The greatest “captain” in Red Wings history? Of course, it’s Steve Yzerman. In a runaway. Right?
Nope. Give me Ted Lindsay.
It’s no slight to #19, and it diminishes Yzerman in no way at all, to make the point that quite possibly the greatest leader in Red Wings lore actually wore #7, and led the Red Wings like a take-no-prisoners war hero back in the days when the six-team NHL was an annual series of blood and guts encounters limited to hothouse gatherings in Detroit, Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, Boston and New York.
Ted Lindsay was the captain of the Detroit Red Wings when wearing the red and white meant something tangible and real, something proud and exemplary, in the hockey world. The Red Wings were known as the “New York Yankees” of hockey during those great days of the Original Six not so much because Jack Adams was a great general manager, or the Norris family were terrific owners. More than anything, being a Red Wing in the ’50s meant something because Ted Lindsay MADE it mean something. Because he personally, through the force of will packed into his barely 5-8 and barely 160 pound frame, set a standard for excellence and commitment that drove every member of his … yes, his …. hockey team.
When Lindsay talks of the days when the Red Wings would refuse to speak to their NHL opponents if they encountered them away from the ice or during the off-season, he’s not blowing smoke. When the Red Wings and an opponent took the same train during a home and home series (say the Wings and Montreal played in Detroit on Saturday, and then trained to Quebec for a Sunday night match), Lindsay used to roust his teammates early and have them move through the Canadiens’ sleeper cars as their opponents dozed so as to not encounter them off-ice. It was that much like combat, and the tension — and the nastiness — was real.
Lindsay was no pretty boy. He was “Old Scarface” and “Terrible Ted” and a lot of unprintable names thrown at him by opponents like Montreal’s Rocket Richard. The Red Wings won four Stanley Cups in Lindsay’s prime, and Ted has often claimed the franchise would have added more had Adams not purposefully sliced up team personnel, dispersing them around the League, to (for one result) keep Lindsay from exercising too much leverage and influence in the NHL. More than anyone, Ted WAS the Red Wings back then, and it’s a safe bet that NHL bigshots didn’t want him so-dominating the League’s premier American franchise. And not only was he exhibiting control in Detroit, Lindsay had nearly single-handedly led the effort to move the players out of their absurd slave-master relationship with the owners via the stirrings of the first NHL players union.
Such moves, and such talk, merited Lindsay the ‘reward’ the NHL felt he deserved, but alas Red Wings fans did not. We in Detroit paid a mighty cost for the beginnings of that union. Because of it, the Wings — think of this now, and imagine how it might go down in the present time — in 1957 traded THE First-Team All-Star left wing, Lindsay, then the greatest left winger in NHL history … AND the First-Team All-Star goalie, the young and magnificent Glenn Hall, only 25 years old … to the last-place Chicago Black Hawks for four mostly journeymen players who were qualified to drive the team bus. Out went Lindsay; down went the Wings. Out of town. Even out of the playoffs. That’ll teach him. And us.
But let’s remember Lindsay, that greatest of Red Wings captains, with another image from his prime. That’s the famous photo of him machine-gunning the crowd in Toronto at center ice after a 1956 playoff game he’d won with an overtime goal. A death threat had been levied against Lindsay and Gordie Howe before the game. There was some tension about it, but also some humor — the players sent utility player Marcel Bonin out for the pre-game skate wearing a white sweatshirt with a red “7” drawn on the front and a red “9” on the back. There was an extra police presence at the rink, but when it was all over … there was our #7, the greatest captain in the NHL, standing out there and slowly, turning in a circle, gunning down the … well … the entire city of Toronto.
You think Yzerman was hot stuff? Certainly he was, but he had nothing on the Captain from another time … another era of Red Wings excellence … thanks to the man who made it so … a force of nature named … as any Red Wings-loving child of the ’50s could tell you … Robert Blake Theodore “Ted” Lindsay.