Bill Gadsby was one of the best defensemen of his era. He played for three teams and appeared in seven All-Star games during his 20-year NHL career. He was never on a Stanley Cup winner but was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1970.
The native of Calgary, Alberta was a survivor. On September 3, 1939, Bill, then 12-years-old was traveling back from England with his mother aboard the S.S. Athenia, bound for Montreal. It was one of the last ships to leave Southampton, England before the start of World War II. Unfortunately, the ship was sunk by a German torpedo and the Gadsby’s and about 50 other passengers crammed into a single life boat. They were eventually rescued by another liner and returned to Southampton where they boarded another ship which brought them safely to America. Overall 117 passengers perished in the tragedy.
The six-foot, 180 pound Gadsby began his hockey career in Calgary playing for a number of local teams. He played two years for the Edmonton Junior Canadiens before catching the eye of the Chicago Black Hawks who signed him to a $7,000 contract at the age of 18. He was sent to Kansas City of the USHL in 1946 but played only a dozen games in the minors before making his NHL debut with the Black Hawks at the age of 19. He stayed in Chicago for nine years and served as the Black Hawk’s captain for two seasons. He missed part of the 1952 season when he contracted polio but battled back to continue his hockey career.
Gadsby was dealt to the Rangers in November 1954 along with Pete Conacher in exchange for Nick Mickoski, and Allan Stanley, who was being booed mercilessly by Garden fans who did not appreciate his style of play.
The ever-dependable Gadsby on the other hand quickly became a fan favorite. He played in four All-Star games while a Ranger and was named team MVP in 1956.
Bill was also a fine playmaker. In 1955-56 he led all Ranger defensemen with 42 assists and 51 points, finishing third in team scoring. He also led the Blueshirts in points and assists in the playoffs that season.
In 1957-58, Gadsby scored 14 goals to lead all Ranger defensemen and the following season set a then single-season record for assists by a defenseman with 46.
Gadsby was tough. He suffered seven broken noses, two broken legs, broken ribs and received more than 650 stitches during his 20-year NHL career but missed only 15 games while with the Rangers. Bill once told a reporter that his wife, Edna, sometimes removed the stitches in their kitchen using less than sterile junk-drawer scissors. He also once took out a $100 insurance policy that paid him $5 per stitch, but the company quickly abandoned the program when they started losing money on the deal.
Gadsby was also a fierce body checker. On March 12, 1955, he caught Toronto’s Tim Horton with his head down and hit him with a clean but devastating open-ice check that sent the Maple Leaf defenseman to the hospital with a broken jaw and leg. “It scared the hell out of me, seeing the blood coming out of Tim’s mouth and ear. I thought he was dead,” Gadsby recalled.
That bodycheck is commonly regarded as the most punishing of any ever dished out in the pre-expansion NHL. “Thank God it wasn’t a dirty check,” Gadsby recalled. NHL senior referee Bill Chadwick said it was the hardest hit he’d ever witnessed.
In 1960, Ranger GM Muzz Patrick traded Gadsby and forward Eddie Shack to the Detroit Red Wings for Leonard “Red” Kelly and Billy McNeill. But the perception of the Rangers around the NHL during that time was so bad that many of the better players in the league didn’t want to come to New York, including Kelly.
Kelly, thirty-three, an eight-time All-Star who had already won four Stanley Cups and the Norris Trophy as well as multiple Lady Byng Trophies with the Red Wings, refused to report to the Rangers and retired, McNeill also refused to report and was suspended for the remainder of the season by the Wings and the deal was voided. Maple Leafs coach George “Punch” Imlach eventually stepped in and sent Marc Reaume to the Red Wings for Kelly, who gladly unretired and won another four Stanley Cups with Toronto. McNeill was claimed by the Rangers in the Intra-League draft that June but later sold back to Detroit for cash in January of 1961 without ever playing a game for the Blueshirts.
Eventually Shack was traded to Toronto for Pat Hannigan and Johnny Wilson in November 1960 and won four Stanley Cups while with the Leafs. Gadsby was subsequently dealt to Detroit for minor leaguer Les Hunt in June of 1961. Hunt never played a single game for the Rangers, or in the NHL for that matter. Of the three principals in the original deal, Gadsby is the only one who played his entire career without being on a Stanley Cup-winning team.
Bill spent the last five years of his career with Detroit and retired in 1966 as the leading career scorer among defensemen with 568 points (130-438-568). He was named coach of the Red Wings in 1968 and led them to a fifth place finish (33-31-12). He returned the next season but resigned after two games and was replace by GM Sid Abel.
Bill Gadsby was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1970 and in 2003 collaborated with author Kevin Allen on his autobiography, “The Grateful Gadsby.” Bill passed away in March 2018 at the age of 88.