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Ted Lindsay: one of the names that, for me, meant hockey at its best…

In my family growing up in the 1950s, hockey wasn’t everything, but it sure seemed a lot more important than most other things.

As I’ve noted here at VLM over the past decade, my Dad and my two older brothers were devout, passionate hockey fans who supported the Montreal Canadiens. When I was born in the early 1950s, the most bitter rivalry in hockey was that between the Habs and the Detroit Red Wings— who happened to play their games just across the border from where we lived outside of Windsor, Ontario.

My Dad grew up following the exploits of all the old-time Montreal greats—Morenz, Joliat and many others. By the 1940s and ‘50s, the greats were players like “Rocket” Richard, “Butch” Bouchard, Doug Harvey, “Toe” Blake, Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, “Boom Boom” Geofffrion, Dickie Moore and a cast of other stalwart players. The Habs could beat you with speed, with skill, with power, with toughness and with great goaltending (Bill Durnan and then Jacques Plante).

The Red Wings on the other hand were no slouches, either. As the 1950s beckoned, they had stars like Sid Abel, Gordie Howe, Terry Sawchuk, “Red” Kelly, Marcel Pronovost, Bob Goldham and their own outstanding group of support players. (As I’ve discussed elsewhere here over the years, despite my Dad’s influence and living so close to Detroit, I chose at a very young age to give me hockey heart not to the Canadiens or Red Wings, but to my beloved Maple Leafs…)

For all those memorable names, perhaps the guy who stirred the intense rivalry the most was the player who would become known as the years went on as “Terrible Ted”, Ted Lindsay.

Now, to be clear, I was either not-quite-born or very young when the Wings were amassing their treasure trove of Stanley Cups in the early to mid 1950s. They won four over a five year span, I believe, and they also finished in first place in the NHL’s regular season a staggering seven seasons in a row.

The Wings had taken over from the Maple Leafs as a league powerhouse, after the Leafs had themselves won four Cups in five seasons from the late 1940s to the very early 1950s. 

But again, the most heated rivalry in hockey when I was really young was not, interestingly, Toronto and Montreal, but rather Detroit and the Habs. And it really did have a lot to do with Ted Lindsay.

Even by the standards of the day, Lindsay was not a big guy—maybe 160 pounds, 5 foot 9 possibly? But while I only began to understand who he was once he had been traded to Chicago in the late 1950s (after being involved with the aforementioned Harvey in trying to establish the first NHL Players’ Association), every hockey fan in those days knew Lindsay played much bigger than his listed “size”. He was tough, rugged, whatever word one prefers. 

And he was just mean enough to ensure he got the room he needed to do what he had to do to help make the Red Wings effective.

Lindsay could score, work the corners and create havoc in and around the opposition goaltender’s crease. His stick was his friend, and it was used for more than just scoring goals.

But he would fight his own battles, and take on much bigger guys in doing so. 

He was the epitome of fearless. (He played his junior hockey with St. Mikes' in Toronto; there has to be some reason he didn't end up, sadly, with the Leafs. I guess the great Red Kelly was in the same boat, ending up with Detroit after playing junior hockey in Toronto.)

When Lindsay retired at the end of the 1959-‘60 season, you had the sense he did so with a heavy heart. It’s not that he needed hockey—he was an entrepreneur and a very successful businessman. But he was still a good player. And he loved, I mean really loved playing for the Red Wings and representing the city of Detroit. He had been traded not because he was no longer a great player, but because Detroit’s ownership (as was also the case in markets like Montreal and Toronto) were angry that the players dared to even discuss the idea of “organizing”. So most of the guys involved in that initial effort, including future Hall of Famers Lindsay and Harvey, were traded to the worst team (at the time) in the league, which happened to be Chicago.

I’ve always thought, looking back, that there was a direct connection between Lindsay (and Toronto’s Tod Sloan, also one of the Association pioneers, dealt by the Leafs to Chicago as well) and the development of the emerging young corps Chicago was building with in the late 1950s. Fans from back in those days know all the names—Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Glenn Hall, “Moose” Vasko, Pierre Pilote, Erik Nesterenko, “Red” Hay,  among others.

Lindsay retired the summer before the Hawks went on to win their first Cup in a long while in the spring of 1961. (Sloan was still a key contributor, and then retired after that championship season.) But Lindsay’s impact as a leader and winner was surely felt by a group that. While they did not win another Cup, they were a dominant squad through most of the 1960s and came achingly close to winning the Cup again in 1962, 1965 and later, in 1971 and 1973.

Looking back, I remember that in retirement, Lindsay soon started a once-a-week- television show that aired on CKLW-TV in Windsor. It was shown on Saturday night at 8:30, I believe, before Hockey Night in Canada came on in our part of the world at 9pm in the early ‘60s. It was a perfect lead-in every week to the game. (I’m not sure if the show lasted one season or more, but I really enjoyed it…)

For me as a fervent young hockey fan who followed the league intently in those days and knew about every player in the old 6-team NHL, one of the most fascinating “stories” occurred when I was 11 years old. The event?  Ted Lindsay announced that, at the age of 39, he was returning to the NHL to play again for his beloved Red Wings. By this time his old linemate Sid Abel was the longtime coach of the team and Howe was still one of the top players in the game. 

As a youngster, I had read that Lindsay would sometimes practice with the Red Wings in the early ‘60s (something he continued to do, amazingly, until he was in his late 80s, if I’m not mistaken). But to actually come back after being away from the competitive rigours of the sport for four full seasons—and at the age of 39, considered really old back in those days—seemed to be a bit of a Herculean task.

Yet Lindsay ended up doing just fine that season—he started well, had a great first half, and though he slowed down statistically in terms of scoring goals as the season wore on, he was a major presence in the playoffs for the Wings, though his old Hawk teammates downed Detroit in a grueling, back and forth seven-game series in the spring of 1965. 

(I should add a somewhat related historical note here: another impressive comeback happened that season, as longtime Montreal great Dickie Moore joined the Maple Leafs after missing the 1963-’64 season because of a serious industrial accident. He played sparingly at times but well with the Leafs, and scored in the playoffs against his old club, Montreal, as Toronto lost a 6-game semi-final series to the Canadiens. Moore and Lindsay were bitter rivals dating back to their Detroit-Montreal days—both tough-as-nails players with pride and lots of skill, too. Dickie retired after his one year with the Leafs, only to resurface years later with the expansion Blues under Scotty Bowman. And Moore was very, very good for St. Louise in the playoffs in the spring of ’68 or ’69, I can’t remember for sure, with more than a point a game in something like 15 playoff games on old, battered knees. Those were two guys who “hated” each other in hockey terms but genuinely respected one another. And they were two of the finest gentlemen ever to grace the sport.)

Lindsay retired again after his one-year return, but he left the game on his own terms—as a Red Wing, the way he wanted it, I’m sure.

A little over a decade later, Ted was named the General Manager of the Red Wings, after a period in which the Wings had lost a lot and had strayed from being the kind of team and franchise that made them a once perennial contender.  As I recall the slogan he brought with him was “Aggressive Hockey is Back in Town”.

Detroit did spring back to life for a time, but they couldn’t quite sustain it though Ted lasted a few years in the GM’s chair.  But even after he left that position, he was always a Red Wing at heart—and loved by the fans.

I was too young to fully appreciate the seriousness of the Detroit-Montreal rivalry in the 1950s. But think about it: Howe and Richard, Lindsay and Moore, Kelly and Harvey, Plante and Sawchuk…those were some of the most important names in the history of this sport. And, those were some of the best years in hockey history, at least for someone like me who has a love for for the history of the sport. And I was raised with all those names in my head on an almost daily basis. 

It was wonderful.

A story was told many times back in those days, and it was wonderfully true: teams travelled by train in those good old days. (Sounds good to me—but I wasn’t sitting or trying to sleep on a train for hours after playing a hockey game one night, with a long trip in between to the next city to play again the next night…) It was often the case, when the teams played each other 14 teams a season in the 6-team, 70-game regular season schedule, that the Wings and Habs would play at the Forum in Montreal on a Saturday night, and then in Detroit at the old Olympia Stadium on Sunday night.

Both teams would leave Montreal and catch the 11:30 (or thereabouts) sleeper train for Detroit. They’d arrive early the next morning, maybe 7am, in Windsor before the Wings headed home and the Habs checked in at their hotel.

But during the trip, the Habs would be in one rail car, the Red Wings another. Some guys were so serious about not fraternizing or even acknowledging the hockey enemy, that they would not even walk through the other team’s car to get to where they served the food. Some players would actually wait until there was a stop along the way (Kingston? Belleville? Toronto?) to get off the train, walk by the car housing their opponents, hop into the food car, and walk back to their seats/berths the same way. All to avoid even seeing anyone from the other team.

Those were the days.

And we have to understand that, when you played that many times a season, the rivalries were not something that was media driven.  This wasn’t made up, made for TV ratings rivalries. They were authentic. Guys hated one another. It’s just the way it was.

And Lindsay was the Red Wing’s spiritual leader.

When I heard that Ted died over the weekend, I just wanted to share a few thoughts. Others can write about his career on the ice (and off) much more eloquently than I ever could. But he was too important to me not to say something today.

Though I had the fortune to interview him back in 1978 when he was the GM of the Wings, I mostly remember him from the perspective of an everyday hockey fan for over 60 years now: as someone who was truly a fierce competitor, a great player, leader and teammate and as a thoughtful individual that has done a great deal of good in the world over his 93 years on this earth.

Goodbye Ted—I was raised talking about you from the time I was very young. My Dad made sure I understood how important the Montreal-Detroit rivalry was in those days and what individuals like you meant to hockey. 

Your name will always stand out for me as one of the pioneers and truly great men of the sport.


  1. A nice tribute Michael. I am too young to have witnessed the original six. Still, I have read and heard about Mr Lindsay, the hockey legend and the pioneer of labour relationships. May God bless him.RIP Mr Lindsay.

    1. Thanks very much for posting, Serge. He was a true hockey "warrior", in the best sense. He respected the game and he was so highly regarded throughout his life.

  2. Hi Michael:
    Good post on Ted Lindsay. As usual, your posts bring back nostalgia. The death this past weekend of Harry Howell also brought memories.
    Despite spending my earlier years in Toronto and having the inevitable Bee Hive photos of Leaf players, I was not a Leafs fan. Living in the Hamilton area in my youth, I related probably more to the Red Wings as the Tiger Cubs were their junior A farm club (Murray Oliver, Howie Young, Paul Henderson), who would go on to the Red Wings . This allowed me to see on a regular basis the Leafs of the future on the Marlies and St. Mikes (Keon, Harris, Brewer. etc. as well as players like Hull, Mikita with the St.Catharines Teepees. I was actually a Black Hawks fan – especially liked the Scooter line of Wharram, Mikita and Mohns .
    Unlike the players of today, artificial ice was not readily available and many of us were pond and river hockey players rather than organized hockey players. In my case, I did not play organized hockey until 15. We took a good Ancaster fastball team and formed a lousy hockey team in an excellent juvenile hockey league in Dundas. Players such as Pat Quinn, Wayne Rivers and John Miszuk were opponents and went on to the NHL. A couple of interesting stories.
    • Leo Reise, who played Defense for Red Wings and Rangers was the unfortunate coach to inherit this band of ball players and attempt to make them into a hockey team. He could skate faster backwards than any of us could forward. We were the Mighty Ducks of the time. He only lasted one year, but we did get better in later years.
    • Harry (Rangers) & Ron Howell (Tiger Cats Football) went to the same high school in Hamilton that I attended a few years later. In those days, there was no draft, and NHL teams would sponsor a whole league (e.g. Dundas Police Minor) in order to get the rights to high caliber talent. The Howells, were how I ended up signing a C Form that gave hockey rights to the Rangers. The Rangers never called.
    Moving onto UWO in London, the Detroit Olympia became the go-to arena to actually seeing a real NHL game. It is there that I saw what a tough customer Ted Lindsay was, and marveled at the skill and toughness of Gordie Howe. Players messed with them at their peril. In my opinion, Howe is #2 on the all-time list as he controlled the tempo of the game, as did #1, Bobby Orr. Playing hockey at UWO was interesting, as the school did not have an intercollegiate hockey team. However, the interfaculty teams were very strong. Playing for the Biz School versus Brian Conacher made me realize my limits.
    In later years, I was fortunate to attend many games at Maple Leaf Gardens through my positions in the financial industry. This was in the days of Sittler, McDonald and Salming. Scotiabank was becoming more involved with hockey and were changing name and logo from The Bank of Nova Scotia to the current Scotiabank logo. I was invited to play hockey in Maple Leaf Gardens (every kids dream) in a co-ed game with McLarens Advertising. While many years from my playing days it was a thrill. It was well-organized – Program, national anthem, Flag waving, dinner in Hot Stove Restaurant.
    • Prior to the game, a Leafs trainer entered the dressing room asking whether anyone needed any equipment. Since I had dragged my equipment out of the mothballs, I badly needed gloves with palms in them. Lo and behold, he came back with the gloves #10 which belonged to a former Red Wing, Paul Henderson, the hero of the Canada-Russia Summit meeting. What a momento, but I returned the gloves.
    Living in Georgia, I have watched inept owners and management force the move of both the Flames and the Thrashers. A look at the current standings, suggests there were some mistakes made. After 52 years, it appears that Toronto has a team with real potential.
    Sorry to go on so long but thought this could be useful to you as a historian, and to others who can relate to the history of the NHL.

    1. It's really good of you to take the time to comment, Ralph (RLMcC). We used to correspond much more regularly when I posted more often a few years ago, of course, but it's great to connect again.

      Every name you mentioned brings back memories, Ralph. Those individuals I did not see play myself were names my father would have discussed with me often. I appreciate you sharing fond memories of your Hamilton (and London) sports days. I'm sorry the Rangers never called, but it all worked out very well for you in the end, obviously. And you did get to play at the Gardens!

      All those players- Reise, Quinn, Conacher et al and of course Lindsay, Howe and all the others you saw in person at the old Olympia and at St. Mikes are special and noteworthy in their own way.

      I was sad to read about Harry Howell as well. He was such a fine player and a real gentleman. My one personal interaction with him back in the early 1980s solidified my regard for him.

      And I agree re the Scooter line- they were outstanding!

      Wonderful to connect again. Stay well.