I admit it: I have a soft spot for hockey players.   It probably stems from my Michigan upbringing, including my family’s winter-time ritual of making an outdoor hockey rink, and the annual trek from Detroit to Nantias Sport Shop on Wyandotte Street in Windsor, Ontario to buy new hockey skates and gear for my male siblings.  Brothers Roger and Dave wore (Bobby Orr’s) Boston Bruin jerseys while brother Tony favored Chicago Blackhawks’ (Keith Magnuson’s) colors.*

Last week’s KidsPost—a favorite WashPost section at my house—featured a hockey history lesson that merged worker safety and labor rights.  In Masks: saving goalies for 50 years, I was reminded that 50 years ago, hockey goalies (professionals and amateurs) never wore protective face masks.  My brothers and their friends in the 1970′s didn’t wear any head protection at all, following the example set by the pros.  In fact, you were considered a sissy if you suggested wearing a helmet was a smart thing to do.

The KidsPost article explained that Montreal Canadiens’ goalie Jacques Plante was sick and tired of getting hit in the face with the puck (and probably sticks, too.)

“He got hit in the face with a shot in a game against the New York Rangers (in 1956), he decided enough was enough.  Plante had used a mask in practice, but the Canadiens coach, Toe Blake, would not let him use it in games. Blake was afraid the mask might cut down on Plante’s ability to see the puck.  But Plante told Blake he would not go back onto the ice without his mask.  Since the Canadiens did not have a backup goalie, Blake had to agree or forfeit the game.”

“Some players and coaches thought Plante was a sissy to wear a mask. Remember, in those days, none of the players wore helmets.  But the Canadiens and their masked goalie won several games in a row.  Soon Plante and other goalies were wearing masks for every game.”

Masks: saving goalies for 50 years jogged my memory about a great workers’ rights film called Net Worth (1995).  It recounts the history of the Detroit Red Wings’ Ted Lindsay and his efforts to organize his fellow hockey players to form a union—-they intentionally called it a players’ association.  Mr. Lindsay (and his teammate Gordie Howe) were superstars in the National Hockey League (NHL).   Lindsey believed they had the clout to convince other players (on the QT) that they needed to exert their collective power over the owners.  He thought that with as little as one key player from each team agreeing to be part of the union association, they could act make reasonable demands of the wealthy team owners for a mimimum salary, pension and other fair benefits.

In Net Worth, there’s a powerful scene in which Lindsay is trying to convince a player why it’s in his interest to support the union  players’ association.  He reminds the player that he doesn’t have a high school diploma and once he’s washed up (or has a career-ending injury) his wife and kids will be in the poor house.  The film exposes the tension between players who genuinely understood what Lindsay was saying, but also feared that if the owners got wind of their union-plan, they’d be fired and replaced with hockey players from the minor leagues or Canada’s hinterlands (where hockey players were a dime a dozen.)   Red Wing forward and team captain Ted Lindsay recognized that that view was unsubstantiated; if these potential replacement workers were seriously great players, they’d already be on an NHL team.

The Toronto Maple Leaf players were the first to vote (unanimously) to organize.  The NHL Players’ Association was formed in 1967, thanks in large measure to the foresight and courage of Ted Lindsay.  His efforts were not without personal sacrifice.  As Roger D. Monforton, 85, the patriach of my family tells me, the Detroit Red Wings’ General Manager and Coach, Jack Adams, retaliated against Lindsay and Glenn Hall, trading them to the Chicago Blackhawks (last place) and New York Rangers, respectively.  [Scoundrel.]

Just like my soft spot for hockey players, I have a fondness for true stories of an underdog victory.  As a hockey- and Ted Lindsay-fan writing for Wikipedia notes:

“Mr. Lindsay played in Chicago for three years before retiring in 1960.  Four years later, his former linemate, Sid Abel, was the coach and general manager of the Red Wings and enticed the 39-year-old into making a comeback.  He played just the one season, helping Detroit to its first regular season championship since his trade seven years earlier.”

Check out Masks: saving goalies for 50 years for photos of Boston Bruins’ goalie Gerry Cheevers’ mask on which he painted a black stitch at each place where he was hit in the face with a puck.  Watch Net Worth and appreciate the professional and personal struggle workers face when trying to organize for better working conditions and equality against powerful interests.

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*My oldest brother Lou was not much more for hockey—but a powerful cross-country skiier.

Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH is a research professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health.  She’ll soon be pulling out her hockey skates for winter recreation at Fairfax Ice Arena.  Her brother Dave will attest that winters in southeast Michigan are not as cold as they were 40 years ago.  It’s impossible now in the Detroit region’s climate-changed environment to make in your own backyard a natural outdoor hockey rink.

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