About five years ago, a friend of mine was working for a hockey card company that was producing a vintage card set. He had appointments in the Detroit area with the late Bill Gadsby, Dino Ciccarelli and Ted Lindsay for each of them to sign some of the cards. The last appointment was with Lindsay late in the day and he was getting a little tired.
“I asked (Lindsay) where he wanted to do the signing and he said, ‘Meet me at my gym,’ ” Ken Whitmell said. “He’s in his late 80s by this time. He was just finishing his workout and he came out with a towel around his neck. He asked how I was doing and I couldn’t really tell him I felt tired.”
Ted Lindsay was one of those iconic hockey figures that everyone thought would just always be there. As the years pass and more of the Original 6 icons leave us, Lindsay was always a constant, always on hand and always looking 20 years younger than his birth certificate indicated and always looking healthy and spry. So when Lindsay died at his Michigan home Sunday at the age of 93, it still came as something of a shock. Lew LePaugh, Lindsay’s son-in-law and president of the Ted Lindsay Foundation, confirmed Lindsay’s death Monday morning.
The foundation said in a news release that Lindsay, “passed away peacefully at his home in Oakland, Mich.” If that’s the case, it’s probably the first thing Lindsay ever did peacefully since he was born in 1925. He played at 5-foot-8 and 163 pounds and you could certainly make the case that, pound-for-pound, there has never been a tougher player to play in the NHL. Lindsay once said he hated every opponent he faced and he actually meant it.
But here’s the interesting thing about Lindsay. The way he stood up for all of those opponents he claimed to hate so much against oppressive NHL ownership actually makes him one of the most important figures in hockey history. There have been better players than Ted Lindsay, though the number of those is probably only in the 20s. As of today, 134 players in league history have scored more career points than Lindsay and Ilya Kovalchuk will make it 135 with five more points. But the next time any player today looks at his pay stub, he will have Lindsay to thank for the fact that he makes a six-(or seven-)figure salary.
Lindsay was the one more than any other player in the league who recognized that owners were making enormous amounts of money on the backs of players who were paid a relative pittance. There’s a reason why the NHL Players’ Association’s award that goes to the most outstanding player as voted by his peers is in Lindsay’s name and it has nothing to do with talent. There were a lot of players who were better, more talented players than Lindsay in NHL history. Lindsay stood up to the league’s owners when he was one of the founding members of the NHLPA in 1957. His initial effort to rally the players failed and it resulted in him being banished to the Chicago Black Hawks as a punishment, which also touched off the demise of the Red Wings dynasty, but the era of players beginning to take more control over their affairs and demanding more of the financial pie had begun.
On the ice, Lindsay could play the game any way you wanted to. If you wanted to play a skill, finesse or speed game, he certainly had the physical tools to be among the best. But he was always at his best when it was down and dirty, as his 1,808 penalty minutes would suggest. If linemate Gordie Howe was known for his elbows, Lindsay was every bit as revered and feared for his work with his stick. Howe was as predictable as the day was long when it came to physical play, but Lindsay threw opponents off in the kind of way Dale Hunter did decades later. Nobody really knew how far Lindsay would go to get a physical edge and nobody wanted to find out.
When the Washington Capitals were added to the Stanley Cup after their victory last spring, a new ring was added to the trophy, which meant the ring with Lindsay’s four inscriptions was being removed from the chalice forever. But like the player he was, Lindsay’s legacy will never, ever let those of us who love and appreciate the game ever forget him.