Performing at Peak Production
In today's NHL, pairs of high-scoring teammates are celebrated by media and fans alike. Combinations such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, or the Sedin twins are plastered on TV screens, magazine covers, websites, and anything else you can imagine. It is easy to understand why. Goals are exciting, and players than score or set them up in bunches are fun to watch.
Today's best one-two punches pale when compared to one particular line of the Original Six era. The line I am referring to is one of the best known, and arguably the best line ever assembled. It was composed of three players who were individually superstars in their own rights, but when placed together seemed little short of an unstoppable force. I am speaking, of course, of the Detroit Red Wings' Production Line.
In the early years of the Red Wings, going all the way back to their days as the Detroit Cougars, the legendary Jack Adams pulled double duty as coach and general manager in Hockeytown. When he stepped down as coach to focus on being GM in 1947, he hired Tommy Ivan to be his replacement on the bench. To say that Ivan stepped into a plush situation would be an understatement. Adams's genius had put together a roster and farm system than any franchise would envy. But Tommy Ivan was a genius in his own right, leading the Red Wings to three Stanley Cups during his tenure with the team. His greatest accomplishment, however, might be the creation of the Production Line.
In 1947, 29-year-old future Hall-of-Fame center Sid Abel was in the prime of his career. He had already been a member of one Stanley Cup winner, contributing 18 goals and 24 assists to the 1943 champion Red Wings. When he took over as coach, Ivan saw a golden opportunity to bolster Detroit's offense by putting a couple of kid wingers alongside his star center. Twenty-two-year-old Ted Lindsay and 19-year-old Gordie Howe were just coming into their own, and the idea of placing their speed alongside the crafty veteran was too good to pass up. Abel had been slowed by an attack of pleurisy, and the youngsters seemed to be just the ticket to offset the handicap.
To say Ivan's idea worked would be a gross understatement. The trio remained together through the 1951-52 season, and the results of those five seasons were incredible. In the line's first season together, they finished first, third, and fourth on the team in points. The next season, the results were even better. Despite his health issues, Abel finished with a league best 28 goals, and won the Hart Trophy. Though they lost to the Maple Leafs in the Finals for the second straight year, the Wings finished first in league standings. That NHL-best regular season would be the first of seven such finishes.
In the 1949-50 season, the line had their best result. In fact, it was the best result that any line in NHL history has ever had. Most importantly, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. Such a strong team winning a Cup is not surprising. The 1-2-3 finish in the scoring race for Lindsay, Abel, and Howe was surprising. Never before had a line had such an accomplishment, and their feat has never been matched since.
Before Abel was traded to the Black Hawks to become the NHL's final player-manager, the Production line would have one last hurrah in their final season together when the Red Wings won the 1952 Stanley Cup. Alex Delvecchio replaced Abel after the trade, and there was continued success, but the new line could not reach the heights of the original. Then again, that is really not a fair standard for any other line.
In my opinion, the game has never seen a line quite as good as the Production Line, and I will be shocked should I ever see a line that can hold a candle to it. Howe is nearly indisputedly the best right wing in history, and Lindsay is universally considered among the greatest left wingers. If you then come to the conclusion that Abel was the "weak link," then that is being said of a league MVP. No matter how you slice it, the Lindsay-Abel-Howe line "produced" for Detroit.