fray dates: over the boards and into the crowd with ted lindsay

Up + Over: Detroit goaltender Terry Sawchuk follows his captain, Ted Lindsay, into the crowd at Detroit’s Olympia in November of 1954. That’s Glen Skov, number 12, getting ready to follow their lead.

There’s a scene midway through Goalie, the new Terry Sawchuk biopic that opened across Canada this month, and it’s a key one in the story of our beleaguered hero’s unwinding. It’s early in his career in Detroit, and Sawchuk, as rendered by Mark O’Brien, is already starring for the Red Wings, though the cost is already starting to tell. The puck that lies tauntingly behind him in the Detroit net has passed him by with maximum malice, which we know because he’s down on his knees, spitting out his teeth, bleeding his blood.

But that’s only the start of it. In the nearby stands, out of the Olympia hubbub, a needling voice rises: “Sawchuk! Sawchuk!” He’s nothing new, this heckler, just an everyday loudmouth, but Sawchuk has had it, enough. When Marcel Pronovost points him out, Sawchuk charges. Downs stick and gloves, skates headlong for the fence, which he scales quick as a commando.

Oh, boy.

But before the goaltender can clamber his way up to the fourth or fifth row to tear his tormenter apart, the man flees in a panic. Sawchuk’s the taunter, now. “Yeah,” he jeers, “you better run.”

Realizing where he is, he also apologizes to the fans whose midst he’s invaded. “Sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

That’s the movie. The history is that Terry Sawchuk did scale the wire at Detroit’s Olympia, in 1954, in pursuit of a vociferous fan, though it wasn’t really about him, the goaltender was really only acting in a supporting role, backing up teammates.

Credit where credit’s due: it was Red Wings captain Ted Lindsay who led the charge. Lindsay didn’t have to do any climbing, it might be noted: whereas Sawchuk was on the ice and saw fence-climbing as his only option to join the fray, Lindsay was already off the ice, on his way to the dressing room, when he identified his antagonist and went at him.

In the days since his death on March 4 at the age of 93, Lindsay has been praised as a hockey giant, which he was, no question. A dominant force on ice, Lindsay was a tenacious leader who could do it all, and did, mostly on his own terms. His dedication off the ice to the cause of players’ rights has been highlighted, as has the price he paid for not backing down in the face of lies and intimidation of the men who were running the NHL.

Here, for the moment, we’ll focus on a lesserly known episode from his career, a single season among the 17 Lindsay played. I’ll propose that it offers insights into his later battles with the NHL, and more: it also adds context to events that exploded this very March day, 64 years ago, in Montreal.

To do that, we’ll follow Ted Lindsay through the 1954-55 season, which means pursuing him into the crowd for what must (I think) count as his most cantankerous year as an NHLer — it might be one of the most cantankerous season any player played, ever.

Lindsay was in his eleventh season with the Wings, his third as team captain. He’d finished the previous season third-best in league scoring, and was elected to the 1st All-Star. His Wings were on a roll: the defending Stanley Cup champions had won three Cups in five years.

The NHL’s 38th season is and forever will be charred at the edges by Montreal’s season-ending Richard Riot. It’s with no intent to diminish the importance or damages inflicted by those ructions, nor with any disrespect to Richard, that I’m going to posit here that, when it comes to instigating uproar, Ted Lindsay’s ’54-55 is a remarkable one in its own (if mostly forgotten) right.

Also: imagine, if you would, a circumstance by which, in today’s NHL, one of the league’s marquee players, captaining the defending Stanley Cup champions, finds himself implicated in altercations with spectators, not once or twice, but on four separate occasions. It would be the story of the season — though not in ’54-55. Is it possible that this player would still be around to be to contribute to his team’s winning a second successive Cup? It is, and was — in ’54-55.

A bit of background is in order here. Early in November, 14 games into the season’s schedule, Detroit traded centre Metro Prystai to Chicago in exchange for a mostly untested right winger named Lorne Davis. A valuable cog in the Red Wings machine that won Stanley Cups in 1952 and again in ’54, Prystai was also a good friend and roommate of Lindsay’s and Gordie Howe’s at Ma Shaw’s rooming house. With Howe out with an injured shoulder, Prystai had moved in to take his place on Detroit’s top line, alongside Lindsay and Dutch Reibel.

For the defending champions, this wasn’t so much a hockey trade as a league-mandated equalization pay-out. Detroit didn’t pull the trigger so much as the NHL decided that the swap would help out Chicago, of the league’s perennially worst teams.

Conn Smythe, Toronto’s owner and martinet-in-chief, seems to have engineered the whole affair, chairing a meeting of league moguls in New York for the purpose of improving have-not teams like Chicago and Boston. “A unique professional sports move toward sharpening competitive balance,” is how Al Nickleson described it in The Globe and Mail; The Detroit Free Press dubbed it a hockey “Marshall Plan.”

Call it collusion, set it aside as an exhibit for some future (never-to-be-launched) anti-trust ligation — to the men in charge of NHL hockey, it was merely good business. Four players were involved upfront: Chicago got Prystai and Montreal’s Paul Masnick, while Boston landed Leo Boivin from Toronto. The Leafs got Joe Klukay; Detroit landed Davis; Montreal’s piece of the pie was to be named later.

“We’re trying to apply logical business sense here,” Smythe pleaded in the days before the redistribution went through. He only had the customer in mind, he would continue to insist. “What we want to do is present hockey at its highest calibre in every rink in the NHL.”

But Detroit was seething. “Is big-time hockey a legitimate sport or just a family syndicate?” Marshall Dann wondered in the local Free Press. Marguerite and Bruce Norris co-owned the Red Wings while another brother, James Norris, ran the Black Hawks. The word was that Red Wings’ GM Jack Adams didn’t know about the Prystai deal until it was already done, telling Prystai, “I’m sorry, they ganged up on us.” Adams accused Smythe of trying to break Detroit’s morale. No more would he serve on NHL committees, he said, and he vowed that he’d be boycotting Red Wings’ road trips to Toronto forthwith, as well.

The Wings had a home game the week of the Prystai trade, on the Thursday, against Smythe’s Leafs. Before the Wings hit the ice, Lindsay demanded that the Norrises, Marguerite and Bruce, meet with the players and explain to them why Prystai had been shipped out. In his 2016 memoir, Red Kelly says it was just Bruce who showed up, and that the players weren’t impressed by his explanation. They talked about sitting out the game to make clear their unhappiness. “We weren’t going to go on the ice that night, no way. The people were in the stands, but we didn’t care.”

Somehow, someone convinced them to play. They did so, let’s say, in a mood.

Ted Lindsay’s didn’t improve as the evening went on. In the second period, he unleashed on Leafs’ defenceman Jim Thomson, punching him in the face as they tangled near the Toronto bench. “They both went at it,” the Globe’s Al Nickleson wrote, “with no damage done.”

As order, or something like it, was being restored, Leaf coach King Clancy chimed in. “That’s the first time I ever saw you drop your stick in a fight, Lindsay,” is how Nickleson heard it. What he saw, next, was Lindsay throwing a glove at the coach. “The glove — it belong to Thomson — brushed Clancy and was lost in the crowd behind the bench.” Lindsay threw a punch at Clancy, too, but missed his mark.

Toronto won the game. Sid Smith scored the only goal and Leaf goaltender Harry Lumley, a former Wing celebrating his 28thbirthday, contributed a shutout. That can’t have lightened Lindsay’s temper, and when a fan spoke up as the Wings were headed off the ice, the Detroit captain decided to climb the wire and chase him down.

It’s from the scene that followed that director Adriana Maggs’ Goalie drew when she had her Terry Sawchuk climb into the crowd. Here’s Nickleson on Lindsay’s non-movie incursion:

He may have landed a blow or two — certainly he was swinging — although the action was partially hidden by fans, and by other Detroit players clambering over the high screening. Even Sawchuk, goal pads and all, made it with the help of a boost from a teammate.

Bernard Czeponis was the heckler. A blow of Lindsay’s that did land blackened his eye. He was only too happy to describe what happened to Marshall Dann from the Free Press. “I only asked Glen Skov if he wanted my crying towel,” Czeponis said. “He used foul language. Then Lindsay, instead of stopping it as a club captain should, came after me and hit me.”

Consider that for a minute while you study the photographs included here of Red Wings on the hunt. Frame in your mind what might happen in today’s NHL in the aftermath of such a scene. When in 2010 the late Rick Rypien grabbed at a fan in Minnesota who’d yelled at him as he was departing the ice, the Vancouver forward was suspended for six games, and his team was fined $25,000. NHL Commissioner called the fan to apologize and offer reparations in the way of dinner and tickets.

In 1954, an unnamed Red Wings spokesman had this to offer: “The fan used improper language to the players and they remonstrated with him.”

Jack Adams gave himself a bit of latitude. “I didn’t see the incident,” he said, “and don’t know what I’ll do about it.” (Update: he seems to have done nothing.)

NHL President Clarence Campbell’s position was that if the game was over and Lindsay was off the ice when he went marauding, “then the situation would only concern the league office in general terms.”

Czeponis said he wasn’t interested in pursuing legal remedies — all he wanted was an apology. I don’t know whether he got it — his name vanished from the news as quickly as Rypien’s case didn’t.

So Lindsay played on. Two days later, Detroit travelled to Toronto for a rematch. The result was the same, 1-0 for the Leafs, and again Ted Lindsay’s ire spilled from ice. Al Nickleson of the Globe faithfully recorded the details:

…with 30 seconds of the game remaining, he swung his stick, one-handed, over the boards and rapped rail-viewer Staff Smythe, son of you-know-who, on the shoulder.

Lindsay had high-sticked and cut Toronto’s Eric Nesterenko and Smythe, who was GM for Toronto’s Junior A Marlboros, had “yelled anathema against Lindsay and suggested loudly that a penalty would be in order.” Referee Frank Udvari didn’t agree. Linesmen restrained Lindsay and the game continued, but only after Conn Smythe had consulted with NHL Referee-in-chief Carl Voss, who was on hand. “It’s a matter for the league,” Smythe Sr. said afterwards.

If the NHL levied a fine on Lindsay, or administered any kind of rebuke, nothing made the news. He and his temper played on.

In December, in a game against Chicago, Lindsay’s disagreement with referee Jack Mehlenbacher’s decision to penalize him for tripping Bill Mosienko took the form of the stick he broke banging it on the ice, accented with insults. When Mehlenbacher added a misconduct to his sentence, Lindsay elaborated on the invective, which earned him a game misconduct. Fines for that outburst cost him $75.

A rumour adrift around this time was that Lindsay’s discontent had Jack Adams looking to trade him. That, of course, did eventually come true, though not for another three years, Lindsay followed Prystai to Chicago as punishment for his efforts in trying to launch a players’ association.

Next, in December of ’54, Lindsay hurt himself: chipped his shoulder trying to split the New York defence, from what I’ve read — or split his shoulder chipping the Rangers? Other reports refer to a “cracked collarbone:” take your pick. Come January, when Detroit was jockeying in the standings just back of league-leading Montreal, Lindsay slipped (on wild, non-rink) ice while getting out of his car, aggravating his injury, keeping him off the (artificial, hockey) ice another week.

At the end of January, six games after his return to the line-up, Lindsay and the Red Wings were back in Toronto for a Saturday-night game at Maple Leaf Gardens. Some of the cast had changed, but the script remained more or less the same. One more time, Lindsay saw the need to take his fight to the fans.

The second period was ticking down when Gordie Howe got to jostling with Eric Nesterenko by the sideboards. That’s how it started. Over to Al Nickleson for an account of the subsequent havoc:

A spectator, Spike Tenney, grabbed Howe’s stick. He said later he did it to protect his son, sitting beside him, from possible injury.

Howe tore his stick loose and, as he skated away, Tenney allegedly threw a wild punch that fractured only the air. Then, terrible-tempered Ted enhanced his reputation as a super-villain in our town.

He raced across the ice, stick held high, and attacked Tenney by flailing at him with a gloved fist. Tenney struck back. Several blows were thrown. Tenney claimed he was struck, around the eye. Although blow-by-blow reports from the scene were somewhat confusing, observers claimed Tenney connected once to Tenney’s face.

A law laddie restrained the spectator. A linesman grabbed Lindsay. Referee Red Storey imposed no penalty. Tenney retained his seat. Referee-in-chief Carl Voss was, again, on hand, and was seen making copious notes and talking with Tenney.

The situation, this time, concerned the league office in specific terms, apparently. Attending a parley in Montreal that Clarence Campbell called were referee Red Storey and linesmen George Hayes and Bill Morrison; their boss, Carl Voss; Lindsay and Howe; Adams and Detroit coach Jimmy Skinner; and the team’s PR man, Fred Huber, Jr.

Hearing whatever it was he heard, Campbell subsequently announced that for this third instance of spectator-outreach in three months, Lindsay would be suspended for ten days, during which he’d miss four games. “I am satisfied,” he said, “that a financial penalty would not be a deterrent to similar conduct in the future.”

The Red Wings declared themselves shocked. Bruce Norris promised to appeal the sentence. They were quick to toss up a Maurice-Richard-shaped what-about: when at the end of December the Montreal star slapped linesman Hayes, Campbell had only imposed a fine. “Actually,” a Detroit spokesman noted, “Campbell praised Richard for his fiery competitive spirit as an aftermath of that brawl with the linesman.” Jack Adams saw it as another attempt to harass the Stanley Cup champions, throw them off their game.

The NHL’s board of governors gathered in New York to consider Detroit’s appeal. Conn Smythe interrupted a Florida vacation to attend; also on hand were Norrises Bruce and Marguerite from Detroit, and Jim, representing Chicago; Boston’s Walter Brown; Frank Selke from Montreal; New York’s General John Reed Kilpatrick.

There was speculation that if the assembled panjandrums ruled to rescind the suspension, their president would resign. Asked about this after the decision was upheld, Campbell didn’t deny that he’d been planning an exit.

“I don’t like to deal with hypothetical cases,” he said. “I’m not a job seeker. The job sought me. It’s gratifying that I received 100 per cent vindication.”

None of this (usually) rates a mention when the talk turns to the events of March of 1955, as it tends to do when the anniversary comes around. It’s 64 ago today, St. Patrick’s Day, that Montreal boiled up and over, burned and was broken, in what’s remembered as the Richard Riot.

It was the final week of the NHL’s regular season and, as they had been all season, Detroit and Montreal were vying for first place in the standings. Ted Lindsay was back from his suspension, and the Wings were on a tear going into the final stretch, unbeaten in seven straight and just two points behind the first-place Canadiens.

Before the season ended, the two teams would meet in a home-and-home series. Just ahead of that, though, Montreal played in Boston. That’s where Richard and Boston’s Hal Laycoe got to swinging their sticks at one another, inciting a general ruckus in which Richard punched another linesman, Cliff Thompson, and knocked him out.

What happened next is well documented, and will be again this weekend. When the tear-gas had dissipated, once the shattered glass had been swept off Montreal’s Ste. Catherine Street, Richard sat out his suspension as the playoffs went ahead without him. Montreal and Detroit met in the Finals in April, with the Red Wings prevailing in seven games.

Ted Lindsay was at the fore for the victors, of course. The series went to seven games. Lindsay was, instrumental in his team’s triumph. His 12 playoff assists led the NHL, and with 19 points, he finished one back of Gordie Howe in post-season scoring. The four goals he scored in the second game set a Finals record.

I don’t know what all this adds it up to. It’s impossible to say just how much Lindsay’s three attacks on spectators and the debate over his suspension weighed on Clarence Campbell when he came to consider Richard’s case. Critics (many of them in Detroit) accused the NHL president of letting Richard off lightly for attacking a linesman in December. When he did it again in March, did that have anything to do with what seemed like an over-reaction by Campbell? Lindsay sat out four games for a third offence; banned for his Boston uprising for the remainder of the regular-season and all of the playoffs, Richard missed 15 games. If Richard’s suspension was unduly harsh, how much did that have to do with the market for bad behaviour that Lindsay had helped create earlier in the season?

There are no good answers to these questions, of course — as Campbell might have chimed in if they’d been posed to him, there’s no real coming to grips with hypothetical cases.

One more point might be worth making here, though maybe not. Here it is nonetheless: Ted Lindsay and his several surges past the edge of the rink and into the real world coalesce, for me, into a handy portable exhibit of the NHL’s astonishing sense of its own exceptionalism.

This was nothing new in 1954-55, and would continue to be nothing new for years — decades, even — after that tumultuous season. Still, it’s instructive that three times that year a hockey player struck at civilians, twice without any kind of consequence. I’m not pointing a finger particularly at Lindsay here — he wasn’t the only one to be assaulting and battering fans in those years.

There’s a whole alternate history of hockey’s misrule to be written, and part of that will dissect just how much the game’s cultural standing, particularly in Canada, has contributed to and upheld the NHL’s argument that the regular rules governing orderly conduct and not punching people repeatedly in the head don’t apply once you put on skates and take to NHL ice. There’s a good dose of arrogance in the formula, too, and tincture of fear of change, some essence of self-preservation. Mixed up altogether it has created a brew that induces the magical thinking that has enchanted the NHL for years, in the thrall of which the league has granted itself the permission not to confront (let alone curb) fighting, and to continue to dissemble and deny when it comes to the damages that concussions do, and the grim realities of CTE. For a long time our wider civil society has accepted, or at least not really challenged, the NHL’s story on all this. That’s slowly coming to an end. I think it is — isn’t it?

That’s a bit of rant, I guess, but it’s over. I should add, and will now, that Lindsay had one more conspicuous contact with a spectator that ’54-55 season. I’ve extracted it from the chronology and kept it for last: that seemed like the right thing, structurally.

Back to February of 1955 we go, dropping into the season’s schedule of mayhem right after Lindsay’s return from suspension, a month beforeRichard started to serve his. The Red Wings captain rejoined his team for a game in Boston that ended in a 2-2 tie. Lindsay was headed from dressing room to rink for the start of the third period when a fan pushed past police, or leaned over a barrier (reports vary), and (as the Detroit Free Press described it) “slugged the Detroit captain on the back of the head.”

Lindsay didn’t retaliate; he said he only appealed to the policemen present, saying, “If you don’t make these guys keep their hands off me, I’m going to carve somebody up.”

“This is a new twist to the man-bites-dog and horse-stops-runaway-man routine,” The Boston Globe’s Harold Kaese teased in a front-page column before coming out in favour of protecting players. As Lindsay later told it, he had no intention of pressing charges until the Boston police came to see him after the game and encouraged him to do so. Plus, as he saw it, he was only protecting his own interests.

Charges against his assailant would prove, he held, that he hadn’t been at fault. “I’m sick of the dirty deal from Campbell when he gave me that suspension,” Lindsay said. “I was made the goat in the mix-up in Toronto by Campbell’s prejudice and the same kind of deal might be twisted out of this affair here.” (Campbell’s response, when he heard those comments: “It shows the popping-off hasn’t stopped.”)

James Mulloy, 24, was the fan charged with assault and battery; Officers George Doyle and Wilfred Guilbuilt did the arresting. He was released on $50 bail and the case was put over until Lindsay could return to testify, though it was later decided that wasn’t necessary.

In Boston Municipal Court, Judge Elijah Adlow eventually found Mulloy guilt, fining him $50. He maintained his innocence throughout, sticking to what he’d told police at Boston Garden: he’d only given Lindsay “a friendly pat on the back.”