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'He never backed down from anybody': Ted Lindsay's everlasting legacy on the game

A leader and trailblazer on and off the ice, ‘Terrible’ Ted and his never-back-down attitude had an impact on the game of hockey that will last forever.

As a player, Red Kelly was everything Ted Lindsay was not. The former was big and graceful, never recording more than 39 penalty minutes in any season of his NHL career and winning the Lady Byng Trophy as the league’s most gentlemanly player four times. His elegance and tact got him elected into the Canadian parliament while he was still playing. The latter was a 5-foot-8 whirling dervish who literally punched way above his weight, used his stick as a scythe, earned a complexion that looked like a road map and thumbed his nose at the establishment at every turn.

But from the time Kelly first met Lindsay, exactly 75 years ago when a 16-year-old Kelly was playing for the midget team and an 18-year-old Lindsay was skating for the Jr. A team at St. Michael’s College in Toronto, Lindsay has had Kelly’s undying admiration and respect. The two players went on to win four Stanley Cups together with the Detroit Red Wings, Kelly followed Lindsay into the Hockey Hall of Fame and, in February, Kelly’s No. 4 found its rightful place in the rafters of Little Caesars Arena in Detroit alongside Lindsay’s No. 7.

When Lindsay died peacefully at his Michigan home in early March at the age of 93 – likely the first thing ‘Terrible Ted’ ever did peacefully – that left Kelly as the oldest surviving member of the Red Wings’ 1950s Stanley Cup dynasty team. Kelly recalled Lindsay the same way everyone else did, a consummate leader of men, a fierce competitor and remarkably decent human being off the ice. “He had the Red Wings logo stamped right on his behind,” said Kelly. “And he never backed down from anybody.”

That included anyone on or off the ice. His battles with Bill Ezinicki, who had two inches and 10 pounds on Lindsay, were the stuff of legends. During the 1956 playoffs, Lindsay and linemate Gordie Howe were the subject of veiled death threats from an anonymous Toronto Maple Leafs fan who vowed he would shoot one of them during Game 3 of their playoff series. After scoring the tying goal late in the game and the winner in overtime to give the Red Wings a commanding 3-0 series lead, Lindsay inverted his stick, cocked it like a rifle and skated around the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens making shooting noises. “The person off the ice was completely different than what he was on the ice,” Kelly said. “He could call down a referee in no uncertain terms, but yet off the ice you never heard any of those words.”

But it was off the ice where Lindsay waged his most important battle, one that would make him both a pariah in the Red Wings organization and in the dressing room and also one of the most important figures in the history of the game. Lindsay always professed a very public and very intense hatred for his opponents, but he rallied those same opponents he so despised in his attempts to form a players’ association in 1957. Lindsay had little to gain personally and a lot to lose from organizing his brethren. He had already proven himself to be an acute businessman in the plastics industry, and his legacy was secure with the four Cups in Detroit, but he could not stand by and see players so poorly paid and treated inequitably while NHL team owners made gobs of money.

His attempts to organize failed, in part because he couldn’t get the best player in the league, Howe, and the rest of his teammates on board. Lindsay lost the Red Wings’ captaincy and was dispatched to the lowly Chicago Black Hawks, which led to the demise of the Red Wings and Lindsay’s career. “The thing was that he was so involved with the other teams that the Red Wings were kind of left on the outside,” Kelly said. “When they had a vote in Toronto to decide to go on strike, he came to Detroit afterwards and we said we weren’t going on strike. We supported what they were standing for, but we didn’t believe in going on strike. I think he thought Gordie was aware of what was going on, but he was too involved telling the other guys. It kind of floundered a little because of that.”

It would be another 10 years before the NHLPA was formed and another two decades after that before the players started to really become rich. Now if a player has even a five-year NHL career, he can earn enough money to set himself up quite nicely for life. And every player who earns a seven- or eight-figure salary to play the game has Lindsay to thank for that.

Lindsay’s career was one of firsts. He was the first player in NHL history whose father also played in the league. He was the first player in league history to record 800 points and 1,800 penalty minutes, something only 12 other players have done since. He was the first player to take the Stanley Cup and parade it around the ice after winning it, a ritual that has become a time-honored tradition. He was a trailblazer in every sense of the word.

When the Washington Capitals had their name added to the Stanley Cup after winning it last spring, it necessitated that a ring of the Cup be removed to accommodate the Capitals and future winners. Among the names of players removed was Lindsay, but even though he will no longer be on the Cup that is publicly displayed and awarded, Lindsay’s mark on the game will always be an indelible one. “We’re going to miss him,” Kelly said.

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