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Anniversary of Most Unique Debut in Red Wings History

First NHL game for Detroit’s Bill Mitchell was second game of twinbill



Bill Mitchell, Red Wings
Red Wings defenseman Bill Mitchell was playing his second game of the day when made his NHL debut.

As Detroit Red Wings debuts go, it’s certainly in a class by itself. In fact, it may be the most unusual NHL debut in league history.

There’s little doubt that it will never be repeated. And it took place 60 years ago today.

Coming off a 3-2 home-ice win over the Boston Bruins the afternoon prior, the Red Wings were again home on Feb. 23, 1964 for a Sunday night game at Olympia Stadium against the league-leading Montreal Canadiens.

There was just one problem. They were shy on defenseman. Veteran Marcel Pronovost incurred a knee injury in the game against the Bruins and would be unable to go for the Sunday contest.

There wasn’t enough time to get a callup in from any of Detroit’s farm clubs. However, Red Wings coach Sid Abel would find his solution on the Canadian side of the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario.

Bill Mitchell was a veteran defenseman with the Windsor Bulldogs of the International League. At the time, the IHL was considered an amateur outfit. Abel, who was also GM of the Red Wings, would sign Mitchell to a five-game amateur contract.

Mitchell Turns Two For Red Wings

There was another issue on the table, however. The Bulldogs were playing host to the Muskegon Zephyrs in an IHL game on Sunday afternoon. No worries, Abel told Mitchell. Just get to the Olympia after you are done with your afternoon game and suit up for the Red Wings.

Thus, Mitchell, would become the only player to make his NHL debut in the second game of a day-night doubleheader. In fact, it would be his third game is less than 24 hours. Windsor played at Toledo the night before.

For the first two periods against the Canadiens, Mitchell, wearing Pronovost’s No. 3 jersey, would be taking a regular turn on the Detroit rearguard, pairing with future Hockey Hall of Famer Bill Gadsby. With Detroit protecting a 3-2 lead in the third period, Abel would shorten his bench, using Mitchell sparingly.

“I thought he didn’t look out of place at all,” Abel told the Windsor Star of Mitchell’s performance.

His lone NHL appearance coming a day following his 34th birthday, at the time Mitchell would become the NHL’s oldest rookie.

“It was a little strange being up here for the first time,” Mitchell told Windsor Star reporter Jim Nelson. “But I wasn’t nervous in making my big bow.”

Mitchell went out a winner. Detroit hung on for a 3-2 win over Montreal. In fact, he would turn two in the win column that day. Windsor beat Muskegon 5-3.

A 13-season veteran of minor pro hockey in Toledo, home of Detroit’s ECHL Toledo Walleye farm club, Mitchell earned induction into the Toledo Hockey Hall of Fame in 2019.

Mitchell, who died in 2014, won an Allan Cup with Windsor in 1962-63 and a world championship silver medal for Canada in 1962.