Remembering Detroit hockey legend Marcel Pronovost

Marcel Pronovost won four Stanley Cup titles with the Detroit Red Wings.

Marcel Pronovost won four Stanley Cup titles with Detroit.

When I learned on Monday that former Red Wing great and hockey Hall of Famer Marcel Pronovost died at age 84, I fondly recalled the day I interviewed him twelve years ago for the Detroit Free Press.

Our meeting took place ironically at a Tim Horton’s restaurant following his daily 1 ½ hour workout at a local gym. Pronovost and Horton were teammates on the 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs team that won the Stanley Cup, the last time the storied franchise raised Lord Stanley. (In 1964, Horton opened his first Tim Horton Doughnut Shop in Hamilton Ontario before it became a multi-million dollar franchise. Ten years later, while driving at a high rate of speed and heavily under the influence of alcohol he lost control of his DeTomaso Pantrea sports car and was killed on the QEW in St. Catherines.)

The night before our meeting, Pronovost, then a highly respected New Jersey Devils Scout was watching prospects at Windsor Arena, the same building where he began his playing career 55 years earlier with the Spitfires as a Red Wings farmhand.

“You don’t discover players today because they can’t hide,” Pronovost told me with his French Canadian accent still intact. “Back when I played, the big clubs relied on arena managers and it was more by word of mouth”.

Growing up in Quebec as the third of 12 children that included nine brothers, four of whom would play in the NHL (Marcel, Andre, Claude, Jean), Marcel Pronovost was snatched out from under the nose of the Montreal Canadiens by Wing scout Marcel Cote.

Cote could never have dreamed that the kid from Shawinigan Falls would play 21 years in the NHL as one of hockey’s greatest defenseman.

Pronovost’s indoctrination into the NHL was in storybook fashion.

When Gordie Howe was seriously injured in Toronto during the 1950 Stanley Cup semifinals, the 19-year old defenseman was summoned from the Wing’s Omaha farm team where he had been named the U.S. Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year. After playing impressively in nine playoff games, the teenager’s name was engraved in the Stanley Cup when the Wings defeated the Rangers.

“It was all like a dream because there I was sipping champagne at the Book Cadillac Hotel victory party,” said Pronovost, who would win three more Cups with the Wings in the 1950s and one with Toronto. His name is actually engraved on the Stanley Cup eight times, five as a player and three as a scout with the Devils.

In the 1950’s, many considered Pronovost one of the best rushing defenseman of his day, a fearless player who delivered hits in his own end but who also took them when he quickly penetrated the opposition on an end to end rush.

“I guess you could say I was kind of a “Kamikaze”. When I rushed I went through thick or thin,” he said.“But my style was whatever fit. If it required hitting I did the hitting. If it was puck handling, I did it.”

Marcel told me that the biggest change to happen in hockey was when glass replaced fencing in the arenas.

“Defensemen don’t have to be as adept at puck handling because they can shoot it off the glass,”he said. “Doug Harvey said to me, ‘Marcel, can you see these guys today playing with the screen? They’d throw it up and it would fall back at their feet. They’d have to carry that son of a bitch out wouldn’t they?’”

Although Pronovost was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1978, according to hockey historian Stan Fischler, “Pronovost can lay claim to the unofficial award for the most frequently injured man in hockey.”

Pronovost said his nose was broken 14 times followed by two sub mucous operations. Putting his coffee down, he presses his nose down with a finger to demonstrate the lack of structure.

Like so many players of the Original Six Era, Pronovost played through injuries.

In the ’61 playoffs against Chicago, Pronovost removed a cast before each game and played with a cracked ankle. “I took Novocain shots but after 20 minutes the pain would come back and they would inject me again. I remember Sid Abel (coach) nearly passed out” he said with a chuckle.

After 16 seasons with the Wings, Pronovost was traded in an eight player deal to Toronto that brought Andy Bathgate to Detroit. Pronovost joined former Wing mates Terry Sawchuk and Red Kelley as an integral part of the “Over the Hill Gang” that won the the ’68 Cup.

Before we headed to our cars, I asked Pronovost if he still suffered physically from his playing days. Without batting an eye, he quickly provided the answer.

“Nope. Number one, I have good genes. Two, I don’t really worry about it. Three, I go to the gym everyday. And four, always remember, I did the hitting,” he said smiling.

A few years ago I was asked by the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame to offer some names of athletes who should be considered for induction. I quickly responded that one of the greatest oversights had been Marcel Pronovost.

Thankfully, in 2012 Marcel was finally inducted.

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