By Bill McGraw
March 4, 2019
Ted Lindsay’s nicknames were “Terrible Ted” and “Old Scarface” because Lindsay played tough and sometimes dirty.
That hell-bent style was reflected in the tiny ridges, bumps, wrinkles and puffy marks on his cheeks and chin that gave his face a hang-dog look.
Lindsay, one of the greatest Detroit Red Wings of all time, received some 600 stitches during his hall-of-fame career, most of them in his face.
One day, an acquaintance, holding the hand of his 2-year-old daughter, ran into Lindsay on the street.
Lindsay kneeled to say hello to the smiling little girl, who burst into tears when Lindsay’s face appeared next to hers.
“It’s not the first time that’s happened,” Lindsay said, laughing.
“Terrible Ted had a face only a hockey mom could love,” John Finley, the Red Wings’ longtime physician who had stitched up Lindsay many times, wrote in his memoir. Recalling the man behind the scars and how different he was away from the game, Finley added: “I have many fond memories of the grace, respect, and special effort he took with all those close to him.”
And that was the paradox of Ted Lindsay, who died at 93 years old, while under hospice care, on Monday morning, according to his family. Off the ice, he was a gentleman who had many friends. And he was a philanthropist who became deeply involved in his community.
On the ice, Lindsay was cocky and abrasive and would do anything to win. He was a highly unusual player in the post-World War II National Hockey League, a brainy boat-rocker who repeatedly challenged the conservative league establishment. Those qualities — plus his enormous talent — made him one of the most memorable and controversial players in NHL history and a fan favorite for decades in metro Detroit, where he lived for more than 70 years.
“I hated everybody I played against, and they hated me,” Lindsay was fond of saying. “That’s the way hockey should be played.”
Away from the game Lindsay was patient, generous and even tender. Despite his super-star status, he drove through winter nights to appear at countless sports banquets across Michigan and Ontario, and thought nothing of driving even to Sault Ste. Marie for the night to make a speech about hockey. He devoted a lot of time to charity. When the 9-year-old son of a friend was diagnosed with autism, Lindsay established a foundation to raise money for autism research.
“Ted never let fame go to his head,” said Joe Lapointe, a longtime sportswriter for the Free Press and New York Times.
Lindsay was only 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds, and people who met him often expressed surprise someone so small could be such a terror. “When I put my skates on I’m 6-foot-5,” he told them.
Lindsay punched far above his weight for 14 seasons with the Red Wings and three seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks between 1944 and 1965. When Lindsay was at his peak, in the early 1950s, the Wings were the team to beat in the NHL, winning four Stanley Cups in six years.
In 1964, four years after he retired as a Blackhawk, he made a one-season comeback with the Wings at 39, surprising critics with his skills and endurance.
Rebel with a cause
During his prime, Look magazine described Lindsay, darting about the ice in the crimson Detroit uniform, as “a blood-red flash of cold fury” and “a picture of unmitigated villainy.”
The Free Press wrote that hockey fans pictured Lindsay “as a cross between Jack the Ripper and Al Capone.”
Lindsay mocked opponents, pushed referees and argued with Jack Adams, the tyrannical Detroit coach and general manager whom most players feared. Lindsay blasted the disciplinary hearings of NHL president Clarence Campbell, a former war-crimes prosecutor, as a “kangaroo court” and shocked NHL owners when he filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the league during his attempt to form a players’ association in the late 1950s.
The suit was a daring move, and while the union effort fell short, it set the stage for the founding of the NHL Players’ Association in 1967. Adams traded Lindsay for masterminding the union drive (with Montreal’s Doug Harvey), and it soured the once-close friendship between Lindsay and Gordie Howe, who voted against the union.
“Lindsay represented everything Clarence Campbell abhorred in a hockey player: cockiness, irreverence and disrespect,” wrote the authors of “Net Worth,” an authoritative book on NHL finances that was turned into a 1995 Canadian movie in which Lindsay was the hero and Adams the villain.
By 1958 the campaign for an association had ended, though the NHL met some of the players’ demands. A permanent players’ association was formed in 1967, and today, the association bestows the Ted Lindsay Award annually to the NHL’s most outstanding player, as voted by association members.
“When I did it the NHL was a dictatorship. I just wanted to give us a voice. We had no voice,” Lindsay told the authors of “Net Worth.”
“I’d do it again. I was not a crusader, I wasn’t trying to change hockey. It was just something we as players needed as a vehicle to be able to discuss things. The effort was not a failure, because we did make a few gains and we paved the way” for the players’ association.
In retirement, Lindsay was estranged from the Wings, owned at the time by Bruce Norris, who bitterly fought Lindsay during the unionization drive. But in 1977, Norris hired him to be general manager and, later, coach.
At the time, the Florida-based Norris, the dissolute scion of the family that had owned the team since 1932, was bankrupting the family fortune, and the “Dead Wings” were one of the NHL’s worst teams. Lindsay set off a buzz among Detroit fans with his initial marketing slogan, “Aggressive Hockey is Back in Town,” but his three years in the front office were a failure in almost every respect, the opposite of his storied career.
Gordie Howe, Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay
The Production Line
In 1,068 regular season games, Lindsay scored 379 goals and had 472 assists for 851 points. He added 47 goals for 96 points in 133 playoff games. When he retired for the first time in 1960, the only players who had amassed more points than him were two all-time greats, Howe and Montreal’s Maurice (The Rocket) Richard.
In 2017 an NHL panel named Lindsay one of the 100 best players in league history. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966. The Red Wings retired his No. 7 jersey in 1991 and unveiled a statue in his honor in Joe Louis Arena in 2008.
Lindsay’s aggressiveness as a player and insolence toward NHL authority figures endeared him to hockey fans in rough-and-tumble Detroit during the city’s postwar go-go years. Fans in other NHL cities heckled Lindsay, and he heckled them back. On at least one occasion, Lindsay tussled with a spectator.
During Lindsay’s 14 seasons with the Red Wings, they won 10 league championships in addition to their four Stanley Cups. Lindsay, who served as team captain even though Adams worried about his influence on other players, was often among league leaders in both scoring and penalty minutes. Beyond his belligerence, he was an excellent skater, shooter and passer. He was, in many respects, the perfectly well-rounded NHL player: a highly skilled leader who is the craziest and hardest-working guy on the team.
Lindsay starred with center Sid Abel and right wing Howe on the Wings’ famed Production Line, one of the league’s greatest trios, which tormented the NHL from 1947 to 1952.
In the 1949-50 season, Lindsay, Abel and Howe finished 1-2-3 in league scoring, and the Wings won their first Cup of the decade. In 1949, during a seven-game semifinal playoff series against Montreal, the line accounted for 12 of 17 Red Wing goals. After Abel was traded in 1952, Lindsay and Howe continued their tear, accounting for roughly one-third of all Red Wing goals over a nine-year period.
"They are both unorthodox, crisscrossing on the ice so that no one really is a right wing, a center or left wing,” Abel said in 1957.
As a player, Lindsay stopped at little. Even elbowing and kneeing were part of his arsenal until the NHL made them two-minute penalties. He used his stick as a cudgel and a sword.
One of Lindsay’s most infamous confrontations took place in January 1951 with Bill Ezinicki of the Boston Bruins, a frequent opponent since junior hockey. The two, the most penalized players in the NHL the previous season, started with shoving, then moved on to swinging sticks at each other’s heads before they slugged it out — for a full minute.
The clash finished when Ezinicki charged Lindsay from behind. Lindsay suddenly spun, flattening Ezinicki with one lightning punch. Ezinicki was left unconscious on the ice and needed 19 stitches in his face. He also suffered a broken nose and lost a tooth. Lindsay had bleeding knuckles.
Referee George Gravel handed Lindsay and Eziniki rare match penalties for “deliberately injuring an opponent.” Campbell suspended each player for the next three games between their two teams.
“It was a rousing battle as hockey fights go, but was a sickening and disgusting display of sportsmanship,” wrote Marshall Dann, the Free Press hockey writer.
Lindsay’s assertive attitude also is behind a celebrated NHL tradition — the parading of the Stanley Cup on the ice by players after they win the post-season playoffs. It first happened at Olympia Stadium in Detroit in 1950 after the Wings defeated the New York Rangers in seven games, including a double-overtime victory in the seventh game. Lindsay spontaneously hoisted the shining trophy and skated around so fans could see it.
"I recognized who was paying my salary. It wasn't the owners,” Lindsay told the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2013. "I saw all the people sitting there so I picked it up and took it to them.”
Lindsay took the initiative in his private life, too. In the early 1950s, when many hockey players worked menial jobs to earn extra cash in the summer, Lindsay saw a way to make real money, and he established a plastics businesses in Livonia with teammate Marty Pavelich and, for a time, Howe.
Lindsay had lived in southeast Michigan since the mid-1940s. Multiple generations of Detroiters came to know him as an approachable presence at Red Wings’ games, local rinks, restaurants and charity functions, always willing to strike a humorous pose with his fist clenched against the jaw of a smiling fan.
Lindsay was calm and serious, but he laughed easily. He sometimes sounded gruff when he talked, often expressing belief in such old-fashioned virtues as hard work and honesty. He criticized modern athletes — and hockey itself — for being soft.
He was generous with his time. Over the years, Lindsay served as chairman of the Easter Seals campaign and coached the hockey team at Hillsdale College, driving frequently to Jackson, where the team practiced, charging only expenses.
Since 2001, the Ted Lindsay Foundation has raised more than $4 million for autism research, while using only 13 percent of its donations for operating expenses, the foundations says. In December, the foundation pledged $1 million to support Oakland University’s autism outreach efforts.
Lindsay was a physical fitness devotee who for years after his final NHL game continued playing hockey, in men’s leagues or pick-up games, just like legions of metro Detroiters have done for years. At one point, he was rising at 3 a.m. to make an early game in Windsor.
In the late 1970s, when Lindsay was the Wings’ general manager, he joined a weekly pickup game at Olympia for anyone who worked in the building, from media to Zamboni drivers. Lindsay was more than twice the age of some players, but he still dominated the games with his skating and puck control. He bought beer for the players after games yet never stayed around to drink it with them.
“Ted Lindsay would check you into the boards!” said Tom Henderson, a veteran journalist who played in those games. “If you grew up in Detroit — that was unbelievable. That was like Ty Cobb spiking you.”
At one morning game in Southfield in 1976, Ted and his 21-year-old son, Blake, skated on opposing teams. At one point, Blake complained about getting high-sticked by another player.
“What’s wrong, cant you take it?” his father yelled at him.
“You’re a good one to say that,” Blake responded. “What did you do, leave your brains in your locker?”
Ted stalked off the ice, showered, left the rink and refused to speak to Blake for three weeks.
“He did that only because he loves you,” Marty Pavelich, a former Wing and close Lindsay friend, told Blake. “He would have killed anybody else for saying that.”
Taunting Toronto fans
Lindsay gained a national audience in the 1970s when he served as a color commentator for games on NBC. He also hosted his own sports show on Saturday evenings before Hockey Night in Canada telecasts on what was then CKLW-TV in Windsor. Even on television, Lindsay had a polarizing effect, not unlike commentator Don Cherry in recent times. One of Lindsay’s memorable expressions was “laying on the lumber,” a phrase he used when a player hit another player with his stick.
“Since NBC signed him up, Lindsay’s devotion to violence, brutality and mayhem on the ice has been drummed into American living rooms with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer,” a Philadelphia sportswriter wrote in 1975.
As a player, Lindsay defended his tactics as necessary to survive at his size in the six-city NHL, in which teams played each other 14 times a season, traveled by train and no one — not even goalies — wore helmets or face shields.
“I’ve been slashed, speared, elbowed, board-checked, butt-ended and hit on the head as much as anyone,” Lindsay said in a 1976 interview. “I just like to keep the ledger balanced.”
One game that encapsulated Lindsay’s nerve, ability and flamboyance took place in Toronto on March 24, 1956, during a tough playoff series against the Maple Leafs.
The Wings led, 2-0, after two games in Detroit. Leafs’ fans seethed after Toronto’s Tod Sloan was injured during a run-in with Howe. As the series shifted to Maple Leaf Gardens, an unidentified man called Toronto newspapers and said, “Don’t worry about Howe and Lindsay tonight. I’m going to shoot them if they play.”
Authorities took no chances. The Gardens was crawling with police that night, and the threat was big news, intensifying the tension that surrounded the series. Howe and Lindsay suited up, and Lindsay got revenge by scoring the tying goal late in the third period and then notching the winner in overtime, when he took a pass from behind the net from Bob Goldham and shot it past goalie Harry Lumley.
After the final buzzer, Lindsay taunted Toronto fans by putting his stick blade under his shoulder and holding the shaft as if it were a long gun. Skating around the ice, he mimicked a machine gun, yelling, “rat-tat-tat-tat.”
“We figured it was a crank call and didn’t take it seriously,” Lindsay said at the time. Added Howe: “We were lucky nobody threw a firecracker or Ted and I would have dug a fox hole in the ice.”
'Aggressive hockey is back in town'
Robert Blake Theodore Lindsay was born in Renfrew, Ontario, near Ottawa, July 29, 1925. The youngest of nine children, Lindsay moved with his family during the Depression to Kirkland Lake, Ontario, a small gold-mining town 600 miles north of Detroit that produced several NHL players, including Mickey Redmond, the Red Wings broadcaster. As a child, Lindsay listened to Wings’ games via the powerful signal of Detroit’s WJR-AM that reached northern Ontario on cold, clear nights.
Lindsay’s father, Bert, was a goalie for the Montreal Wanderers and Toronto Arenas in the early years of the NHL. Ted was the first player in the NHL who was the son of a former player.
By 1944, the 19-year-old Lindsay was a star for Toronto St. Michael’s in Ontario junior hockey, and in those pre-draft days, NHL clubs signed players directly from Canadian junior teams. But the Maple Leafs managed to overlook Lindsay, despite his playing in their backyard. Adams, the Red Wings’ coach and general manager, swooped in and asked Lindsay to sign a Detroit contract. Even as a teenager, Lindsay was bold, demanding he play four-fifths of the Wings games and not be sent to the minors. Adams put it in writing, and gave him a $2,000 bonus.
Conn Smythe, the Leafs’ principal owner, fumed for years over Lindsay’s signing with Detroit. To rub it in, Lindsay would point to Smythe’s seat, smirking, whenever he scored or tangled with a Maple Leafs player.
Lindsay’s first retirement lasted fours seasons. In 1964, Abel, then the Wings coach and general manager and always a big-brother figure to Lindsay, suggested he consider making a comeback with the Wings. Lindsay came to camp and made the team.
“It’s the blackest day in hockey,” said Campbell, the NHL president, “when a 39-year-old man thinks he can make a comeback in the world’s fastest sport.”
Lindsay played in all but one game that season, scoring 14 goals and 14 assists, and was instrumental in the Wings’ finish atop the NHL for the first time since he was traded to Chicago eight years earlier.
In the final game of his career, Lindsay scored a goal and received a 10-minute misconduct for yelling at referee Art Skov.
In the mid-1970s, a decade into Lindsay’s retirement, the once-mighty Wings found themselves in disarray. The Norris family had owned the franchise since 1932, but the family business was careening toward financial collapse and a sense of entropy permeated the hockey organization. The Wings had qualified for the playoffs only twice in 17 seasons and burned through eight coaches — many of them former Detroit players — in as many years. Jimmy Skinner, a former coach who hung on as an assistant general manager, said later he often sought advice from the portrait of Adams, who died in 1968.
Pressure grew from fans and Detroit sportswriters to hire Lindsay. Finally, late in the 1976-77 season — when the team had won only three of its previous 40 games — Norris relented and made Lindsay the general manager. In his first news conference, Lindsay slammed Norris, the front office, the players and the scouts, but he begged the fans to stick with the Wings.
“Don’t give up on us,” he said. “I don’t expect to instill in these modern-day athletes the pride we had in our great days here — we were a different animal — but somewhere along the line, I’d like to instill it a little.”
Hockey fever — along with cascades of octopus and other sea creatures — returned to Detroit in 1977-78 as the Wings made the playoffs for the first time in nine years and won a playoff series for the first time in 12 years. Lindsay was named executive of the year.
The next season, though, the Wings reverted to pre-Lindsay form, finishing third worst in the NHL.
As criticism mounted, Lindsay was demoted to coach at the end of the 1979-80 season, and stripped of his general manager duties after he had put an excessive number of players under contract and blundered by signing goalie Rogie Vachon from the Los Angeles Kings without settling on compensation. That led to the Wings temporarily losing star center Dale McCourt, which resulted in a complex and time-consuming legal battle and a poisoned atmosphere in the Detroit locker room.
In November 1980, when the Wings had won only three of their first 20 games, Norris fired Lindsay.
Learning how to treat others
In “Seven,” a tribute book published in Lindsay’s honor by the Red Wings in 2008, Lindsay discussed people who had helped him in his career, both as a player and a person. He brought up Larry Aurie, a Red Wing from 1927 to 1938 who was small, like Lindsay.
“He showed me a lot of things about hockey,” Lindsay recalled. “He showed me how a little guy could survive. He showed me how a little guy could go out there and make little guys out of big guys.
“But the most important thing he taught me was how to treat others. I’ve tried to live that way. You see, the people in my sport are very gifted. I was one of the gifted. I had a chance to make a living at the thing I love, and I have always appreciated that and I have always wanted to give something back.”
Bill McGraw worked as a reporter, sportswriter, editor and columnist for the Free Press for 32 years. He covered the Red Wings from 1979 to 1983.