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Ted Lindsay and the First NHL Players’ Association

Ted Lindsay
Ted Lindsay, courtesy

It started with good intentions in 1955, when the NHL head office selected 2 players and 3 league executives to be part of a 5-member board called The National Hockey League Pension Society. The 2 players were stars, Detroit Red Wings winger Ted  Lindsay and Montreal Canadiens  defenseman Doug Harvey, 2 bitter enemies on the ice.  The 3 others were NHL president and chairman of the board Clarence Campbell, New York Rangers owner John Reed Kilpatrick, and Toronto Maple Leafs lawyer Ian Johnson, owner Conn Smythe’s right-hand man.  Since 1946, each NHL player had been contributing $900 a year into a Manulife pension plan that Clarence Campbell liked to call, “The best plan in sports.”  So, what was to discuss? The meeting would just be a formality. Or would it?

Well-liked by his teammates, Harvey was the best defenseman of his era, a tough competitor who anchored the mighty Habs power play to precision. A superb puck-handler and a smooth skater, he was well known for his pin-point passes to fast-skating teammates like Rocket Richard, Boom Boom Geoffrion, and Dickie Moore. The scrappy “Terrible Ted” Lindsay was, without a doubt, the most hated player in the NHL. Far from a goon, though, he was a top scorer and perennial all-star on left wing. Off ice, he and teammate Marty Pavelich had been running their own business since 1952 supplying plastic components to the Detroit car industry, much to Wings GM Jack Adams’ disgust. Adams--known to the press as “Trader Jack” for all his big player deals and “Jolly Jack” for his apparent good nature that didn’t really exist behind camera--wanted his players dumb, uneducated and totally dependent on hockey. At that time most NHL players did not finish high school and very few had side businesses, and certainly not during the hockey season, as did Lindsay and Pavelich.

From that first pension meeting and the others that followed, Harvey and Lindsay questioned the other 3 members on certain details of the NHL players’ pension plan. But they were ignored on every occasion. Players pensions seemed to be one big secret, with no real paperwork to be found. The players wanted to know much money was in the plan? How was it invested? What was the payout? No one knew, except the owners. And they weren’t telling.  Considering the money contributed, it sounded on the surface as if it would be a decent enough plan, but not when the average NHL player salary was only $5,000. The owners were supposed to contribute $600 a year per player, but, as Lindsay and Harvey discovered later, the money was taken from a 25 cent surcharge on all playoff tickets, as well as two-thirds of the gate from the annual All-Star Game, a game in which the participating players weren’t paid a cent. Basically, the players and the fans were paying for the owners’ part of the contribution, too.

Harvey and Lindsay put aside their on-ice differences and became cohorts wanting answers, getting together several times over beers during the next few months to discuss the business of hockey. For years, they had been told that the owners weren’t making anything, that they were in the game only for the love of it, and that player salaries had to be kept down or else the NHL would not survive. Now, the 2 stars considered a few things. They could see that the rinks around the league were full almost every night. Top dollars were charged to see the action, and more dollars spent at concessions.  They came to the conclusion that each one of the 6 NHL owners was making a ton of money, while the players were making diddly squat. This was only one of the issues. The players had to pay for such things as moving expenses when traded in mid-season, undoubtedly a cost drain for fringe players trying to make the grade. Most players needed summer jobs just to make ends meet…the biggest name in the game, Gordie Howe, was one of them. In addition, players made nothing for the use of their images on such collectibles as hockey cards and  Bee Hive Corn pictures (remember those, I do) . All the money that Topps Chewing Gum, Parkhurst Bubble Gum Company, and St. Lawrence Starch Company forked over for these player  photo rights made a B-line straight to the owners pockets. The Leafs, who paid  their players the least of the six teams, made over $9,000 in 1957 from Parkhurst cards and the Bee Hive pictures alone. 

Things really picked up steam when Lindsay met with baseball pitching great Bob Feller in the summer of 1956 at a sports luncheon. About to finish his last year of pro ball, Feller had been recently elected the founding president  of the new Major League Baseball Players’ Association. Off to the side, Feller and Lindsay discussed the business side of their 2 sports. Feller was horrified at the conditions in the NHL, far worse than he had observed in major league baseball. Lindsay left the meeting with the names of the 2 lawyers who had worked with Feller on signing a deal with the baseball players. They were Norman Lewis and Milton Mound, who had their own partnership in New York City. 

At his own expense, Lindsay flew to the Big Apple. There, Lewis and Mound listened, while Lindsay informed them on life in the NHL, where the players were treated like cattle. As horrified as Feller, the 2 lawyers told Lindsay that with television gaining popularity, even more profits were there for the taking in all professional sports. Baseball players would soon cash in under their own new deal.  The NHL players should get their share, too, and the only way to do that was to organize. Lewis was too busy with the baseball side of their work to take the NHL case on, but Mound snapped it up. He told Lindsay to get together with a senior member from each of the other 5 teams in the NHL, players that could be trusted.  After 2 more trips to New York, Lindsay and Mound worked out the details. (Note: that same off-season, Ted Lindsay was stripped of his Red Wings captaincy, an honor he had held for 4 years. The reason may have been that he complained to the press about the trade that sent his teammate Glen Skov to the Blackhawks. Defenseman Red Kelly was the new captain.)

The All-Star Game in Montreal that fall would be the perfect opportunity for the players to meet.  During the pre-game skate, Lindsay first made contact with Doug Harvey, who, it turned out,  was all for the idea to organize. After  the game Lindsay and Harvey took aside Leafs captain Jimmy Thomson, Bruins Fernie Flaman, Blackhawks Gus Mortson (a good friend of Lindsay from their Kirkland Lake, Ontario hometown), and Rangers Bill Gadsby.   The 6 of them went to a nearby pub to iron matters out. It must have seemed strange to these 6 to meet because fraternizing was frowned on back then.  You were supposed to hate your opponents.  In fact, Lindsay had slugged it out with each of the other 5 players present at least once in his career, Thomson and Harvey even more so. That didn’t matter now. This was business and their hockey futures at stake.

They talked well into the night and settled on several things. First off, they would not call themselves a union, per say. Union was too scary or dirty of a word. An association had a better, more innocent ring to it. And they would collect dues from each player on their respective teams, behind the backs of management. One thing they wouldn’t dare do was let the teams’ trainers—who were nothing more than management snitches—get drift of what they were up to. When the players returned to their clubs, they started the task of asking their teammates for $100 each. In a few months, under great secrecy, they signed every player except for Ted Kennedy of the Leafs. Kennedy didn’t believe in it, but promised not to spill the beans.

Then on February 12, 1957, 4 months after Lindsay and the other players met at the All-Star Game, lawyer Milton Mound and the courageous reps from the 6 NHL teams, held a press conference in New York City, with Lindsay at the microphone. Before a stunned press, “Terrible Ted” announced the formation of the NHL Players’ Association.  He would be president, Doug Harvey the vice president, with Fernie Flaman and Gus Mortson the  second and third vice-presidents,  Jimmy Thomson the secretary and Bill Gadsby the treasurer. “The association will be news to the NHL owners, I believe,” Lindsay began, “but we’ll get along fine with them. We are happy, but we want to make the league so popular that youngsters in both Canada and the United States will want to grow up and play professional hockey.”  Years later, Lindsay didn’t see any problem with what he was trying to get across that day. In an on-camera interview in 2000, he said, “We weren’t looking to run hockey, just get a voice. It was for the betterment of hockey. They (the NHL) thought we weren’t smart enough, that we were just a bunch of dummies.” But 1957 was a different time. One of the first questions asked during the press conference was, “Is this a union?”  All 6 players replied quickly, as one, “We’re not a UNION!”

As a whole, the league and team officials didn’t see it that way. They felt betrayed. They wanted to know how those little sneaks signed up the majority of players from right under their noses?   And Lindsay, of all people, forming it up? Everybody hated Lindsay, a pain in the ass around the league. The Canadiens were the only team to accept it as, perhaps, a change in the times. Recently bought out by Molsons Brewery, the new Habs management had gotten along quite well with the unions that had moved into the Canadian brewery scene just after World War II. Ten years later, here they were, still turning a sizable profit despite organized labor in their plants. So, why couldn’t the Habs make money too alongside a hockey player association?

Leafs GM Hap Day didn’t see the organization as that big of a problem, either.  So, why kill it? For that, he was replaced in the off-season by ex-player  Billy Reay, a company man. The Detroit Red Wings camp, on the other hand, were dead set against Lindsay’s association, which seemed odd because unions had been a big part of the Motor City labor front  for a good 2 decades. None of this was even considered, when, on February 13,  Wings GM Jack Adams met with the assembled Wings players for a little locker room chat, prior to an Olympia Stadium team practice. There “Jolly Jack” had a red-in-the face tissy fit, informing the players in no uncertain terms about their loyalty to the Wings. What did they need a union for? Calming down, he then went from player to player asking, “Are you for this?” No one answered yes or no, only with heads bowed.

When Adams came to Lindsay’s linemate, Gordie Howe, to ask the same question, there seems to be 2 different versions out there. One is Adams asked, “Are you for this?” To which Howe answered, “Um, no. I mean…you’ve been good to me and my family. I don’t know. I just want to play hockey.” The other is Adams said, “I know you’re not for this Gord, big fellah, I don’t even have to ask.” With that, Howe merely looked down at his skates. Whatever  version, Lindsay’s heart sank at Howe’s reaction. If the Big Fellah had only stood up to Adams, the association’s chance of survival would have faced a different outcome. If Howe had spoken out, what would Adams had done to  the biggest star in the game, send him to the minors? Not on your life. The Detroit fans would have rioted outside the Olympia and threaten to burn the place down. Adams then went to winger Marty Pavelich,  Lindsay’s good friend and business partner, and said, “Time will take care of him.”  Meaning Lindsay, of course. Adams  then walked over to Lindsay, the only player who met Adams’ menacing stare without looking down. The two men eyed each other for a few seconds, before Adams repeated, “Time will take care of him,” as he walked away.

Adams left the locker and quickly called several beat writers whom he knew to carry out Part Two of his plan.  Inside his office, Adams called Lindsay out as “a cancer” and “a bad apple,” among other various names. Then Adams did something totally unheard of by showing the writers a phony $25,000 Red Wing contract with Ted Lindsay’s name on it, adding, “Look what he’s getting, and he’s still bitching.” Prior to this, no NHL GM gave out contract details, and certainly not the tight-fisted Adams. In fact, when each player signed a contract, they were told to never tell anybody else what they were making. If the writers had done some research, they may have discovered that Lindsay was making only $13,000 that year. But the press fell for it, anyway, and printed the $25,000 figure as true. Other stories started appearing in the Detroit papers about Lindsay’s $40,000 suburban home and his lavish lifestyle. Once again, the press spoke too soon in print, forgetting that Lindsay did have a full-time business in the car industry.

Leafs captain Jimmy Thomson didn’t fare much better with his owner, Conn Smythe, who called the all-star defenseman “a traitor” and “a quisling” to his face for his part in the association, and his dealing with those “Jewish New York lawyers,” as Thomson put it. For the rest of the year, as punishment, Thomson was sent to the bench for most games, then forced to practice with rookies, and was finally told to stay home for the Leafs last road trip. At the end of the season, he was placed on waivers. No one picked him up.  Then the Leafs traded the talented Thomson in August, 1957 to the lowly Chicago Blackhawks for cash. Or in other words, a song. 

For two decades, Chicago had been the ultimate dumping ground for NHL players who didn’t behave themselves in one way or another, such as wanting more money. Lindsay found himself a Blackhawk too that summer, traded to the Windy City along with goalie Glenn Hall for Forbes Kennedy, Johnny Wilson, Hank Bassen and Bill Preston, the worst Adams trade ever, and one of many goofy deals “Trader Jack” made in the 1950’s. This transaction eventually ruined the Red Wing organization for years to come.  Adams claimed that Lindsay was over the hill, that Gordie Howe had carried him all year, and that Terrible Ted had to make way for the Wings youth movement. The fans weren’t  believing a word of it. At 32, Lindsay was as ornery as ever, and had just come off his best  year with 30 goals and 55 assists, finishing 4 points behind Howe’s lead-leading 89, of which 44 were goals. Adams thought he could pull another fast one by sending Marty Pavelich to the minors. At that time, Pavelich was the best defensive forward in the game and a rock-solid penalty killer. But Pavelich  said nuts to that, and left the game to run the plastic business in Lindsay’s absence. A move he never regretted.

The 1957-58 season began with a 32 percent change in personnel around the league, much of that done out of spite by the 6 GMs to combat the Players’ Association.  Talented rookies were called up such as Frank Mahovlich and Bobby Hull. Lindsay fought on from Chicago, but the Association had lost its punch by early 1958 when nothing became of a lawsuit against the league, claiming it had operated a monopoly since its formation. The owners refused to recognize the union, thus ending the players hopes, but did agree to a number of demands, the most noteworthy a $7,000 minimum salary, player moving expenses and the players’ right to determine whether they (not the team) were ready to play after an injury. In other words, nothing much of value. The first NHL Players Association died then and there. The owners were still in control, their dictatorship still thriving. 

Meanwhile, Montreal sat back and watched the other teams like Detroit weaken themselves by  dumping  the Association ringleaders who had sided with Lindsay. Habs GM Frank Selke had thought of trading Doug Harvey for his off-ice involvement with the organization, but knew he couldn’t send away the league’s best defenseman for fear of fan retribution. By keeping the roster intact, the Canadiens continued on their run of five straight Stanley Cup wins that ended in 1960. It was a run that Detroit could have had themselves if not for the Lindsay trade to Chicago. After the 1960-61 season, the first year they failed to reach the finals since 1950, the Habs traded the 37-year-old Harvey to New York, although he had  just won his sixth  James Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. Then, lo and behold, just to prove how wrong  Selke was, Harvey won his seventh and last Norris Trophy as the new Ranger player-coach. New York also made the playoffs for the first time since 1957-58, with Harvey’s leadership a vital factor.

Lindsay played 3 years in Chicago, then retired to help run the business he had started with Pavelich.  Once a haven for dubious talent, the Blackhawks gradually became a powerhouse by adding Leafs Tod Sloan, one of the Association’s supporters, along with Glenn Hall, Pierre Pilote, and two youngsters Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita jumping  straight from the St. Catharines Teepees juniors to the NHL.  It seemed fitting to many in the hockey world  that Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 1961 by beating the Wings in 6 games. The following year, the Wings finished a distant fifth and out of the playoffs, while the Hawks went to the Stanley Cup final again, only to lose in 6 games to the Leafs.

As for “Jolly Jack” Adams, the Wings organization finally grew tired of his ridiculous trades --there were many more bad ones-- and decided to “retire” him in 1962. He was quickly encouraged to take on the job as founding president of the newly-created Central Hockey League.  With Adams out of the way, Lindsay came out of retirement in 1964 at the age of 39 to play one more season as a Red Wing, the team he had always wanted to finish his NHL career with. NHL president Clarence Campbell and many others thought the idea was crazy, but the determined Lindsay proved them all wrong by scoring 14 goals and helping lead the Wings to a first-place finish, the first time for the team since Lindsay had been traded in 1957. He retired the following spring as the highest scoring left-winger, as well as the most penalized player lifetime. 

He was Terrible Ted Lindsay, but not that terrible really when you consider he was one gutsy man who cared enough for the other players of his day to organize them under difficult and dictatorial circumstances.  Although lawyer Alan Eagleson took the torch in 1967 from Lindsay to start his own much-tougher  and more successful version of the NHL Players Association, the player pension plan wasn’t properly looked into until 1990, when it was revealed that the NHL had a secret pension slush fund of nearly $40 million set aside that rightfully belonged to the players.  Ex-Leaf defenseman Carl Brewer, with the help of lawyers and other ex-players, led a class action suit against the NHL Pension Society, and won 4 years later. As a result, the pensions of many ex-players as far back as Johnny Bower, Gordie Howe, Doug Harvey and Maurice Richard jumped overnight. As a side-note to the lawsuit’s findings, Alan Eagleson was convicted of racketeering, fraud and embezzlement, part of the latter relating to mishandling of player pension funds.

Justice prevailed, finally, over 50 years after crusaders Ted Lindsay and Doug Harvey had just wanted a few answers to their questions. That’s all.  Many players of that era still alive today feel the benefits. And present-day players should also be thankful for 2 tough guys from the 1950s who paved the way for their own huge salaries and great benefits.


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