Saturday, 20 June 2009

James Norris: NHL Legend

Today, we'll look at the one award that cannot be won by a forward or a goalie. Defencemen have always been relied upon in the NHL for their toughness and ferocity on the defensive side of the puck, but their offensive contributions need to be highlighted as well. For those defencemen that bring the total package - excellent defensive play combined with solid offensive statistics - the James Norris Trophy was created. The award is voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, and is annually given to the NHL's best "defensive player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position". While there is a coinciding award for forwards that excel on the defensive side of the puck that we'll look at next week, the James Norris Trophy is exclusively for defencemen. How did it get its name? Who was this James Norris fellow? Is there anything interesting about the Norris Trophy?

James E. Norris was born in St. Catharines, Ontario on December 10, 1879. Norris grew up in Lachine, Quebec where he learned to play squash, tennis, and hockey. Norris was an accomplished athlete in hockey as a youth, and went on to play defence for McGill University in Canada. He appeared in three games for the Montreal Hockey Club in 1898 when they played in the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada.

While Norris wasn't pursuing a career in hockey, his love of the game never wavered. His father, a man who had amassed a massive fleet of ships and grain mills, moved his business to Chicago, Illinois shortly after James' appearance for the Montreal Hockey Club. By age 28, James became president of Norris Grain Incorporated in Chicago, and moved the company's strategy into buying grain elevators. He became a US citizen in 1919, and began systematically branching out into other reaches of agriculture. By 1940, a mere 22 years after becoming president of Norris Grain Incorporated, it was said that Norris had a fortune worth more than $200 million.

In 1926, during the rapid expansion of Norris Grain Incorporated, the NHL made it known that they were interested in placing an expansion franchise in Chicago, Illinois. Norris applied for ownership of the newest NHL franchise, but lost out to Frederic McLaughlin, a coffee magnate in Chicago. McLaughlin named the team the "Black Hawks" as an honour to the 86th Infantry Black Hawk Division that he had served in during World War I. His wife, actress Irene Castle, is credited with designing the logo of the Native American head.

Of course, losing the opportunity to own a team in the best hockey league in the world didn't sit well with Norris. His love of the game hadn't diminished, so he did the next best thing: he financed the building of the arena where the Black Hawks planned to play. Chicago Stadium was the newest and most state-of-the-art building when it opened in March of 1929. With an arena built, Norris asked the NHL if he could operate a second franchise in Chicago. The NHL agreed on the condition that McLaughlin had to approve of a second franchise. McLaughlin did not approve, however, mostly due to the difficult negotiations he was having with Norris and partner Paddy Harmon over acquiring ice time at Chicago Stadium.

In 1930, Norris backed the Chicago Shamrocks, an AHL team playing in Chicago. The NHL didn't like the idea of another professional team in its market, and declared the AHL as an "outlaw league". However, the NHL recognized the vast wealth that Norris had, and offered him a franchise opportunity to keep him in the fold. Norris applied for a team to be placed in St. Louis in 1932, but the NHL rejected the application citing travel expenses as the main reason. Norris made an agreement to buy the Ottawa Senators on the condition he could move the franchise to either Toronto or Chicago. Both McLaughlin and Maple Leafs' owner Conn Smythe rejected this idea, and the agreement Norris had with the Senators was dissolved.

In 1931, the Detroit Falcons and their home arena, the Detroit Olympia, had fallen into receivership. While it took some time, James E. Norris decided to buy the franchise from the receiver in 1933. He changed the name of the team to "Red Wings" and the Detroit Red Wings were born. Norris designed the famous "Winged Wheel" logo and had his team's sweaters displayed with the new look. The logo actually came from Norris' early hockey days as the Montreal Hockey Club was nicknamed the "Winged Wheelers" in an effort to gain popularity with automobile makers at the turn of the 20th century.

With Norris' vast wealth backing the team, the debt that the Falcons had experienced was quickly erased. In a powerplay of his own, Norris owned both the Detroit Olympia and Chicago Stadium, and bought a vested interest in Madison Square Garden, thus Norris essentially controlled three NHL teams as their landlord. While the NHL Constitution prevented him from calling the shots for these teams, his ice time scheduling was not favourable to opponents of the Red Wings. However, Norris was struggling with a heart condition as the 1940s began, and rarely saw his Red Wings play on home ice. Head coach Jack Adams would call after every game to inform his owner of the results of the game when Norris was not in attendance.

James E. Norris passed away on December 4, 1952. Upon his death, Marguerite Norris, his daughter, took control of the team, making her the first female owner in the NHL in 30 years. In his honour, Norris' four children created the James E. Norris Memorial Trophy and presented it to the NHL in 1953 to be given to the best defenceman in the game annually.

While Norris was a pretty powerful man based upon his business dealings, the names on the James Norris Memorial Trophy are an impressive collection of defencemen. The first Norris Trophy was awarded in 1954 to Detroit Red Wings' defenceman Leonard "Red" Kelly after scoring 16 goals and adding 33 assists in 62 games during the 1953-54 season.

Here some of the more interesting facts about the Norris Trophy:

  • Bobby Orr won the most Norris Trophies with eight. Doug Harvey sits second with seven, and Niklas Lidstrom is third with six wins.
  • The Boston Bruins have had the most Norris Trophy winners in NHL history with 13 wins. The Montreal Canadiens sit second with 11 wins.
  • Only two players have captured the Norris Trophy as the best defenceman and the Hart Trophy as the season's MVP: Bobby Orr, who did it three times, and Chris Pronger.
  • Bobby Orr won eight consecutive Norris Trophies from 1967-68 until 1974-75, the most consecutive wins for this award in NHL history.
  • The first player born outside North America to win the Norris Trophy was Washington's Rod Langway in 1982-83. Langway was born in Taipei, Taiwan. He also won in 1983-84.
  • The first American-born player to win the award was Chris Chelios in 1992-93 with the Chicago Blackhawks.
  • The biggest gap between Norris Trophy wins for the same player happened to Paul Coffey. Coffey won his second Norris Trophy in 1985-86 with the Edmonton Oilers. His third win came nine years later in 1994-95 with the Detroit Red Wings.
So there's a little history on the Norris Trophy. Clearly, during the 1930s and 1940s, no one in hockey was more powerful or influential than James E. Norris. And every single defenceman who has won the Norris Trophy since 1954 has had a major influence in their team's success.

Tomorrow, I'll break from looking at the history of the NHL Awards to bring a special Father's Day piece. Without giving too much away, it will look at generations of a hockey family who have had a lasting legacy on the NHL and hockey.

Until then, keep your sticks on the ice!


ken te said...

Love your blog, great info you must really do a lot of homework -as a Canadian living in Taipei, i must clarify that the "status quo" is that Taiwan is not China or a province of China.
Keep up the good work!

Teebz said...

Thanks, Ken! I try to do as much research as I can to provide the most accurate picture that I can. Yes, some of the history might be a little dry for some readers, but history is how we got here. :o)

I also corrected the Taiwan reference in Langway's bullet point. Sorry 'bout that!