A while ago at the Hockey on the Border conference, I had the opportunity to hear Paul Kelly, former executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association, talk about his all-too-brief time at the Association, his new job (pdf) with College Hockey Inc., and his views on hockey in general.
Afterwards, I spoke to him about the recent renaming of the Ted Lindsay Award, which was known from 1971 to 2009 as the Lester B. Pearson Award, which goes to the most outstanding player in the
NHL as voted by the players themselves. The decision to change the name came under Kelly’s watch, and he is quite proud (justifiably) of the honour going to Ted Lindsay for his role in the formation of the first (failed) NHLPA. (I wrote a brief paper on this (pdf)). In our conversation the question of why the award was named after Pearson in the first place came up. I didn’t know, and neither did Kelly, who suggested it was because Pearson was a friend of Alan Eagleson, then executive director of the NHLPA. I was somewhat sceptical. For one thing, Eagleson was a prominent Tory who was a former Ontario MPP and ran for the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership in 1976, and Pearson was the Liberal leader in 1963 when Eagleson was a charming guy who could be friends with anyone, I imagine. in 1957-8 ( failed to win a federal seat. That said,
A brief survey of the Globe and Mail of the era doesn’t shed much light on the naming. On
March 11, 1971, the National Hockey League Players’ Association announced that it would present a new award named after the former prime minister to the most outstanding player of the NHL as voted by his peers. (G&M, March 12, 1971, pg 26) In June, Pearson himself presented the award to its first recipient, Phil Esposito, commenting to the Boston Bruins forward that “it must be a great honor to be chosen by your peers.” (G&M, June 25, 1971, pg 29) By then, Pearson knew he had cancer, to which he succumbed in 1972, and what followed was a period of what John English called ‘rapid “hallowing”’ of Pearson.
In terms of sports awards, the hallowing began before Pearson’s death. Certainly, being PM and winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his work in helping resolving the
Suez Canal crisis gave Pearson stature, but it was his personal participation in sport that seemed to attract these particular honours. Pearson played semi-professional baseball in and hockey for Guelph and University of Toronto , winning the inaugural Spengler Cup tournament in 1923. Despite retiring in 1968 in favour of the seemingly youthful and vigorous Pierre Trudeau, it was the athletic reputation of the septuagenarian Pearson that was being burnished. The first was the NHLPA award, and in the fall of 1972 he was himself the first recipient of the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union’s Mike Pearson Trophy for outstanding citizens who have exemplified the ideals and purposes of intercollegiate athletics and amateur sports. (G&M Nov 17, 1972, pg 45) Oxford University
So in a general way, I suppose Pearson was not undeserving, but I would not go so far as Andrew Cohen, a Pearson biographer and now head of the Historica–Dominion Institute (with whom I have disagreed before), who wrote in The Gazette that the name change “cheated Lester B. Pearson of a rightful legacy”, and that “If anyone deserves this honour, it’s Lester Pearson.” I suppose we’d have to compare Pearson’s rightful legacy to represent elite
NHL hockey players to Lindsay’s. I’m not sure how much there is, but it we use Pearson’s support for the NHL as a proxy (a dubious assumption, perhaps), then it is not a story of unqualified support. In my own research on the history of the NHL, Pearson does not come off as an unwavering supporter. He was in favour of halting the league during the Second World War, which in my interpretation was an unnecessary kowtowing to American public opinion. He also criticized the league in the mid-1960s over its recruiting practices. These may be small things, but they tells us that Pearson’s main interest was not hockey’s best interests, or the NHL’s, but Canada’s, and there are many awards, schools, airports and places named in his honour in the last four decades to recognize this fact.
Ted Lindsay has his name on very few things, and his contribution to hockey as an all-star player and leading activist for player rights (which cost him his spot with the Detroit Red Wings) makes him clearly more worthy of this award. (I’d hazard a guess that Mike might even agree.)