How Detroit’s major sports teams got their nicknames

Team photo from Detroit's inaugural season (1926–27). The franchise was known as the Detroit Cougars from 1926 to 1930.
Team photo from Detroit's inaugural season (1926–27). The franchise was known as the Detroit Cougars from 1926 to 1930.

You know the names of our major Detroit sports teams, but do you know the history behind them?

Here’s a look at the origins of the names we love to hate, and hate to love, depending on the season.

Detroit Red Wings

Detroit’s hockey team, which is now known as the Detroit Red Wings, started as the Detroit Cougars on September 25, 1926. The Cougars were originally from Victoria, British Columbia. In 1930, they became the Detroit Falcons.

Canadian-American businessman James Norris bought the club in 1932 -- and one of his first decisions was to rename the team to the Red Wings. This was a nod to the Montreal “Winged Wheelers,” which was the nickname of the hockey club Norris played for in Canada. The winged wheel was selected as their logo to honor Detroit’s booming automobile industry.

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11 Stanley Cups later -- the Red Wings are one of the most popular sports brands in America. Even Tupac thought so.

Detroit Pistons

The franchise was founded in Fort Wayne, Ind., as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, a National Basketball League (NBL) team. Owner Fred Zollner ran a foundry that manufactured pistons primarily for car, truck and locomotive engines.

In 1948, the team dropped "Zollner" from the name and became the Fort Wayne Pistons, competing in the Basketball Association of America. In 1949, Fred Zollner brokered the formation of the National Basketball Association from the BAA and the NBL at his kitchen table.

Though the Pistons enjoyed a solid local following, their city’s small size made it difficult for them to be profitable. In 1957, Zollner moved the team to Detroit, a much larger city that hadn’t seen professional basketball in a decade. When the team relocated to the Motor City, the name Pistons was still appropriate in the nation’s automobile capital.

Detroit Tigers

Detroit’s original minor league team was named the Wolverines, although many referred to the team as the Tigers, the nickname for the members of Michigan’s oldest military unit, the 425th National Guard infantry regiment, which fought in the Spanish-American War and Civil War.

When Detroit joined the American League in 1901, they received permission from the regiment to use Tigers as their official team name. Read more about the regiment, also known as the Detroit Light Guard, here.

Detroit Lions

Detroit’s professional football team first formed in 1929 as the Portsmouth Spartans of Portsmouth, Ohio.

The Lions name was chosen by George A. Richards, the Detroit radio executive who purchased the Portsmouth Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934. “The lion is monarch of the jungle,” a team spokesperson said, “and we hope to be the monarch of the league.”

Some believe it was inspired by the Detroit Tigers, who had won the AL pennant that year.

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About the Author:

Ken Haddad is the digital special projects manager for WDIV / He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters. He's been with WDIV since 2013.