It’s been half a century since he’s been under NHL contract, but Ted Lindsay still partakes in the training regimen of an athlete preparing for a season-long slog. Three days a week Lindsay hits the weights, sweating through sessions that last as long as three hours apiece. Seven days a week he starts his morning with about an hour’s worth of stretching at his Detroit-area home.
This is a man residing in a body that’s been battered by an 14-year playing career’s worth of cross-checks and spears and punches, all of which Lindsay, who retired as the league’s penalty-minutes leader, returned with a devilish pleasure.
Still, all these decades later, and through a recent heart surgery to replace a calcified aortic valve, he remains a force. Lindsay was once nicknamed Terrible Ted, he figures by a dastardly sports scribe in Toronto, where eons ago he was hated for, among many things, using his stick to punish a fan who dared take a swing at teammate Gordie Howe.
More recently they’ve taken to calling him Durable Ted in Detroit, where he’s always been beloved. He is 89 years old now, and as his heart surgeon told a Detroit-area TV station not long ago: “I think he should go to training camp, and maybe even give it another shot.”
Even if the good doctor was joking, it’s no stretch to say there aren’t many Hockey Hall of Famers, let alone Hall of Famers whose faces were kept in one piece by an estimated 700 stitches, who are holding it together so impressively.
“I believe the body is a machine, a muscle from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head, and if you take care of it, it’ll serve you very well,” Lindsay was saying over the phone the other day. “So far, my philosophy’s been working out pretty good.”
Given the sombre moment in hockey history in which we find ourselves, Lindsay’s is the kind of story that lovers of the game won’t mind hearing — an alumnus of the six-team era who can speak happily about his own good health, albeit while humbly knocking on wood.
“We’re all headed to the same place,” he said.
If it’s too true, lately we’ve been reminded of it too often. Last week the game was mourning Pat Quinn, the Olympic gold-medal coach and Maple Leafs icon who died at age 71. This week it’s been bidding adieu to Jean Beliveau, the great captain of the dynastic Montreal Canadiens, who will be lying in state at the Bell Centre beginning Sunday after dying Tuesday at age 83 — “very much too young,” said Lindsay.
And as Beliveau left this earth, many of those who admired him were hanging on by-the-minute updates regarding the health of Howe. At age 86, Mr. Hockey has been battling dementia and a series of recent strokes that have seen him repeatedly hospitalized.
Said Lindsay, who played against Beliveau and teamed with Howe on four Stanley Cup-winning teams for the Detroit Red Wings: “It’s a sad world for hockey right now.”
We’re always passing the torch. Lives come and go. Everybody’s circle eventually closes. Still, it doesn’t make it any less sad that hockey’s exclusive cadre of living old-timers keeps getting smaller. A few years back, Mark Napier, the president of the NHL’s alumni association, estimated that the number of living members who’d played in the so-called Original Six was under 300. As that number dwindles, we lament a fading era.
Outside of the photographs and the books and the black-and-white footage, after all, these men are our last links to a formative age that laid the foundation for the NHL as we know it. They played in a time before lockouts and concussion lawsuits, before the billionaires put a salary cap on the millionaires. They played in a moment when a sport helped define and unite Canada — this before Canada was a century old.
Dick Duff, the 78-year-old Hall of Famer who played for the Maple Leafs and Canadiens, was thinking back to his youth this week, remembering the enthusiasm for the game he learned from his late father, who worked in the mines near the family’s hometown of Kirkland Lake, Ont. The elder Duff never strapped on skates or owned a hockey stick, but he also rarely missed an opportunity to tune into Foster Hewitt’s Saturday-night broadcasts from Maple Leaf Gardens. For the multitudes of that long-ago period, the national winter sport was more than another in a basket of choices in an on-demand entertainment universe.
“It was our opera,” said Duff. “It didn’t cost you any money to put the radio on. It was the TV. It was the Internet. It was everything. That’s what it was.”
Hockey in the six-team era gave the league the rivalries, real and imagined, on which it still leans, not to mention the iconic sweater designs it still sells en masse. It gave it the legends whose numbers hang in its modern-day rafters. It also inspired the next wave of legends in waiting who fuelled the eventual expansion and re-expansion.
The wide-eyed boys who grew up idolizing Beliveau and Lindsay and Duff are retired now, too. There’s one current NHLer, Vancouver’s Manny Malhotra, who can lay claim to being a teammate of Wayne Gretzky, who along with being widely considered the greatest player in history was also Howe’s most famous admirer. Alas, Gretzky is more than 15 years removed from playing his last game. It’s also been about 15 years since the Maple Leafs played a game in Maple Leaf Gardens, where the spot of earth that was once centre ice of a sporting shrine is now a grocery aisle.
Such is the way of things. Still, when the death and the illness come in waves, it stings.
“We’re getting the revelation almost every day that life does pass you by,” said Duff. “That’s why when you see a guy like Beliveau, who enjoyed what he did and gave back so much, it reminds you when you’re going through it — enjoy it. We can only be 20 once. We can only be 35 once. And remember the people, as you’re going through, that help you.”
Few people helped the cause of NHL players as much as Lindsay, who had a central role in founding the players’ association. His life changed, and mostly not for the better, because of it. Though he’d been a sparkplug in winning that quartet of Stanley Cups for the Red Wings — this while playing left wing on the famed Production Line alongside Howe and Sid Abel — he was traded to Chicago in retaliation for his unionizing ways.
And if it’s sometimes forgotten that he was also marvellous player — when The Hockey News ranked the top 100 in history back around the turn of the century, he came in at No. 21 — he still made his most important impact off the ice. Before he led players to organize, athletes who brought an agent to a contract negotiation were threatened with banishment from the league. Before he led players to organize, he had teammates who supplemented their income at the Ford Motor Company. Because he led players to organize, NHLers now spend income on Ferraris.
Lindsay is not at all convinced that the outcome has been wholly for the best. He has, like many observers, pointed out the downsides of the sporting world’s big-money transformation; how families have been priced out of arenas by the corporate dollar; how the true fans have been supplanted by the suits.
“It’s a shame,” he has said.
It’s a shame. But it’s life. And it wouldn’t be the first thing he didn’t see coming. Howe’s various illnesses were another.
“He was born strong. I thought he would die strong. I never thought this would happen to him, because he was so physically strong,” said Lindsay of Howe, with whom he once shared what he called a “strained” relationship that Lindsay says has since been patched up. “I don’t think about it too much. I just think, ‘We must be getting older.’ ”
A half a century since Lindsay played an NHL game, a fall training camp isn’t in the cards. Terrible Ted, mind you, once engineered one of the most unlikely comebacks in history, returning to the Red Wings lineup after a four-year retirement at age 39 to play 68 games in the 70-game schedule for a first-place team in 1964-65.
While that long-ago period further blurs, Lindsay offered a snippet of insight into his longevity. He gave a nod to his wife Joanne’s Italian-influenced cooking, as well as her insistence of never allowing “garbage food” to cross the family threshold. And in a moment in hockey history marked by illness and sadness and loss, he offered one last rule to live by.
“Keep the legs strong,” he said. “Even though you’re getting weaker, keep the legs strong.”