Jimmy Devellano: Finally, a Hall of Famer!

Greg Eno@@GregEnoSenior Analyst IJune 23, 2010

He’d never do it, but Jimmy Devellano should have burst into the NHL’s offices in New York City and cried out, “What does a guy have to do to get into the Hall of Fame around here?!”

And he should have done it 10 years ago. At least.

They finally granted Jimmy D. Hall of Fame status yesterday. Thank goodness they’re not doing it posthumously. I was beginning to wonder.

Red Wings Executive Vice President Devellano, 67, will be enshrined next year. Seems the last ones to know he’s a Hall of Famer were the only ones who mattered, sadly. Isn’t it always the way?

Devellano took the path less traveled to get here.

He didn’t play the game. He didn’t coach it. He just happened to know all about it. He was the Howard Cosell of hockey.

Jimmy D. started showing up at the hockey rink in St. Louis back in the days of the NHL’s first expansion, in 1967. The Blues’ first coach was Hall of Fame player Lynn Patrick, and after 16 games, Patrick had enough.

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Patrick quit and his young assistant was thrust into the head coaching role. The assistant was Scotty Bowman.

So Jimmy D. becomes a hockey groupie around the Blues and Bowman, probably at his wit’s end, gives Devellano a scouting job. He didn’t even pay Jimmy, at first.

That’s how it all started for Devellano. It’s like Bill Shakespeare starting out as a copy boy.

You know the rest—Jimmy gets hired by another expansion team, the New York Islanders, in 1972. He canvasses Canada, looking for hockey players, in such glamorous burgs as Moose Jaw and Flin Flon and Cranbrooke.

Jimmy never played, never coached, but he had an uncanny way of knowing if a kid was either going to be a pro hockey stud or a pretender. He was a savant.

Devellano’s scouring for hockey talent in North America under Islanders GM Bill Torrey gave Torrey the core for the teams that would win four straight Stanley Cups (1980-83).

If you went to Las Vegas and played the blackjack table with the same knack and cunning that Jimmy Devellano had for identifying NHL talent in small town North America, they’d call security and have you banned from the tables for life. They’d be phoning Atlantic City to give them a heads up as you were being led out.

Jimmy seemed to have a fetish for starting with a franchise at the very bottom.

He did it with the Blues. He did it with the Islanders.

He most certainly did it with the Red Wings.

The Blues and the Isles had excuses for their ineptitude—they were expansion teams.

The Red Wings had been in the league for 55 years when owner Mike Ilitch made Jimmy D. his first hockey hire. And they were a total, complete mess.

Devellano had never been given the kind of opportunity that Ilitch gave him in the summer of 1982. If Jimmy wanted to be a GM in the worst way, then his wish was granted.

The Red Wings were slapstick, but they weren’t comedy. You need tragedy plus time to make comedy, they say, and the Red Wings just had the tragedy part down when Devellano arrived.

Joe Louis Arena in those days was a great place to study for a science test or to catch up on your reading. Mike Ilitch had himself a 20,000 seat library. The arena was so sparsely populated and so quiet, the only things missing were a microfiche reader and a copying machine.

Ilitch gave away cars. He tried other promotions, all designed to divert your attention from the players wearing the Winged Wheel.

Devellano arrived in town and no one in Detroit knew who he was. But he came from the Islanders, and they were winning the Cup every year, so what the hell?

At the presser introducing him as the Red Wings’ new GM, Jimmy said in his squeaky Canadian voice, “As long as Jimmy Devellano is the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, we will NOT trade a draft choice.”

Rome would be built brick by brick, with no quick fixes.

His first draft pick as Red Wings GM was Steve Yzerman. So there.

Jimmy made good on his word. He horded draft picks and traded for more of them. He signed cheap, veteran free agents—Band-Aids. Most had seen their better days in the NHL. Some had never seen good days, period.

In 1985, Jimmy tried the quick fix, after all. Ilitch gave the blessing to spend money.

So Devellano signed one college free agent after the other, and went after some NHL mercenaries.

The plan backfired, to say the least. The Bay of Pigs was more successful.

The Red Wings won 17 games, allowed over 400 goals, and went through two overwhelmed coaches—Harry Neale and Brad Park. Both were so traumatized that neither went back into coaching.

But then Jimmy hired Jacques Demers as coach—some would say Jimmy shanghaied Jacques; his aggressiveness in going after St. Louis’ coach bordered on illegal.

The climb to respectability and eventually Stanley Cup contender had begun with the hiring of Demers in the summer of 1986.

Jimmy hasn’t been the Red Wings’ GM since 1990, when the team hired Bryan Murray to coach and to manage. But he’s been no less a part of building the mini-dynasty that has captured four Cups since 1997.

Jimmy never had much hair, and what little he had always looked dirty and was matted over his scalp as if he used a comb with the middle teeth missing. His clothes fit him like a kid playing dress-up with his dad’s wardrobe. He didn’t walk, he waddled.

But he knew his hockey players. Even after his GM days, Devellano was the Great and Powerful Oz behind the curtain at JLA. Then he got older and he turned Yoda for GM Kenny Holland.

You’d like to say that Jimmy Devellano has forgotten more hockey than all of us know, except that I don’t think Jimmy has forgotten a lick.

The NHL shouldn’t enshrine him, they should clone him.

They’re finally putting Jimmy D. into the Hall of Fame. It’s almost a redundant move. Nothing’s been this overdue since an apology from Ann Coulter.

Cheers, Jimmy!