With vision and fortune, Norris established the Red Wings dynasty more than 80 years ago

James E. Norris owned the Detroit Red Wings from 1932 to 1952.

James E. Norris owned the Detroit Red Wings from 1932 to 1952.

The origins of the Detroit Red Wings are connected with a legacy from one of the most influential families in Canadian history.

In the early days of the NHL, if it hadn’t been for the tenacity of James E. Norris, Detroit may have never kept their hockey team, and it certainly wouldn’t have had the financial clout to compete so quickly into its existence.

It was grain money that provided the funding of Detroit’s first hockey dynasty and established the Red Wings as the most successful American team in the National Hockey League. James Sylvester Norris, the father of James E. Norris, made his fortune in the grain business in Toronto and Montreal. The elder Norris had great ambition in his blood: his grandfather was James Norris, a naval captain and political heavyweight in Canada in the 19th century, for whom Norris Place in St. Catharines, Ontario is named.

When James E. Norris was only 18 years old, his family moved Norris Grain Incorporated to Chicago to take on U.S. interests in the business market. In 1908, when Chicago’s Cubs were beating the Detroit Tigers in the “World’s Series”, Norris was in his first year as president of Norris grain Inc. at the age of 28. In less than 20 years, James E. Norris owned more grain elevators than anyone in the world, and they were overflowing with the grain he bought and sold from his connections in Canada. He also launched a shipping company and built one of the largest cattle ranches in the United States. Though he became an American citizen in 1919, Norris never lost his Canadian roots, especially his love of ice hockey, which he played with Montreal in the Amateur Athletic Association when he was in his teens. He intended on expanding his empire into sports as quickly as possible.

Starting in 1926, Norris began the first of several efforts to buy his way into professional hockey. He was unable to secure the Chicago franchise in the National Hockey League, and later failed to convince the league to put an expansion franchise in St. Louis under his ownership. Finally, in 1932, when the league needed a solvent owner for the Detroit Falcons and their struggling arena, The Olympia, Norris was in. He gobbled up the team and quickly set about making it the best franchise in the sport.

Norris embraced plane travel and radio – every technology that could make the Detroit hockey team the best in the NHL. He spent money upgrading The Olympia, having experience with stadiums since he owned the arena that was home to the Black Hawks in Chicago. (Norris later owned majority interest in Madison Square Garden, giving him controlling interest in three arenas that were home to NHL teams).

But the most lasting impact that Norris made was to rename the team. Norris designed a new logo himself, adding wings to a automobile tire in an effort to appeal to the wealthy owners of Detroit’s car companies. He wanted their advertising dollars and he wanted their support. Norris changed the team colors to red and white in a nod to the flag of his home country. And like many future owners of the team, Norris also spent money on players. He believed the product on the ice was the best way to attract fans. The first big name he brought in was goal-scoring master skater Marty Berry, who led the Red Wings to their first Stanley Cup title in 1936. With the Tigers having won their first championship seven months earlier, and with the Lions having won the NFL title a few weeks after that,  Detroit was “The City of Champions.”

Norris built his multiple business ventures into a combined wealth of more than $200 million by 1940 ($3.5 billion in current U.S. dollars). His true love and major interest in his final years was hockey and the Red Wings, however. A heart condition kept him from attending games, but coach Jack Adams dutifully called him after every game to tell him how the team was doing.

The Wings won five Stanley Cup titles while Norris was owner of the team, in 1936, 1937, 1943, 1950, and 1952. Just seven months after their title in ’52, Norris died at his home in Chicago on December 4 at the age of 72. The James Norris Memorial Trophy was first awarded to the best defenseman in the NHL in 1954. Four years later Norris was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The Norris Division, which the Red Wings played in for 20 years, from 1974 to 1993, was named in his honor.

3 replies on “With vision and fortune, Norris established the Red Wings dynasty more than 80 years ago

  • Rick

    Hey Dan, nice article on Mr. Norris. However, I can never get over the treatment Gordie Howe received while employed by the Wings. I have read many stories of his mistreatment regarding his salary. Thankfully Mr. Howe is such a class act that it never festered. But, as an older person with knowledge of how he was treated it saddens me that arguably the most iconic sports figure in Detroit history was so mistreated and yes some of that is Mr. Norris’ fault. Sad to think that Detroit teams have had some of the worst owner’s in sports history. Rarely caring about winning or fans but more about money and profits. Thankfully we have been blessed with Mike Illitch!

  • Buck

    “Norris changed the team colors to red and white in a nod to the flag of his home country.”

    Mr. Norris got the Wings’ red and white from someplace else, as the Canadian red and white maple leaf flag wasn’t adopted until 1965. Canada’s flag was red with a Union Jack in the upper corner, a composite shield of the provinces’ arms in the main body, and was known as “The Canadian Red Ensign.”

    Other than that? Great article.

  • John Bartony

    His son Bruce was a real gem. He would sit in his private box and drink until he was so hammered that he would pick up a phone that was connected to the Red Wing Bench. He would tell Lefty Wilson to have then coach Bill Gadsby not play Dean Prentice or Gary Bergman. Gadsby got so irritated one night that he ripped the phone off the wall. Norris then fired Gadsby after the Red Wings won their season opener against Toronto at home and then beat the high flying Black Hawks in the Chicago Stadium. They came home for a Thursday night game against Minnesota and about an hour before the game Norris fired Gadsby. The fired coach went into the dressing room as Frank Mahovlich came off the pre game skate early and state “Coach, I don’t think I can go tonigh, I have a groin pull.” Gadsby looked at him and said, “Don’t tell me, I’m not the coach anymore, I just got fired.” Mahovlich stood there dumbfounded and said “What the hell is going on around here?”

Comments are closed.