‘Pioneer’ Ted Lindsay changed the game on and off the ice

The NHL mourns the loss of Red Wings’ legend Ted Lindsay, as Scott Morrison discusses the great career and life moments from the 4-time Stanley Cup champ, who died at the age of 93. (1925 - 2019).

Fifty-five years after he last hoisted the Stanley Cup, and 44 years after he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Ted Lindsay stood on a stage in front of his admirers. To his left, a newly bronzed trophy bearing his name and likeness. To his right, a microphone. And behind him, murals commemorating his 17-year playing career, each adorned with words that spoke to his character and contribution to the sport.

“Champion.” 

“Pioneer.” 

“Leader.” 

As he took to the podium on that spring day in 2010, he smiled with the creased and scarred 84-year-old face of one of hockey’s all-time grittiest warriors, gave thanks to those honouring him and recounted how he once tried to form the league’s first players’ association. Then he did what all great leaders do when placed under a spotlight: He reminded the gathered crowd that any tribute to him should be shared with those who had stood beside him in the face of adversity.

Nearly a decade later, early Monday morning, one of the most spirited players the game has ever known has passed away at the age of 93.

Few men are lucky enough to have their names enshrined on the Cup. Even fewer have the fortune of being inducted into hockey’s most hallowed Hall. And yet there was Lindsay on that day nine years ago, a man who had accomplished both feats, and now he, like one of his chief Original Six rivals — Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard — before him was about to be further immortalized with a trophy named in his honour.

A fitting tribute for a 168-lb. grinder whose aggressive game on the ice earned him the moniker ‘Terrible Ted,’ and whose reckless playing style and hatred of losing helped him to four Stanley Cups and an Art Ross Trophy. A man whose name the NHLPA chose in 2010 to replace that of another great leader — Lester B. Pearson — on the award given annually to the most outstanding player as voted on by his peers.

One of the most accomplished men to have ever worn a “C” on his sweater, Lindsay was born in 1925, the son of an NHL goalie. A child of the Great Depression, he learned the value of hard labour and developed an appreciation for collective bargaining from his father, Bert, who worked as a miner in Kirkland Lake, Ont., after his own NHL career came to an early end. It was there in that rugged mining town that Ted first strapped on skates and took to a frozen pond, eventually leading the town’s juvenile team to an Ontario provincial title before being snatched up by the Oshawa Generals, whom he helped to a Memorial Cup win in 1944. 

By the age of 19 he was suiting up with the Detroit Red Wings, and by 21 he was anchoring the left side of one of hockey’s most successful offensive units ever, playing alongside Gordie Howe and the Red Wings’ captain, Sid Abel, on ‘The Production Line.’ 

“The way Howe explained it, [Lindsay] was kind of the meat and potatoes of the line,” says hockey historian Bob Duff, author of Seven: A Salute to Ted Lindsay. “He was the guy who put the fear of God into people. As much as Howe — with his size and strength — scared people, I think Lindsay scared people because they just didn’t know what he would do.”

Though his linemate Howe has long been regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, it was Lindsay who won the 1950 scoring championship while leading the Red Wings to a Stanley Cup win that launched a dynasty. And it was Lindsay who inherited the captaincy when Abel left the team in 1952.

“People forget that he was quite a player,” says Duff. “As [with] most of the players in his era, [Lindsay] got overshadowed by Howe and Richard.”

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A leader and a muckraker who skated in a time when players were veritable slaves to their owners, Lindsay was a perennial all-star and one of the best-paid players in the league. Credited with being the first man to parade the Cup around the rink and present it to fans, his leadership on the ice spilled into the back halls and dressing rooms of the Original Six arenas. There, he rallied players from across the league to form what would become the first players’ association. 

But just as players began to band together behind Lindsay, Jack Adams — owner of the Red Wings and lord of Lindsay’s fortunes — took it upon himself to crush the fledgling union and martyr his captain.

A smear campaign began. Lindsay was branded a cancer in the Red Wings locker room, was stripped of his captaincy and exiled to the last-place Chicago Black Hawks. Without his leadership on the ice and in the dressing room, the Red Wings dynasty crumbled, as did his players’ association. It would be 10 years before the NHLPA would rise from the ashes of Lindsay’s efforts to earn official recognition as the NHL players’ union.

Lindsay retired from Chicago in 1960. In 1964, Abel — who had gone from being Lindsay’s linemate to GM and coach of the Red Wings — convinced Lindsay to mount a comeback upon seeing him skate with a few of the players.

“After being out for four years, he scored 14 goals. [In] his first game back, he got into a scrap,” Duff says. “It meant the world to him to finish his career as a Red Wing.”

Lindsay retired again after the season having amassed more points than any left winger before him, but his affiliation with the Wings lasted until the day he died. And decades after he hung up his blades, Lindsay continued to make an impact on Detroit’s players, including a young Tomas Holmstrom in the late 1990s.

“His first year with the Wings, when he came over from Sweden, [Holmstrom] wasn’t playing a lot,” says Duff. “He would spend a lot of time in the gym to stay in condition and he said there was this old guy in there working out all the time and they started working out together. He didn’t really know who the guy was, but he just couldn’t believe how intense [this guy was] and how much he could lift. Then he found out, of course, it was Ted Lindsay.”

Despite the controversy that had surrounded his name, history and the Red Wings have been kind to his legacy. A banner with his retired number now hangs in the rafters of Little Caesars Arena alongside those of other Red Wings greats, including Howe and Steve Yzerman. A permanent stall in the team’s dressing room has also been set aside for the aging captain. 

The number seven will forever be synonymous with a standard for hard work and excellence everyone should aspire to, even if matching the feats of the man who wore it is all but impossible.

A version of this story originally appeared in The Captains, a special issue of Sportsnet magazine. With files from Ryan Dixon.

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