Remembering the wacky end to the 1969-70 NHL season

Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio chat with head coach Sid Abel in 1970.

Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio with head coach Sid Abel in 1970.

As the National Hockey league season draws to a close with several teams still in the wild-card hunt (including our boys), there’s likely to be some final-day dramatics. For pure absurdity, though, nothing will match the last day of the 1969-70 NHL season – a wild and wacky Sunday that, in a way, marked the beginning of the Detroit Red Wings’ decade of darkness.

To set the stage: In 1970, the entire NHL consisted of just a dozen teams. The Western Division was comprised entirely of expansion teams that had joined the league in 1967. The Eastern Division included all Original Six clubs. The Red Wings, who had uncharacteristically missed the playoffs the previous three seasons, were coached by Sid Abel. Earlier in the 1960s, Abel had steered the team to four Stanley Cup Finals, losing each time. The ’69-70 squad featured a second-generation “Production Line” of Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, and Frank Mahovlich. Carl Brewer (who joined Howe and Mahovlich on that year’s All-Star Team) and Bob Baun patrolled the blueline while Roger Crozier and Roy Edwards shared goaltending duties.

Going into the final weekend of the regular season, five points separated the top five teams in the Eastern Division. Only four of them would make the playoffs. Each team had a home-and-home series left to play: Detroit-New York, Montreal-Chicago, and Toronto-Boston. A computer figured there were 125 different combinations possible, depending on the weekend’s results. The Wings took the Olympia ice against the Rangers on Saturday, April 4, 1970, with the crowded Eastern Division standings looking like this:

W     L    T    Pts
Chicago               43   22   9     95
Boston                 38   17    9     95
Detroit                39   20  15     93
Montreal            38   20  16     92
New York          37   21   16     90
Toronto             29   32   13     71

Backed by a roaring full house, the Wings clinched a playoff spot with a 6-2 victory over New York. But Chicago and Boston also won to remain two points in front of the Wings. If Detroit won on Sunday and Chicago and Boston each lost their final game, the season would end with a three-way tie for first place. However, the Blackhawks would be awarded the top spot based on the first tiebreaker: most victories. The Wings could still finish second, but only if they won on Sunday and Toronto upset Boston. Figuring that the high-powered Bruins of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito were not about to lose at home against the last-place Leafs, Abel resigned himself to a third-place finish. He allowed the team to guzzle champagne on the plane ride to New York and planned on resting several of his veterans.

Abel’s decision was great news for the Rangers, who were still in the hunt. If they could beat Detroit on Sunday and Montreal lost Sunday evening in Chicago, then New York and Montreal would finish tied for the fourth and final playoff spot with identical records. The tiebreaker would be total goals scored for the season, a problem for New York since Montreal had a five-goal edge going into the final game. The Rangers’ dilemma was that they not only had to beat the Wings, they had to score as many goals as possible to pass the Canadiens in that department.

That was the situation on Sunday afternoon, April 5, as a packed house at Madison Square Garden, as well as a national television audience, were treated to a rousing, all-out display of offensive hockey by the home team. Rangers coach Emile Francis sent a forechecking forward into each corner and positioned his defensemen a few feet in front of the Detroit net. With some of the Wings suffering from hangovers and others giving less than full effort, the Rangers spent practically the entire afternoon in the Wings’ zone. The only Wing who appeared to be breaking a sweat was Crozier, who was swatting away shot after shot. By late in the third period the swarming Rangers had built a 9-3 lead.

That still wasn’t enough offense for Francis. With 3:38 to play, he pulled goalie Ed Giacomin for a sixth attacker in hopes of potting even more goals. Instead, Detroit slid a couple of pucks into the empty Rangers net, resulting in the final 9-5 score. In the locker room after the game, Crozier was totally spent and appeared slightly shell-shocked. He’d been bombarded with an incredible 65 shots. It had been a ludicrous display, but the high-scoring victory did the trick for New York, which was now four goals ahead of Montreal in the goals-scored category.

That evening, Montreal went into its game against Chicago knowing it didn’t need to win to make the playoffs; it just needed to score five times in order to capture the tiebreaker. The Blackhawks won, 10-2, tallying five empty-net goals as the desperate Canadiens played much of the third period with a pulled goalie. The Rangers wound up squeezing into the playoffs by a final margin of two goals.

The Wings finished third with 95 points, the most by a Detroit squad in 15 years. However, Abel caught considerable flack for the team’s lack of effort in the finale. “Mathematically, I didn’t think we could make second place because the odds were that Boston would beat Toronto,” he explained. “Why should I tell my guys to go out and beat their heads against a wall?”

One reason was momentum, which came to an abrupt stop with the debacle in New York. Prior to that game, the surging Wings had lost only twice in their last 17 outings. But afterwards, they were swept by the Blackhawks in the opening round of the playoffs and Abel was out as coach, replaced by Ned Harkness. It would be nearly a decade before the Red Wings made the postseason again.