DETROIT – The Detroit area was booming in the 1950s.
The U.S. auto industry was riding incredible prosperity, and Detroiters were the beneficiaries, enjoying the nation’s highest median income and the highest rate of home ownership.
This was the American Dream.
When Detroiters weren’t working on the assembly lines, they were cheering on their favorite sports teams – the Red Wings and the NFL’s Detroit Lions. It was the decade of champions in the Motor City with the Wings and Lions combining for seven league championships during the 50s.
For fans, life couldn’t be better.
But through Ted Lindsay’s eyes, things in the six-team National Hockey League had issues. The Wings’ veteran forward saw injustice and knew that it was time for change. Little did Lindsay know at the time, but his pursuit of solidarity would ultimately alter his career.
“I was probably making $5,500 or $6,500 a year and I saw kids that were being sent to Edmonton or Indianapolis and having to move their families, and they were probably making $3,500 a year,” Lindsay said. “The owners weren’t obligated to pay them one nickel. I used to see this and thought, ‘This is not right.’ The owners met 10 times a year and we never met, because we as players never spoke to each other.”
Lindsay sought the advice of Cleveland Indians star pitcher Bob Feller, who was president of the baseball players’ association from 1956-59. After receiving guidance from the ballplayers, Lindsay turned his attention to his league colleagues, first reaching out to Montreal defenseman Doug Harvey.
“Doug thought that it as a good idea,” Lindsay said. “If you’re going to form a players’ association in a six-team league, if you don’t have the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, you’re not going to get off first base.”
A major hurdle with the players was in the presentation. Attorneys for the ballplayers told Lindsay that he should “unionize”, but he knew that word wouldn’t fly with his peers.
“I told them that I was quite sure that I would sell the word ‘association’, but I’m quite sure that ‘union’ they’re not going to buy it,” he said. “They’re all from small towns, whose parents were never involved in unions.”
At the height of the movement, Lindsay was the Wings’ team captain. In 1957, he had the best single season of his career, leading the league with 55 assists and finishing with a career-high 85-points.
Lindsay knew that what he was doing could bring swift retribution from the owners. He was one of the best players in the league, yet he didn’t fear the consequences of his unionizing actions.
“I wasn’t concerned about that,” Lindsay said. “I could have made a living someplace else. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much as much as I did playing hockey. But I never thought about that at all.”
With the help of some other high-profile players, Lindsay organized the NHL’s first players’ association. And the fallout happened quickly.
Lindsay paid a steep personal price for his efforts. First, he was stripped of the Red Wings captaincy, a leadership role that he held for four seasons. Then, following his incredible ’57-58 season, then-Wings general manager Jack Adams banished Lindsay to the Black Hawks in a six-player trade.
“I wanted the owners to understand that we had a brain,” Lindsay said. “We weren’t trying to run their league. We were trying to have a voice and let them know of some of the short-comings in the treatment of players. That was my rationale to it.”
If given the opportunity to handle his involvement differently, Lindsay, who turns 85 on July 29, said he wouldn’t change a thing.
“It wasn’t right. It was very simple,” he said. “I had my talent and nobody could take that away from me. But you have to be fair in this world. I was one of the people who never worried about stats. I only worried about winning, and I felt that this was my responsibility. The good Lord didn’t tap me on the head and say, ‘Lindsay, this is your job.’ I just felt that it was the proper thing to do. And because I was in that position, it was the most logical thing to do as far as I was concerned. Nobody else was going to do it.”
Last month, the association that Lindsay fought so valiantly to establish, honored him by reintroducing the Lester B. Pearson Award, presented annually to the Most Outstanding Player in the NHL as voted by the players.
The inaugural Ted Lindsay Award will be handed out to the 2009-10 recipient at the NHL Awards Show in Las Vegas on June 23. The finalists are Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Vancouver's Henrik Sedin.
“I’m very comfortable with having my name on it because there was a time in my life when I was one of the best in the world,” said Lindsay, who will be at the award show. “I like it more so because it’s voted on by the players with no propaganda and no public politics. It’s who the players think is the best one that year.”