During his 38-year career with the Detroit Red Wings, Lefty Wilson did all the regular jobs hockey trainers do: stitched the cuts, wrangled the sticks, sharpened the skates. That’s him honing here, in 1959, at Maple Leaf Gardens, working the edges of 17 pairs for 17 Red Wings hitting the ice that night. “I do it before every game we play,” he said then; 45 minutes or so and he’d be all done.
Beyond taking care of everyday hockey chores, Wilson was also known for expanding his job description to include manufacturing masks and abusing referees. And he occasionally stepped in to tend NHL nets on an emergency basis — three times, in fact, wearing the sweaters of three different teams.
Wilson was born in Toronto, under the name Ross, but he was already Lefty by the time he took a job in 1945 as trainer and spare goaltender with the Omaha Knights of the old USHL. Gordie Howe was stopping in Omaha that year, on his way to the NHL, where he’d debut with Detroit the following season. Wilson served a stint with the USHL’s Indianapolis Capitals before following Howe to the Red Wings. He was an assistant trainer at first before eventually succeeding Carl Mattson as the main man. He was still on the job at 62 when, in 1982, a new Detroit GM dismissed him. Jimmy Devellano told him the team was looking for someone with more experience. “A medical-type person,” is what Devellano said he was after. “The Red Wings have not kept pace with the times in the dressing room.”
Wilson’s debut as a big-league goaltender came in Montreal in October of 1953 when he was 33. With Canadiens leading 4-1 in he third period, Red Wings’ starter Terry Sawchuk was cut on the kneecap in an unfortunate encounter with Rocket Richard’s skate. Wilson suited up for the game’s final 16 minutes, permitting no further Montreal goals.
In 1956, Detroit was home to Toronto when Leafs’ goaltender Harry Lumley twisted a knee. Wilson played 13 minutes this time, blanking the team that employed him, who won anyway, also by a score of 4-1.
Wilson’s final turn as an NHL goaltender came in 1957 in Boston when the Bruins’ Don Simmons went down mid-game with a dislocated shoulder. Bruins’ trainer Hammy Moore had played some goal, but it was nine years since he hadn’t had the pads on, so in went Wilson. This was his longest stint in the nets (he played 52 minutes) and, for the first time, he gave up a goal (Jack McIntyre was the scorer).
Wilson’s style reminded Boston broadcaster Fred Cusick of erstwhile Bruins’ goaltender Sugar Jim Henry: “the way he flopped around.” The game ended 2-2. The Bruins were grateful; GM Walter Brown gave him $150 and a wristwatch for his efforts.
Refereeing that night was Red Storey, with whom Wilson had a bit of a history. Back in 1954, during a game at Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto president and all-round roustabout Conn Smythe accused Wilson of insulting Storey from the Red Wing bench. “Storey, you’re yellow,” is what he said he heard, and the NHL’s referee-in-chief, Carl Voss, agreed that he’d heard it too.
“We’re not putting up with exhibitions of that nature,” Smythe fumed. “It calls for a $1,000 fine and I’m going to demand that he gets it.” Smythe also wanted Detroit’s Ted Lindsay sanctioned, for shoving Storey — “at least $50” would do for that, he said.
NHL President Clarence Campbell said he’d investigate and duly did, finding that Wilson had used Storey’s name in a disparaging manner nine times during the game. While Campbell didn’t agree to Smythe’s demand for a fine, Wilson was sort of suspended — “for conduct prejudicial to hockey.” This was the third time, apparently, that he’d reprimanded for yelling at referees, and Campbell said he had to stay away from the Wings’ bench during games for three weeks. (Lindsay went unpunished.)
It was in 1959 that Wilson started making masks, right around the time that Montreal’s Jacques Plante famously donned his face-saver for the first time in an NHL game. He felt that his were stronger than the ones that Plante was making. Wilson’s were cheaper, too: in 1960, when Plante charging $300 for his, Wilson sold his for $25. Most of his clients were Red Wings’ goaltenders, including Sawchuk and Roger Crozier.