50 Years Ago in Hockey – Gadsby Wants That Cup!

With the Detroit Red Wings ascension to first place in the National Hockey League standings, the oddsmakers are beginning to take them seriously as Stanley Cup contenders.  Some prognosticators are even listing the resurgent Red Wings as odds-on favourites to capture Lord Stanley’s mug once the smoke clears on the NHL season.

Bill Gadsby in his 19th NHL season

One of the key performers on whom the Detroiters will be heavily depending is veteran defenceman Bill Gadsby.  Bill is in his 19th season in the NHL, and he has played them all very well.  But despite his longevity, he has yet to enjoy the sweet success that winning the Cup brings to a career.

Bill Gadsby, in his 19th NHL season.
Bill Gadsby, in his 19th NHL season.

Bill is a throwback kind of guy, reminiscent of those tough blueliners of the 30’s and 40’s.  He asks no quarter, and gives none. He’s tough as nails, but not dirty.  Most would say he plays the game with honour and respect, but above all he plays to win.  The pursuit of the ultimate victory is what drives him, and that desire to win it all is what keeps him going in this, his 19th NHL season.

Bill Gadsby was born on August 8, 1927 in Calgary, Alberta. He was a typical western Canada boy, crazy about hockey at an early age.  But Bill almost never had the opportunity to play pro hockey, or for that matter, even grow into the fine man he has become.

Nearly killed at age 12

In September 1939, as World War Two was just beginning, Bill and his mother were traveling on the sailing ship Athenia.  The vessell was torpedoed by the Germans, sinking and killing 112 passengers and crew.  Miraculously, Bill and his mother escaped with their lives.  At age 12, Bill was learning the true value of life and the meaning of tenacity.

Once he determined he wanted a career in the sport, his determination earned him a spot with the Edmonton Junior Canadians of the Edmonton Junior Hockey League.

The Canadians had a great season in 1945-46, playing in the Memorial Cup tournament.  Gadsby was the highest scoring defenceman, scoring an amazing 12 goals in 14 games, the fifth-highest total in tourney.  He added five assists for 17 points.

Signed by Chicago in 1946

Bill caught the eye of Chicago Black Hawk scout Bill Tobin, who, on July 14, 1946, signed him to play for the Kansas City Pla-Mors of the United States Hockey League as a 19-year-old.  The youngster was so impressive, he was called up to the parent Black Hawks after only 12 games.  Admittedly, the Hawks were not a good team in those days, finishing last that season.

Gadsby in his rookie season with Chicago.  Charlie Conacher is the coach.  (HHOF)
Gadsby in his rookie season with Chicago. Charlie Conacher is the coach. (HHOF)

Gadsby learned early on how to conduct himself as an NHL’er.  He had great examples on that Chicago club in Max and Doug Bentley, and in particular, Johnny Mariucci.  It was Mariucci who demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice his body to get the job done, a lesson Bill learned very well.

Bill says this about Mariucci:

When I came up with the Black Hawks in 1946, I watched John Mariucci slather liniment over his body to reduce the pain he would endure just to play. He played on nights when he could barely walk into the dressing room. He was the toughest man I ever met.”

Gadsby acquitted himself quite well in his rookie season, scoring eight goals while adding 10 assists.   He established himself as not only a bona fide NHL defenceman, but a terrific competitor.  He realized his first big-league thrill late in the year when he scored a game-winning goal with one second left against Harry Lumley of the Detroit Red Wings.

Polio attack in 1952

In 1952 fate again intervened in Gadsby’s life, almost as if a higher power was scheming to keep him from a hockey career.  During training camp, Bill contracted polio.  Thankfully, because of his tenacity, his superior physical condition and the quick work of club doctors, he experienced a quick, full recovery and was able to carry on his career.

Bill spent eight seasons and part of a ninth with Chicago.  In his last two full seasons with the Black Hawks, 1952-53 and 53-54, he was selected to the NHL Second All-star team.  He had his best scoring year with Chicago in 53-54 with 12 goals and 29 assists.  He also served as captain of the club.

Traded to Rangers in 1954

Just a few weeks into the 1954-55 season, Bill was traded to the New York Rangers.  Forward Pete Conacher accompanied Bill from the Black Hawks to the Rangers, with Allan Stanley, Nick Mickoski and Rich Lamoureux going to Chicago.

Bill was traded for Allan Stanley, then of the Rangers.
Bill was traded for Allan Stanley, then of the Rangers.  (HHOF)

Bill became the main man on defence for the Rangers, being named to the NHL First All-star team in 1956, 1958 and 1959, as well as the second team in 1957.  In the 58-59 season he set the NHL record for  defencemen with 46 assists.  That season he was the runner-up in the Norris Trophy voting.

Bill was known as a fierce body checker and that was never more evident that in 1955 when he dealt one of the most crushing hits ever to Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Tim Horton.  The hit was a mid-ice check, a clean, one-on-one blow at the blue line.  Horton suffered a broken leg and jaw, and for a time it was thought his career was over.

Bill Gadsby with the Rangers.
Bill Gadsby with the Rangers.

On February 5, 1960 Jack Adams, the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, was finally successful after years of trying to pry Gadsby from the Rangers.  Adams sent Red Kelly and forward Billy McNeill to New York for Gadsby and Eddie Shack.  However, the deal was nullified two days later when both Kelly and McNeill refused to report to New York.

Best Red Wing trade ever?

The Red Wings never did give up on the idea of acquiring Gadsby, and in June of 1961 they made another trade with the Rangers.  The Wings sent little-known defenceman Les Hunt, who was playing with the Seattle Totems of the Western Hockey League, to the Rangers for Bill.  It still stands as one of the best trades Detroit has ever made.  Hunt never has suited up in the NHL, while the man they call “Gads” has become a leader on the Detroit blue line.

Bill continues to pile up the accomplishments.  In 1952, he became the first defenceman to accumulate 500 points in an NHL career.

Detroit's veteran core of Gord Howe, Bill Gadsby and Ted Lindsay.
Detroit’s veteran core of Gord Howe, Bill Gadsby and Ted Lindsay.

Bill always felt that the trade to Detroit was going to finally get him a genuine shot at the long-elusive Stanley Cup, and he was right about that.  In both 1963 and 1964 the Red Wings made it to the finals, but couldn’t get past the Toronto Maple Leafs.  This season, with the team apparently at its peak and leading the league, the Holy Grail of championship trophies now seems closer than ever.  With a solid core of veterans and a great supporting case of youngsters on the rise, the Wings are the cream of the NHL crop, at least so far this season.

Can this be the year that Bill Gadsby finally sips champagne from the Stanley Cup?  We’ll find out over the next six weeks.