years with three teams, and this is my 11th time in the Stanley Cup finals. From the very first time to this time, I always think it's going to be the last time, so I try to enjoy it."