Lindsay knew fighting for players’ rights would hurt, but he did anyway

NHL insider Doug MacLean joined the Starting Lineup to discuss the sad news that Ted Lindsay passed away at 93, remembers some great conversations they shared back in his Red Wings days, well after Lindsay's retirement.

I never interviewed Ted Lindsay but I did speak to his wife, who told me in no uncertain terms that her husband was not interested in talking to me about his attempt to form a players association back in the ’50s. My timing for dropping ‘Terrible Ted’ a line was probably not ideal — I was calling a couple of months into the lockout that truncated the 1994–95 season. He might have thought I was out to get him to say something inflammatory about the labour dispute. Or he might have thought he couldn’t avoid saying something inflammatory if he took my call. So when I’d see him around the Detroit dressing room or at Red Wings events or the Hockey Hall of Fame, I’d say hi or nod or maybe listen in, but I shelved any notion of writing a profile of Lindsay, who died Monday at age 93.

I did, however, talk to three former NHLers who had followed Lindsay’s lead in fighting for players’ rights back in the ’50s. Bill Gadsby, Fern Flaman and Gus Mortson pre-deceased Lindsay, although not by so very much. They provided a pretty vivid portrait of a player they feared on the ice, and respected and probably still feared off it.

Lindsay was an easy choice when the NHL named its top 100 players of all time back in the league’s centennial season. He was voted to the NHL’s First All-Star Team eight times and the Second Team once. He played on the left side of the greatest troika in the league back in the late ’40s and early ’50s, Detroit’s Production Line. When he looked to the middle of the ice he saw Sid Abel and on the far side Gordie Howe. Together they were the driving force on four Stanley Cup–winning teams.

Lindsay’s individual numbers, 379 goals and 851 points in 1,068 games, tell only a fraction of the story — maybe they’d look more impressive if you adjusted them for a 70-game season, but no matter. They might be a measure of the player in some context but tell you less about the man than the fight he took on against the league’s establishment and the fierce respect he earned from his peers. And, really, his legacy was the risk he took and the cost he paid in forming the players association.

Lindsay was looking for players to get a fair shake from management and really, in modern-day context, his asks from ownership were modest in the extreme. Their chief concerns were the players’ pension fund, a minimum salary for rookies, moving expenses for traded players and meal money. Lindsay rounded up representatives from each of the five other teams: the three aforementioned (Gadsby for the Rangers, Flaman for Boston, Mortson for Chicago) along with Jim Thomson for Toronto and Doug Harvey for Montreal. 

“We got together because we loved the game and we really cared about our teammates and the other guys in the league,” Flaman told me. “We were concerned with the pension fund, which we used to pay $900 a season into. We wanted some help out with meal money. We weren’t about going out on strike or shutting down the league. We scheduled our meetings so that they wouldn’t affect our play — our first loyalties were to our teams. We just wanted some fair treatment, and with television taking off it seemed the league could afford that treatment.”

While Mortson and Thomson were reliable NHLers, and Gadsby and Flaman would be elected to Hockey Hall of Fame, the deal hinged on Lindsay’s leadership and the star power he and Harvey brought to the table.

“Nobody had less to gain and more to lose than Ted,” Flaman told me back in ’94. “He was already one of the better-paid players in the league. Back then he was the third-leading goal scorer of all time. But he knew the association would have meant nothing if we didn’t have big names involved. If we were just a bunch of journeymen, we might get sent down to the minors. Ted and Doug Harvey gave us two of the biggest names in the game. You couldn’t sweep them under the rug.”

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The players met with atomic blowback.

“(Leafs owner) Conn Smythe ran the league back in those days,” said Mortson, who had won Stanley Cups with Toronto before being traded to Chicago. “Smythe told some old teammates [with the Leafs], ‘Mortson can forget about coaching in this league when he’s done playing.’ I understood that my involvement with that original players association cost me any chance of getting a job in hockey when I retired as a player.

“I knew Jimmy Thomson with the Leafs, my old defence partner, had to put up with a lot worse back then just being in the same building with Smythe. When we finally presented our case to the league I was the spokesman for the players, and Smythe did all the talking for the NHL — that told you everything you need to know. Any issue I brought up he shot down. These were simple considerations, stuff the players today just take for granted. But Smythe wasn’t going to have an association. It didn’t matter that there was 120 players. To Smythe, 120 on one was okay with him.”

Gadsby said the group knew going in that their odds were long and any victory would likely be pyrrhic.

“A players association would have been the fair and right thing, but the owners wielded all the power back in those days,” Gadsby told me. “The players were just scared shitless of Smythe. We were well ahead of the other sports in recognizing the value of a players association. But it was far easier for the owners in a six-team league to take a hard line against us than it was for the owners in baseball to stand in against the players. We knew the owners were making hay back then. Hell, the players’ playoff money hadn’t gone up in 13 years even though ticket prices had been getting bumped all along.”

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The concessions won were minor by comparison to the stakes involved in later collective bargaining between the league and the players association. Nonetheless, the early forerunner of the NHLPA set it all in motion, the first domino to tip. As Mortson suggested, those involved were taking a risk of shortening their playing careers and scotching their chances of jobs in the league down the line. The one who got punished first was Lindsay — Red Wings boss Jack Adams, to whom Lindsay hadn’t spoken for three years before taking up the labour fight, traded his star winger to Chicago, which, given the Black Hawks dismal prospects back in those days, was akin to exile. It says all you need to know about the man that he took on the fight knowing this was the most probable outcome.

Lindsay would be brought back for one farewell season with the Wings and in fact wound up in management with the Wings for a time — I’ll leave it to you to look up his career numbers as a coach in Detroit. (It’s one of those times I must abide by the credo of De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.) Best to give the last word and most fitting tribute to Bill Gadsby, who told me with great affection: “Ted was a bastard and that was all right so long as he was your bastard. A great guy to have on your side — the worst one in the world to be against.”

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