RIP Ted Lindsay: Lessons From the NHL’s Greatest Player Advocate

Ted Lindsay, the NHL superstar whose grievances with the league led to the creation of the NHL Players Association, became just as important to the sport’s growth off the ice as he was on it.

The National Hockey League might have been a different, perhaps less player-friendly, sport if not for the efforts of one of the league’s greatest players.

Ted Lindsay, an iconic forward for the Detroit Red Wings who died this week at the age of 93, used his influence as a major hockey star during the 1950s to help attempt to create a players union for the league, citing concerns around players’ pensions. (He was assisted by Doug Harvey of the Montreal Canadiens.) To underline the point, he filed an antitrust suit against the league—a suit that put him directly at odds with Red Wings Coach and General Manager Jack Adams.

His efforts, which led to the creation of the first iteration of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA), came with a heavy personal cost, leading to his trade to the Chicago Blackhawks at a time when they were one of the league’s worst teams. (It could have been worse: Other players found themselves benched or relegated to lower-level leagues for taking part in talk of forming a union.)

And it’s worth noting that original version of the NHLPA didn’t survive, ultimately being shut down after players came to a legal agreement with the league. Lindsay, a common sight in the penalty box during his career, stuck his neck out and lost the battle.

But in the end, he won the war. The work of “Terrible Ted” became defining. The players’ association was reformed in 1967 and survives to this day, with Lindsay’s passion around the issue proving a template for other players’ advocates in the decades that followed. Nearly a decade ago, his legendary status and reputation led the NHL to name one of its most coveted individual awards being named after him—the award for the best regular-season player, as decided upon by the players. It’s an award that plays to Lindsay’s sense of fairness.

“The beautiful thing … is the players vote for it … and these guys know who the good hockey players are. I’m very honored that they are the ones who decide who wins my trophy,” Lindsay said of his namesake award in 2010, according to the NHLPA website. “There are no politics involved. It tells you the whole story. Whoever wins it is entitled to it.”

Lindsay spent 17 seasons in the NHL, even returning late in his career to play one final season with the Red Wings in 1964–65—and helped lead the team to the Prince of Wales Trophy, which was handed out to regular-season champions at the time. (Lindsay, by the way, also led the team to winning multiple Stanley Cup trophies during his career, and originated the whole hoisting-the-Stanley-Cup-over-the-head-and-skating-around-the-rink tradition that has become common for team captains to do after winning the iconic trophy.)

But even with his success on the rink, the reason why his loss was so deeply felt this week is very much the result of the fact that he showed strong leadership even when the odds were against him. It’s a lesson that leaders in any role, not just team captains, can appreciate.

A statue of Lindsay, shown at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena. The statue followed the Red Wings to their current home, Little Caesars Arena. (Ken Lund/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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