Jimmy Devellano, recently announced as a winner of the Lester Patrick Trophy for dedication toward hockey, was the first man hired by Mike Ilitch when the latter purchased the sad sack Detroit Red Wings in 1982. One of the reasons was Jimmy D’s uncanny ability to sniff out NHL talent from the woodwork of small North American towns, and from other NHL teams.
It wasn’t a smooth ride at the beginning. Three years after his hire, Devellano presided over a brutal 17-57-6 season, his attempts at a quick fix via free agency—college and pro—having failed miserably.
But three years after that, the Red Wings were on the right path, seemingly.
Two consecutive visits to the Conference Finals, plus another Norris Division title in 1988-89, gave cause to believe that Devellano was finally the genius executive the Red Wings had been looking for, for decades.
Until he made The Trade.
There are urban legends—whispered myths—that Devellano engineered one of the most lopsided trades in team history because of something not hockey related, spurious in nature. I can neither confirm nor deny that.
But what can be confirmed is that, 20 years ago this summer, Devellano got absolutely fleeced by the intra-division St. Louis Blues.
A reminder of Jimmy D’s temporary loss of sanity and genius stands behind the Red Wings bench today, and has for four seasons now.
Current assistant coach Paul MacLean, one of Mike Babcock’s lieutenants, was shipped away in 1989 to St. Louis, along with burgeoning center Adam Oates, for aging center Bernie Federko and plugging forward Tony McKegney.
Coach Jacques Demers had Federko in St. Louis while Jacques coached the Blues and he loved him. Loved him so much, apparently, that he was able to convince Devellano to do whatever it took to bring him to Detroit to provide more veteran leadership.
The Blues said, “OK, you want Federko that bad? Then we want MacLean—and Oates.”
And Jimmy Devellano, usually so wise when it comes to personnel, agreed to such a travesty of a trade.
Federko (left) and Oates, who would eventually be traded for each other
MacLean, acquired from Winnipeg just one year prior, did what he was supposed to do, scoring 36 goals for the Red Wings in ’88-’89. And Oates was on the verge of greatness. He was 27 and had just recorded a whopping 62 assists.
But off they both went, to St. Louis, for 33-year-old Federko and McKegney, who was 31. McKegney scored 40 goals in 1987-88, but slipped to 25 one year later.
At the time, the trade was looked at with suspicion, but Jimmy D was on a mini-run and everyone liked Demers, so maybe he could work more magic with Federko and the question mark McKegney.
Not even close.
Federko played one clumsy season in Detroit before retiring, scoring 17 goals, and McKegney was gone after just 14 games as a Red Wing, shipped to Quebec for defenseman Robert Picard.
MacLean and Oates did wonders for the divisional rival Blues—MacLean scoring 33 goals, and Oates registering 79 assists as he combined with Brett Hull lethally.
The Red Wings failed to make the playoffs in 1989-90, the last year they did so.
OK, about the urban legend regarding this trade.
The young bachelor Oates was rumored to have done something untoward that didn’t please Mike Ilitch in the least. Ilitch, the legend goes, demanded that Devellano trade Oates. So Jimmy D was acting with a distinct lack of leverage, and it showed—if this is true.
Don’t know for sure, but that’s your urban legend.
Regardless, let it be known that 20 summers ago, the Red Wings made maybe their worst trade under the Ilitch ownership, long before the folks around town took to calling their city “Hockeytown, USA.”
Adam Oates and Paul MacLean for Bernie Federko and Tony McKegney, straight up.
Not too many have rooked the Red Wings since that travesty.