Red Wings didn’t go out of their way to pay Howe top dollar

Gordie Howe signs his contract with the Detroit Red Wings in August of 1959, as Jack Adams looks on.

Gordie Howe signs his contract with the Detroit Red Wings in August of 1959, as general manager Jack Adams looks on.

The attached Detroit Free Press photo from the August 13, 1959 edition of the paper had the following caption:

“It’s Official: No one really expected Gordie Howe not to sign a contract for his 14th year as a Red Wing, yet the act Wednesday did make general manager Jack Adams gleeful. Howe isn’t unhappy either since he is one of the highest-salaried players in hockey and signed for close to $25,000 this season.”

Gleeful? You bet Jack Adams was gleeful. And so was Red Wings owner Bruce Norris.

After all, Gordie Howe was at the time, (and still is in the minds of most hockey insiders) the greatest hockey player to ever put on a pair of skates and yet he was not the highest paid player.

In fact, for years he wasn’t the highest paid player.

Howe would embarrassingly find out ten years later from a newly arrived teammate that he was the third highest paid player on the Red Wings and that he had been exploited and financially screwed throughout his career by the franchise he helped build.

Jack Adams was the one person most responsible for setting the foundation for the Detroit Red Wings franchise and its early success.

From 1927 to 1962, Adams was THE BOSS of the Detroit hockey franchise. In the early days, he was the coach, business manager, traveling secretary and publicist, and for 30 of those years he served at the behest of the powerful Norris family.

As coach and/or general manager, under Jolly Jack’s reign the franchise captured seven Stanley Cups and employed the game’s greatest player.

Howe signed his first professional contract with Adams as a 17-year old for $2,500 to play minor league hockey for one season in Omaha. A year later he made his debut with the Wings, the first of 25 remarkable seasons during which he would win six Hart trophies as league MVP, six Ross trophies as scoring champion, appear in 23 All Star games, and help win four Stanley Cup championships.

But despite the fact that Howe was the face of the franchise, (with Ted Lindsay a close second) became known as the Babe Ruth of hockey, and made hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Norris family, Howe very naively trusted that Adams and the Red Wings were properly compensating him.

How much was Howe worth to the franchise? Consider this one little nugget:

In a 1964 Sports Illustrated article that featured Howe on the cover, Jack Adams, then the President of the Central Professional Hockey League admitted: “During an exhibition trip when Howe was unable to play because of an injury, we lost at least $10,000 at the gate.”

In his 1994 biography, Gordie: A Hockey Legend, author Roy MacSkimming wrote: “Privately, he’d (Adams) been reassuring the Big Guy that , as the NHL’s best player he was receiving the NHL’s best salary.” MacSkimming says that in fact Montreal’s Jean Believeu and Maurice Richard were probably receiving thousands more.

Howe would finally learn how poorly he was paid after talking with newly acquired defenseman Bobby Baun before the 1968-69 season.

MacSkimming wrote that Howe asked Baun how much he thought he made. Baun said “I think you’re making $49,500.” Howe replied, “You’re practically dead on.” Howe then learned to his disgust and astonishment that Baun was making $67,000 with the Red Wings. Both would soon discover that Norris had signed Carl Brewer for even more money then what Baun was making.

Howe would later confront Norris and then sign a $100,000 contract. Reportedly Howe said to Norris “Here I’ve been playing all these years for you and you just give me that now?” Norris replied, “Gordie, you never asked for anything more. I’m a businessman.”

At Gordie Howe Day in 1972 following Howe’s retirement as a Red Wing player, NHL President Clarence Campbell said:

“Never in the history of this game has there been such an obvious and dramatic loss by a single sport……Hockey has been fortunate to have Gordie. When he came into the league, hockey was a Canadian game. He’s converted it into a North American game.”

And yet despite all the accolades, relative to his real net worth to the Red Wings and the NHL, number 9 was paid like crap.

A regular “Caption This” feature now appears in the Detroit Free Press wherein readers are given an opportunity to send in their own captions based upon on a recent newsworthy photo.

So for what it’s worth, here’s my entry on the 1959 Free Press photo of Howe and Adams.

“Now Gordie my boy, you just go ahead and sign on the dotted line cause ‘ol Jolly Jack will always takes care of you, don’t you worry… wink, wink.”

5 replies on “Red Wings didn’t go out of their way to pay Howe top dollar

  • Motor City Sports Guru

    Excellent article. I’m surprised that he wasn’t the highest paid player in the entire league. But, have heard rumors that the Wings didn’t pay him what he was worth. Do you think that because we have kept him close and utilized him as an historical figurehead under Mike Ilitch, that all is better now?

    We did name one of our entrances after him at the Joe…

  • Robert Graham

    Now you know why sports agents have become infested in all of sports. Players should be paid what they are WORTH. Back in the day, there were no sports agents. Gordie Howe could have hired someone to look out for his financial interests, but chose not to do so………for whatever reason.

  • Rick

    I had read about this years ago and thought what a travesty. Just another reason why professional sports as well as the working class needed unions! Owners and managers ALWAYS screw the working man! I have been to over 100 Red Wings games and can assure you never once did I pay to see anyone but the players!

  • John Bartony

    Adams loved Gordie because Gordie never questioned his authority and produced as the greatest player ever to play the game. Guys like Ted Lindsay and Glenn Hall, who stood up to Adams, were traded for marginal players. Ned Harkness killed Red Wing Hockey in the 70s and Adams was just as destructive for his many moves after the 1955 season. Lindsay to this day says that the Wings could have won 4 or 5 more cups after 1955, but Adams traded so many good players away. Many hockey historians agree and shame on the Norris family to allow this to happen not once but twice during their ownership of this great franchise.

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