Before Game 3 of the 1956 NHL semifinals between Detroit and Toronto, an unhinged Maple Leafs fan phoned the hotel the Red Wings were staying at to inform whoever would listen that if Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe took the ice, they’d be shot on sight.
Undeterred by the threat, each man laced them up. Howe scored a crucial second-period goal to get the Red Wings back in the game, and Lindsay scored to tie things up late in the third and then scored the winner in overtime. A tamer player—maybe a wiser player—would have skated off the ice and walked down the tunnel toward the locker room, content with his performance in a crucial playoff game.
But Ted Lindsay instead inverted his stick and held it to his shoulder like a rifle, and then pointed it at the Toronto fans booing his exploits from the balcony of Maple Leaf Gardens. Don’t point your gun at me unless you’re prepared for a gunfight. It’s one of the very great “fuck yous” in NHL history.
Ted Lindsay died Monday at his home in Oakland Township, Mich. He was 93.
Lindsay wasn’t a big man—he stood five feet, eight inches tall, and weighed in at 163 pounds—but he played like one. At the time of his retirement in 1965, he was the NHL’s all-time leader in penalty minutes. (One highlight at the :58 mark of this NHL Network segment shows Lindsay steamroll a member of the Montreal Canadiens with an open ice hit, and then swing his stick at the man as he falls to the ice.) Howe—a notoriously chippy player in his own right—once called Lindsay his protector. By his own account, Lindsay had more than 700 stitches in his face by the time his career came to an end. His was the definition of a hockey face, and he got that face sacrificing his body for the Red Wings.
None of that labor or that loyalty mattered to Jack Adams, who was the Red Wings’ general manager at the time. Toward the end of his career, after Lindsay had the audacity to suggest players deserved better benefits and pay for their efforts on the ice, Adams shipped his top scorer and captain off to a miserable Blackhawks team.
Lindsay helped lead the Red Wings to four Stanley Cup championships; he scored 700 points in 793 games (an incredible scoring rate for that era of the NHL); he captained the Red Wings, despite playing alongside Howe, who some still consider to be the best hockey player to ever live. He was a living legend in Hockey Town. But none of that mattered to Adams. All that mattered was that Lindsay’s agitation threatened the Red Wings’ coffers.
Lindsay had three decent seasons in Chicago, retired, unretired, and came back to play a final season with the Red Wings at the age of 39. When he retired for the second time in 1965, the National Hockey League Players Association still hadn’t been formed. (It wouldn’t officially come together until 1967.) But it was the early efforts of Lindsay and Montreal Canadiens defenseman Doug Harvey in 1957 toward organizing that inspired future generations of players to pick up the cause. That legacy cannot be overstated.
Lindsay’s activism began after attending a meeting about pension plans for NHL players, where he discovered that the details of the plans were being hidden from players. After speaking with athletes from other professional sports who had already gone through similar labor fights—most notably Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller—Lindsay decided it was time NHL players organize. Lindsay and Harvey weren’t asking for much—they thought players should have basic protections like meal allowances, no-trade clauses after six years of service to a team, pay for and restrictions on exhibitions games, a guaranteed minimum wage, and the ability to engage in contract arbitration.
Eventually, Lindsay and others initiated an antitrust suit against the league. Ownership and management across the league—especially Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe, who referred to players who wanted to organize as “communists”—were resistant to the players’ cause, but eventually settled out of court in February 1958. Players got some of what they were asking for, including a guaranteed minimum wage, increased pension benefits, and increased healthcare benefits. It wasn’t perfect, but the agitation of Lindsay, Harvey, and others forced the league to make concessions. A union was formally organized in 1967.
When Lindsay played, players were at the mercy of a reserve clause that dictated they couldn’t ink a contract with any team but the one they were drafted by, even after their previous contract had expired. The reserve clause wouldn’t disappear until 1972 when an appellate court in Philadelphia decided that the NHL’s labor practices were monopolistic, but it was Lindsay’s early advocacy that gave players hope for fairer treatment. Free agency was probably inevitable, but someone had to fire the first shot. Like he did toward those fans in the balcony at Maple Leaf Gardens, Lindsay cocked his stick like a rifle and pointed it at ownership and demanded fairer work conditions. In doing so, he guaranteed a fairer future. In 2010, the NHLPA renamed its MVP award in his honor.
That Lindsay’s nickname was “Terrible Ted” belies the fact that he was anything but. In 1966, he decided to boycott his own Hall of Fame induction because wives, girlfriends, and families weren’t allowed to attend. The NHL changed the rule the next year. It was a less visible change, but it too illustrated Lindsay’s commitment to righteousness.
Lindsay could talk shit; Lindsay was capable of taking a nasty penalty; Lindsay could score goals. Most crucially, Lindsay knew he and his coworkers deserved better treatment from management. For all his achievements on the ice—and they were manifold—Lindsay’s biggest contribution to the game was that he challenged an illegal and unfair system of labor. The fruits of his life’s work did not expire with his retirement, and they will not end with his death.
Terrence Doyle writes about food for Eater, sports for FiveThirtyEight, and sometimes other things for other outlets. He lives in Boston, and he completely understands if you hold that against him.