Standing in the wake of Ted Lindsay’s passing is like bearing witness to an incredible species becoming extinct. You don’t have to be a hockey fan or even a sports fan to appreciate the greatness of this generation of athlete. They were committed, tough, stoic, and they played not for money (there wasn’t much) or glory (which came only if you won), but for the love of the game. And true love it was.
“Terrible Ted,” as he was nicknamed for his tough play and hatred of every single opponent, is one of the last remaining greats from the 1950’s Detroit Red Wings that won four Stanley Cups that decade. I spent some of my growing years around him and others like Gordie Howe and Sid Abel, the famed “Production Line” that led the team to their multiple championships. But all of that was lost on me back then. They played hockey with my father before I was born and by the time I got to know them, they were just my dad’s buddies: Mr. Lindsay, Mr. Howe, and Mr. Abel. Normal guys. Or so I thought. But there was really nothing normal about them, especially when glimpsed through the lens of today’s world and ways. I sound like a grandmother when I wax sentimental about this, but the greatness of this generation of athlete goes beyond championships, to character. It’s a generation that can teach us a lot.
Ted Lindsay and his dying breed of teammates were depression era kids who grew up with real hardship, but that didn’t stop them. Nothing could stop them, not even broken bones, which were often taped and numbed to enable them to play and, thereby, keep their highly coveted spot on a team. On the ice, they were tough and gritty, determined and incredibly hard working. Off the ice, they were humble, with even the likes of Lindsay saying his success came because of non-stop effort that made up for a self-perceived lack of talent. (Not many would agree with him on the lack of talent part). Their sense of team continued off the ice with bowling together on Monday nights (a highly competitive venture, complete with trades), and standing up as best man at one another’s weddings. Many of the friendships that started on the ice as young warriors continued until they were old and worn, when their prime was only a distant memory. Once a teammate, always a teammate.
Ted Lindsay, who stood just 5’8”, is known for standing up to opponents on the ice, but I would argue he was most fearless off the ice. In an era long before agents and an NHL players’ union, Ted Lindsay tried to organize fellow skaters to stand together against the often tyrannical hockey management that kept a tight fist on salaries and threatened a trip to the minor league for those who stepped out of line. That attempt earned “Terrible Ted” a ticket to the Chicago Blackhawks in a vindictive trade that included my father and several other Red Wings. It’s still considered one of the worst trades in NHL history. But it didn’t dampen Lindsay’s love of the game. It was that undying love that brought him back to play for his beloved Wings four years after he had retired.
Off the ice, “Terrible Ted” was anything but what his nickname implied. He proved himself to be a gentleman and a philanthropist, putting his name on a foundation that serves people with autism. That’s the other thing about this generation: They were the helpers. Without hesitation, many of them gave and gave and gave. It’s how some were raised. It’s how others returned what hockey fans had given to them.
Now, at 93 years old, Lindsay has followed his teammates, my dad included, to the great Beyond. I like to think of them all together again, on a heavenly frozen surface, laughing like the red-cheeked boys of winter playing pond hockey, reminiscing and feeling like champions every day. And, with the addition of Ted Lindsay, they will no doubt be a little more aware of hard hits in the corner boards.
Thank you to this generation, hockey players and others, who set an example of what it means to overcome hardships, to follow our dreams, work tirelessly, stand together, and be humble in success. May we never allow their example to die with them.