On March 4, one of Canada’s greatest sport icons and premier Hockey Hall of Fame figures, 93-year-old Robert Blake Theodore Lindsay, passed away at his home in suburban Detroit. Suitable acknowledgements poured forth in Canadian and American media outlets.
‘Terrible Ted’s’ passing immediately brought to mind personal reminiscences from the 1960s, personal happenings that demonstrated to me what this great man was really all about.
After 13 starring seasons with the Red Wings to begin his NHL career, Lindsay was dealt in 1957 to the Chicago Blackhawks in what many Detroiters called a “heartbreaking trade.” He played three years in Chicago, retiring after the 1959-60 season.
At age 39, living in Oakland outside of Detroit, he pursued a comeback with the Red Wings for the larger part of the 1964-65 season. Needing ice time to shake the cobwebs from his rusty skillset, Lindsay approached the Cranbrook School for Boys in nearby Bloomfield Hills, an elite boarding school for the scions of many of Michigan history’s business, financial, political, and philanthropic figures of note.
Referred to the schools head hockey coach, one Dave Barney – yes, a relative, in fact, my twin brother – Ted arranged solo ice time at down periods of the school’s outdoor rink. Slowly, painstakingly, he began to return to form.
For live contact, he skated with the varsity Cranes (Cranbrook’s nickname) centering a line which included Coach Barney on his left wing. Beyond the ice time, Ted became the Crane’s assistant coach, helping to administer the bench, even helping the student-manager to pass out towels and oranges.
Ted lived long enough to witness that student-manager’s run for the presidency of the United States in 2012. His name was Mitt Romney, at that time his father was Michigan’s governor.
It was during the Christmas season of 1964 I showed up at Cranbrook to visit brother Dave.
Occupied with my then job as physical education instructor, varsity swimming coach, and PhD student at the University of New Mexico, I had not skated for several years. Pressed to lace up borrowed blades and participate in a Saturday morning Alumni scrimmage, I dutifully appeared on defense, joined by a host of accomplished players, including Lindsay.
I struggled to keep up.
Lindsay, supremely charitable, rationalized my inadequacy to his friend and linemate, my brother: “He’s just a little rusty, isn’t he?”
A second incident followed some months later.
A junior varsity Cranbrook boy – Doug Pizza (nicknamed “Pumpkin”), a Chicagoan whose father, you guessed it, owned and operated a gigantic frozen pizza business in and around the Windy City – became a target of concern due to alarmingly delayed muscle response to neural commands in carrying out physical skills demanding rapid reaction.
A medical examination discovered a dangerously advanced brain tumour. In short order, Doug Pizza was admitted to downtown Detroit’s Fordson Hospital, awaiting an operation.
When Ted Lindsay heard about this crisis, he took action.
Knowing Pumpkin was a devout fan of the Chicago Blackhawks and their star Bobby Hull, he contacted his old Red Wing Production Line teammate, Gordie Howe, to see if it might be possible to approach Hull to pay a visit to young Pizza in his hospital room as the Blackhawks were scheduled to visit Detroit the very next week.
Howe approached Hull; the “Golden Jet” consented to a visit.
At the appointed time, with Ted Lindsay and Dave Barney already present, the door opened and Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull entered, bearing a Blackhawks jersey for young Pizza. Moments later, the door opened again and into the room strode Phil Esposito and Stan Mikita.
There they were, beside the Pumpkin’s bed: Lindsay, Howe, Hull, Esposito, and Mikita, a quintet destined to become some of the Hockey Hall of Fame‘s most celebrated honorees.
Needless to say, the Pumpkin was speechless. It had all been a surprise – a lifting experience for a young man facing dangerous surgery.
Dave Barney’s recounting of this episode, embedded as it was in fond friendship with Ted Lindsay, noted that the most gregarious of the assembly in the room was Phil Esposito, the most reticent, Stan Mikita.
Ted Lindsay proved he could once again play at the NHL level.
At 40 years of age, he played a larger part of the 1964-65 season, scoring 18 goals.
We all remember his hockey greatness, greatness reflected in 379 goals and 472 assists over 1,068 games in 17 NHL seasons, four Stanley Cups, and perhaps his most noteworthy accomplishment, initiating the action that formed a NHL Players’ Union, breaking the long-held grip of franchise owners on their labour chattels.
However, I will remember best his gentle personal nature, his compassion, his ready friendliness, his ability not to embarrass a hockey klutz like I was, leaving me ending up feeling better about myself for the experience of having been in his presence.
I’ll never forget being awestruck witnessing his smallish 5-foot 8-inch, 165-pound frame battling against those generally far bigger than he, asking no quarter, giving none in on-ice confrontations that resulted in 1,808 career penalty minutes.
Lastly, I’ll never forget his smile, embedded on a battle-scarred countenance, embellished with the vestiges of more than 200 career facial stitches.
And, oh yes, Doug ‘Pumpkin’ Pizza, we know, survived the operation. That, we all knew, pleased the one known as ‘Terrible Ted’ on the ice, but was anything but that in greater life.
Robert Knight Barney, LLD’14, has worked at Western University for 40 years, gaining professor rank in 1982 and professor emeritus status in 1996. He is the author of Mustang 100: A Century of Western Athletics.