Wings legend Lindsay still going strong near 90

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Ted Lindsay, almost 90, works out three days a week at the Troy Sports Center.

Troy — He wears the scars with pride, the same way he wore that Red Wings sweater for most of his Hall of Fame career.

Ted Lindsay played hockey with a reckless abandon, and when he wasn't scoring goals skating alongside Gordie Howe and Sid Abel on the famed Production Line in Detroit, "Terrible Ted" was often settling scores. In all, he figures he took close to 700 stitches in his 17 years in the NHL.

"A lot of them were from sticks, some of them were from pucks, and some were from fists," he says, chuckling at all the golden memories etched in his mind and his face. "I ran into a lot of good men."

But this is the scar he wants to show you now, pulling down the collar of his shirt to reveal a 3-inch reminder on his chest. That's where Dr. Marc Sakwa, chief of cardiovascular surgery at Beaumont Hospital, made the incision to replace Lindsay's aortic valve 15 months ago. Yep, elective heart surgery at the age of 88.

"Can you imagine?" Lindsay said, marveling at modern medicine, even as modern medicine men — not to mention family and friends — marvel at a fellow who plans to celebrate his 90th birthday next week by going to the gym to work out.

His heart surgeon jokes he should consider another comeback, 50 years after his last one ended. And his wife, Joanne, laughs about her post-surgery fears quickly evaporating when she saw Ted in the recovery room, a month after their 25th wedding anniversary, still sedated but with his feet moving back and forth.

"I just said, 'Oh, for God's sake, he's exercising his ankles and his feet,' " Joanne recalled. "And he wasn't even conscious yet! … He came through that surgery like he was 60."

And this is what comes through in an hour-long chat with the hockey legend at The Training Room inside the Troy Sports Center, where Lindsay drops in three days a week. He'll stretch and lift weights, spending 2-3 hours each visit. Sure, he has slowed down some. ("I don't want to rush myself," he says.) But what's the hurry, right?

"One thing about reality is, we're all gonna die sometime," said Lindsay, who played 14 seasons in Detroit, won four Stanley Cups and retired with 379 goals and countless enemies. "But I was blessed with a brain that recognized that the body is a muscle. And from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head, if you don't work it out, it becomes flab. And flab becomes useless."

Getting back up

Lindsay has no interest in being useless, which is why even as he approaches his 10th decade of living — Wednesday's the day, though they had a party with 400-plus guests in April — he's still driven to do more, from leg lifts to charity work.

"He's always trying to do the right thing, no matter what," said John Czarnecki, co-owner of The Training Room and co-founder of the Ted Lindsay Foundation, which since 2001 has raised more than $3 million to fund research and educational programs involving autism.

Ted Lindsay, here posing with the NHL regular season MVP award that bears his name, still organizes fundraising golf outings.

"The way Ted sees it, if one is good, two is better," his wife explained. "And that goes for everything he does. Everything he does. He doesn't know how to do anything halfway."

That attitude comes naturally for the youngest of Bert and Maud Lindsay's nine children growing up in the northern Ontario town of Kirkland Lake, where Lindsay's father, who'd been hit hard by the Great Depression, found work in the gold mines.

It was a place where "every second house had a rink in the backyard, and every school had two rinks." And yet Lindsay, whose father played pro hockey as a goaltender, says he didn't start skating until he was 9, when a neighbor — bless you, Mrs. Brady — offered up her husband's old blades.

"I fell a lot," Lindsay said. "But when you fall, you're learning — that's what you're doing. You're learning how to get up, too."

Union fight

Lindsay, who racked up more than 1,800 penalty minutes in his career, learned to fight at a young age by scrapping with his five brothers. But when World War II started, the four oldest Lindsay sons all enlisted, and by the time they came back, "I was playing in the National Hockey League."

He can rattle off the memories of his youth like it was yesterday, stories from the early 1940s about playing for the Holy Name Irish juvenile team with Gus Mortson and Nellie Podolski and the time that "crook" Max Silverman, the owner in Sudbury, brought in a bunch of ringers to steal the Ontario championship.

He recalls, too, the happenstance that let him slip past the Maple Leafs, as Toronto scouts latched onto his St. Michael's teammate Joe Sadler, who never made the NHL, instead of Lindsay, who was home nursing an injury.

Lindsay was a fan of the Red Wings, the team he grew up listening to on the radio, as WJR's signal reached Kirkland Lake "on those clear, cold nights." Jimmy Orlando and "Black Jack" Stewart were his favorites. ("They played my kind of hockey," Lindsay says.) And not long after Detroit's chief scout, Carson Cooper, put him on the Wings' negotiation list, Lindsay signed his first pro contract, which included a $2,000 signing bonus.

"I'd never had $200 in my life, let alone $2,000," said Lindsay, who made the NHL roster in 1944 as a 19-year-old and never looked back, earning every bit of a reputation as one of the game's fiercest competitors.

A few years later, Lindsay led the league with 33 goals, and by the time he won his first Stanley Cup in 1950, the Production Line was humming — Lindsay, Abel and Howe finished 1-2-3 in scoring. The Red Wings won four Cups in six years, and if you ask Lindsay he'll tell you — as he tells Canadiens great Henri Richard whenever he sees him — they'd have won a handful more if that "fool" general manager Jack Adams hadn't traded away half the team in '55.

Adams eventually sent Lindsay packing, too, no doubt as payback for his rabble-rousing role in trying to form a union, laying the groundwork for today's NHL Players' Association.

Standing up for a cause

Lindsay doesn't have many regrets from his playing days, but the rift that developed with Howe, who declined to back his unionizing effort, certainly is one. ("All Gordie had to say was, 'Mr. Adams, we should take a look at this,' But Gordie, that's not his nature," Lindsay said.) They were friends and roommates — first in the house Lindsay bought for his parents and later in Ma Shaw's rooming house a couple blocks from the old Olympia — but the relationship never was quite the same after that.

Below: Ted Lindsay uses his stick to shoot the crowd after ignoring a death threat and scoring the overtime winner in Game 3 of the 1956 Stanley Cup semifinal in Toronto.

"We unfortunately had our little differences for a while, but that all got repaired." Lindsay said.

Still, as Mr. Hockey's health has deteriorated, battling dementia and undergoing experimental stem-cell treatments after a second stroke last fall, there's a mournful tone there.

"I thought he'd be a man who would die strong, like he was out on the ice," said Lindsay, whose wife stays in touch with Howe's son, Dr. Murray Howe.

Lindsay credits Czarnecki, his physical therapist, with helping him stay strong. Motivated, too. Czarnecki's 17-year-old son, Dominic, was a toddler when he first exhibited early signs of autism. And when he heard about it, Lindsay had only one question: "What can we do for Dominic?"

The answer, he decided, was to raise money.

"And how do old athletes raise money?" Lindsay said. "They hold golf outings."

They'll hold their 15th annual celebrity outing Sept. 14 at Pine Lake Country Club. And Czarnecki is happy to report Dominic, a junior with a 3.6 GPA at Northville High and a hockey career of his own with the MORC Stars program in Livonia, considers himself the founder of the Ted Lindsay Foundation.

"That's why he invited himself to Ted's birthday party in April," Czarnecki says with a laugh.

And this is why Lindsay keeps pushing for more. Last year, the foundation donated $1 million to the HOPE Center at Beaumont Children's Hospital, where families get help coping with developmental disorders. They've also helped fund the research efforts of others, including Dr. Laura Hewitson with The Johnson Center for Child Health and Development in Austin, Texas.

"I'm hoping like hell this research will come up with something," Lindsay said. "But if not, we'll find more money. … We'll keep working at it."