At the end of the season, if you’re the best player in the NHL, the trophy they give you is named after Ted Lindsay. That’s all you really need to know. He won four Stanley Cups and once led the league in scoring, was a Red Wings general manager and briefly their coach, and those accomplishments don’t begin to tell this guy’s story. Compact and powerful, he never grew beyond 5 foot 8, and by the time he reached his 90s, old age had stooped him even more. But no one stood taller than Ted Lindsay in the world of hockey.
And now that he has passed away, he hovers above the game for real.
Throw the switch. Close down the plant. The Production Line is finally at rest. Sid Abel departed at age 81 and Gordie Howe made it until 88. Lindsay was the last to go, living to within four months of his 94th birthday before passing away Monday at his home in Oakland Township. No surprise he got the longevity prize. Ted, in his way, was always the toughest.
“I liked the corners,” he once told the media, and the only players who say that are the ones unafraid of a fight. Lindsay was not only unafraid, he looked forward to the contact. He was an alley cat. A gray wolf. Happiest on the attack. His father was a hockey player so Ted was a hockey player and they both liked things gritty and nasty. That’s how Ted played the game. The NHL actually had to make penalties about elbowing and kneeing on account of his play. There was a stretch in the 1950s where guys should have been whistled for “Lindsaying.”
Lindsay stood for something
Ah, but to sum up this man with tales of toughness or fighting or ripped sweaters or bloody sticks or the 600 stitches he proudly took over his 1,068 NHL games is to reduce Lindsay to a one-dimensional scrapping legend. And there was nothing one-dimensional about him.
He was a terror and a gentleman. A man’s man with a soft spot for children. A beer-and-a-shot hero who drank wine. And a good soul who, as Ted Kennedy once said of his slain brother, Robert, saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it.
The wrong he tried to right was giving players fair representation, a concept that was nonexistent when Lindsay became a pro in the mid-1940s. In those days, there were six teams, and their owners ruled imperiously. You joined a franchise, they owned you for life. Forget free agency. There wasn’t even a legitimate pension plan. Players had to pay moving expenses when they were traded. The attitude was you were lucky to play hockey for a living — even a really cheap living — so shut up and skate.
Lindsay, a man with instincts as a problem solver, realized if the players on the six teams never spoke to each other — and out of competitive instincts they never did — they could hardly be expected to share frustrations, let alone organize to fight them.
So he got them organized. In a now-famous 1956 secret meeting with several brave players from other NHL teams, Lindsay invited lawyers to talk about creating a union in professional hockey.
The players in the room were green to the idea. They had to pass a hat to cover the lawyers’ fees. At the end, as Lindsay recalled in a media interview, they agreed on a basic plan, and “All the fellas said, ‘Now who is going to be the president?’ And they all said, ‘It’s Ted’s idea, we’ll make Ted the president.’ ‘’
That would be a cute anecdote, if it ended there. But Lindsay came back to the Red Wings, to face the wrath of GM Jack Adams, who abhorred the idea of players organizing. According to the book “Net Worth: Exploding the Myths of Pro Hockey,” Adams lined up the team and went down the roster, asking each of his guys, “Are you for this? Are you for this?”
Even the great Gordie Howe looked down at his skates.
Only Lindsay would look Adams in the eye.
That move got Lindsay traded to the lowly Chicago Blackhawks, a pure punishment by Adams that denied the Production Line a greater legacy. Other players who favored the union were similarly dealt. The league message was clear. Try to change things, we will bury you.
Despite the price he paid, Lindsay once said, “I’d do the same thing today.”
You stand for something, or you stand for nothing.
Stats don’t tell his story
Lindsay’s brave attempt at a union lasted less than a year. But his efforts got players a minimum salary and their moving expenses covered, things the average sports fan today would assume were always there. By the time the NHLPA took hold for real, in 1967, it was too late for Lindsay, who had retired a few years earlier, after 17 seasons, 851 career points, and more than twice as many penalty minutes.
But he did get one last swipe against the prejudice of prevailing wisdom. Four years after hanging up his skates as a Blackhawk in 1960, Lindsay approached former linemate Sid Abel about coming back to Detroit as a radio announcer. Abel was then the team’s coach and GM.
Sid said he had a better idea: How about coming back as a player?
Which is what Lindsay did — for one more season. At the time, the NHL president was Clarence Campbell, who slammed the move, saying: “It’s the blackest day in hockey when a 39-year-old man thinks he can play in the fastest game in the world.”
(Imagine how Nick Lidstrom would have taken that.)
Lindsay, who had always stayed in shape, proved Campbell wrong, scoring 14 goals and 28 points in 69 games that season (along with 173 penalty minutes, his second highest total ever) and retiring for the last time the way he should have retired the first: as a Red Wing.
His career was so unquestioned, that the Hall of Fame waived the normal three-year waiting period to induct him. He was the first player to lift the Stanley Cup over his head and skate it around for the fans. His No. 7 hangs from the Little Caesars Arena rafters. He is listed in NHL.com’s top 100 players of all time.
Most guys would be thrilled if their stories stopped there.
But Ted Lindsay wasn’t most guys.
Larger than life
So, in his later years, Lindsay entered one more fight that we can now remember him by: After learning that a friend had an autistic child, Lindsay explored the disease and began devoting efforts to battle against it, to take it into the corners the way he used to take bigger, stronger opponents. The result was a foundation that has raised millions towards autism research and education.
It wasn’t a disorder he had endured personally. It wasn’t even something he knew much about during his playing career. But as Kennedy said, he saw suffering and tried to stop it, and if that isn’t the measure of a good man, I don’t know what is.
Many of us will remember the way Lindsay graced Joe Louis Arena in his elder years, stopping by the locker room frequently, complimenting the new young players, shaking hands in the hallways. He was the best ambassador, humble and unassuming, and people often did a double take when they heard someone whisper, “Look there’s Ted Lindsay.” The response would often be, “Really? I thought he was bigger.”
Physical size is relative. Lindsay was as big as they come. When the NHLPA renamed the MVP trophy after him, they were effectively declaring that as fact.
Pull the switch. Shut down the plant. The Production Line has officially moved to another level. There are no corners in the clouds, so Lindsay might feel out of place at first. Then again, if heaven is where good souls gather, Ted will forever be right at home.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.