Last modified on 18 April 2009, at 00:18

History of the National Hockey League/1942–1967/Unionization

/Alan Eagleson

The first players' union was formed February 12, 1957 by Red Wings player Ted Lindsay who had sat on the board of the NHL's Pension Society since 1952. Lindsay and his fellow players were upset by the league's refusal to let them view the books related to the pension fund. The league claimed that it was barely breaking even financially, and so could not contribute more than it did. Players on the Pension Committee suspected otherwise, leading Lindsay and Doug Harvey of the Canadiens to discussions on forming a union in 1956. The idea quickly gained popularity and when the union's founding was announced publicly, every NHL player had signed up with the exception of Ted Kennedy, who was retiring.

The owners immediately worked to crush the union. Toronto owner Conn Smythe compared the players association to communism: "I feel that anything spawned in secrecy as this association was certainly has to have some odour to it." Red Wings president Bruce Norris responded by trading Lindsay to his brother's team, the Black Hawks. The move was widely seen as punitive, as the Hawks had finished last in the NHL every season, save one, from 1949 until 1957. Lindsay was not the only player sent to Chicago as punishment; Glenn Hall was included as he refused to distance himself from Lindsay. In Toronto, Smythe repeatedly benched Jim Thomson, who was the union's secretary, before also dealing him to the Black Hawks. The Players' Association responded by filing a $3 million anti-trust lawsuit against the NHL. Persuaded by teammates Gordie Howe and Red Kelly, the Red Wings players voted to withdraw from the association in November 1957. Other teams quickly followed, and the union capitulated. Union leadership ultimately agreed to drop the lawsuit in exchange for small concessions, which included a minimum annual salary of $7,000, increases to the pension contributions and moving expenses for traded players.