Bill Gadsby assembled quite a resume during his two decades of NHL play, his stellar career capped by a berth in the Hockey Hall of Fame the first year he was eligible. However, there was one glaring omission: a Stanley Cup victory.
The 83-year-old blueliner, whose comfortably rumpled face today is a product of the 650 stitches and 11 broken noses he received during the course of his career, has always insisted that never planting a smooch on hockey’s Holy Grail didn’t bother him as much as others thought it did.
“I always just wanted to play my hardest. Then whatever happened, happened. I tried not to dwell on things too long.”
Gadsby grew up in Calgary, where his dad worked for the railroad and managed an industrial hockey league on the side. When Bill was a youngster he was already mixing it up on the ice with adults, his feet wedged into skates three sizes too big. “I’d jam newspapers into the toes to make them fit,” he recalled. “My dad would bring home broken sticks and we’d fix them up with some scrap tin plating from the hardware store. It worked fine.”
Fine enough that by the time he was 18, he was pulling on the jersey of the Chicago Blackhawks. He was a wide-eyed kid who thought Lake Michigan looked like the ocean. “Kids were greener in 1946,” he said. “Going from Calgary to Chicago—well, I’d never seen so many people.”
Although Gadsby could stand up a forward at the blue line as well as anybody, for the first several years he was known as an offensive defenseman. During his NHL career, he accumulated 130 goals and 437 assists for 567 points. His peak years were with the New York Rangers, to whom he was traded during the 1954-55 campaign. In New York he twice racked up 51 points in a season. Those are paltry numbers by today’s standards, but at one point Bill held a couple of scoring records for defensemen.
In 1961, after 15 years in Chicago and New York, the six-time All-Star was traded to Detroit for Les Hunt and some cash. “I loved coming to Detroit,” Gadsby said. “Sawchuk, Howe, Delvecchio, we had some great players. It was a great hockey town and I was happy coming to a team that had a chance of winning the Stanley Cup.”
There were some memorable moments. He was on the left side of Howe and Billy McNeill that Sunday afternoon at Olympia in 1963 when Mr. Hockey notched his 545th goal, allowing him to pass Maurice Richard as the game’s greatest all-time goal scorer. Gadsby earned his 400th career assist on Howe’s historic tally.
And then there was the shot Gadsby put on the Toronto net late in the sixth game of the ’64 finals, with Detroit leading the series three games to two. The Cup-winning goal was headed for the upper right-hand corner when, at the last moment, the goalie’s stick flashed upward and the puck glanced off the top of the handle. The score remained tied until Bobby Baun, playing on a broken ankle, won it for the Maple Leafs in overtime. Toronto went on to win Game Seven and the Cup.
Gadsby spent five seasons in a Detroit uniform, earning a seventh and final All-Star berth in 1965 and helping the team into the Stanley Cup finals in 1963, 1964, and 1966. The Wings lost each time. The 1966 finals were particularly heart-wrenching, he said. “We beat Montreal, in Montreal, the first two games, and I thought, ‘Well, this is it. I’m finally going to do it.’ But the Canadiens came back and took the last four. The last game was when Henri Richard and the puck slid into the net past Roger Crozier for the winning goal. That shouldn’t have been a goal. I forget who the referee was, but he just didn’t call it. Oh, I was just sick….”
That game was Gadsby’s last. After 20 years of frustration, which included 1,248 regular-season and 67 postseason games, the Wings’ No. 4 called it quits. To this day, no one in the history of the National Hockey League has ever played as long without having his name inscribed on the Stanley Cup.