Five athletes who became favorites in Detroit after starting elsewhere

In 10 seasons with Detroit, Vinnie Johnson was a popular role player who came off the bench and provided lethal scoring ability.

No city has a more feverish love affair with their favorite players than Detroit. While there are a handful of legendary athletes who played their entire careers in Detroit (think Al Kaline, Alan Trammell, Isiah Thomas, Steve Yzerman, Barry Sanders), and many who played almost their entire careers in Motown (Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Gordie Howe, Bobby Layne, Jack Morris, etc.), there are many who became Detroit favorites even though they had careers elsewhere before donning our hometown uniforms. These players became our adopted heroes, and here are five I plucked out because they were especially well-loved for what they did in Detroit.

Brendan Shanahan
For being the 2nd overall pick in the ’87 NHL Draft, Shanahan was well-traveled before coming to Detroit. In nine seasons he played for the Devils, Blues, and Whalers before pulling a Red Wings sweater over his head. Shanahan was an All-Star and a feared goal scorer before he joined Team Ilitch, but after being welcomed into the Wings family he pushed his game to another level. His consistent play, his toughness (only player in NHL history with 600 goals and 2,000 penalty minutes), his rugged good looks, and fierce leadership endeared him to Detroit hockey fans. Once he is elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame he will go in as a Red Wing.

Mel Gray
Like Shanahan, Gray played for three pro teams before starring in Detroit, but he did it while playing in two leagues – the USFL and NFL. It didn’t take long for Gray to earn the admiration of Detroit fans, as he averaged nearly 27 yards per kick return in his first season with the Lions in ’89. Anyone who saw Gray return kicks will forever remember his fearless straight-ahead running style. Once he caught the ball, Mel was running north/south, he wasn’t stopping unless he ran into a brick wall of defenders. His no-nonsense approach to running (and seven returns for TD’s) made him an All-Pro and an all-time favorite in Motown.

Magglio Ordóñez
Unlike the previous two players on this list, Ordóñez played for just one team prior to slipping into Detroit duds. In Chicago with the White Sox, Maggs was a huge favorite, and when he moved east on I-94 and joined the Tiger outfield he became a star in the Old English D. Qucikly, Ordóñez jerseys and mop-top whigs were cropping up at Comerica Park, and when he clubbed the pennant-winning homer in ’06, his status as a cult hero in Detroit was cemented. Incidentally, Ordóñez is one of a handful of players to have a career .300 average with two teams for which he played at least 800 games.

Chris Chelios
Even more than Ordóñez, Chelios was an icon in Chicago, helped in part because he grew up in the suburbs and starred as a youth hockey player in the city. Prior to joining the Red Wings in 1999, the defenseman played nine seasons for the Blackhawks and seven for the Montreal Canadians before that. He’s one of the greatest defensemen to ever strap on skates, and even though he played for the rival Blackhawks for so long, he was quickly embraced by Detroit fans due to his team leadership skills, and steely-jawed play. The league had to tear the sweater off Chelios’ back – it wasn’t until he was 48 that he retired. “Cheli” became such a part of Detroit that he opened a restaurant just blocks from Joe Louis Arena that remains wildly popular and he succeeded Steve Yzerman as GM of the Wings.

Vinnie Johnson
Somehow, the Seattle Supersonics (that used to be a team, kiddos) felt they didn’t need Vinnie Johnson in 1981 and shipped him to the Pistons. Once he put on the red-white-and-blue of Detroit, Johnson heated up quickly, becoming “The Microwave.” In 10 seasons with the Pistons, Johnson never met a shot he didn’t take. His instructions when he entered the game were to “fire away” and he did – averaging 12.6 points per game on just 26 minutes per. In Game Five of the 1990 NBA Finals, he seemed to hang in the air sideways when he line-drived the game-winning shot into the net with less than a second on the clock. The victory clinched a second straight title for the Bad Boys*. Johnson cashed in on his popularity by serving for more than a decade as a broadcaster for Pistons TV. He also made himself an integral part of the city when he opened an automotive parts company that still employs more than 200 people in Detroit. His #15 was lifted to the rafters by the Pistons.

*Johnson, Shanahan, and Chelios each won championships during their tenure in Detroit, and Ordonez went to the World Series with the Tigers. No mistake about it – winning helps a player become a cult fave.

3 replies on “Five athletes who became favorites in Detroit after starting elsewhere

  • daryl johnson

    great article except for 1 part which i’ll post here: he succeeded Steve Yzerman as GM of the Wings. Neither Stevie Y or Cheli have EVER been the Redwings GM

  • Reed

    This is a nice idea. It’d be fun to try the reverse; look at the most accomplished/beloved Detroiters who went on to success elsewhere (Red Kelly, Dave DeBusschere, and Dennis Rodman, for instance).

    It should be noted that players don’t enter the Hockey Hall of Fame affiliated with a particular team like they do in baseball.

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