At 6-1 and 185 pounds, Cal Gardner did not shy away from the physical side of the game and in 1947 he became embroiled in what was then described as the biggest, longest brawl in NHL history.
Cal Pearly Gardner signed as a free agent with the Rangers in 1945 following a strong junior career in Winnipeg and two years of service in the Canadian Navy. He split his first year in the Blueshirts organization between the Rangers and their EAHL farm club, the Rovers, where he centered the “Atomic Line” with Church Russell and Rene Trudell on the wings. He led the EAHL with 41 goals and 73 points and was named to the league’s first All-Star team. The next season he was promoted to the Rangers along with his two line mates and saw regular action for the next two years.
The brawl occurred on March 16, 1947. The Rangers were hosting the Canadiens in the back end of a home-and-home weekend series. Montreal had blanked the Blueshirts 1-0 in a rough game at the Forum on Saturday night, which virtually eliminated the Rangers from the playoff race and the Canadiens needed to win the Sunday night meeting to strengthen their hold on first place in the standings.
With the Canadiens nursing a 4-3 lead with less than a minute left in the game, Montreal defenseman Kenny Reardon was stickhandling the puck slowly down the ice trying to eat up as much time as possible. But in a battle for the puck, Bryan Hextall checked him into Cal Gardner, whose stick caught Reardon in the mouth opening a gash that later required 14 stitches to close.
As the Garden’s Dr. Vincent Nardiello was helping Reardon off the ice, they passed the Rangers bench where Phil Watson and the bloodied Canadien exchanged words. Despite the blood oozing from his mouth, Reardon swung at Watson and missed, as a cop intervened. A nearby fan then leaped from his seat shaking his fist and shouting, “Reardon, I’ve been waiting a long time for you to get it!” Reardon swung his stick at the fan and thankfully, missed. He was then tackled by police.
This was all happening near the gate to the Rangers bench. So to get a better view of the proceedings, the Rangers all stood up, almost in unison. This led Montreal coach Dick Irvin to think that the Rangers were going to jump Reardon, so he sent his troops over the boards, to rescue their teammate.
But when they got to the Rangers bench on the other side of the ice, they found that the Blueshirts had not touched Reardon and didn’t seem interested in doing so. But just when it seemed like cooler heads would prevail, a nearby fan began arguing with Montreal captain Emile “Butch” Bouchard, who wound up clouting the man with his stick. Then goalie Bill Durnan and Maurice Richard began slugging other paying customers.
The Rangers promptly jumped into the fray to help their fans and what ensued was nearly 30 minutes of sheer pandemonium. With both benches emptied, there were more than a dozen fights going on with players swinging fists and sticks at one another. While there were four main events: Bill Juzda taking on Maurice Richard, Bill Durnan going at it with Bill Moe, Leo Lamoureux wrestling with Hal Laycoe, and Butch Bouchard duking it out with Bryan Hextall, there were many other lesser bouts going on simultaneously.
Remarkably referee George Hayes only handed out three 10-minute misconduct penalties, to Maurice Richard and Murph Chamberland of the Canadiens and Bill Juzda of the Rangers. As Hayes later told reporters, “There were so many fights going on it was impossible to keep track of them all.”
Once order was restored and the ice was cleared of gloves and sticks, as well as cups and programs thrown by the crowd, the game resumed, briefly. It turned out that the Rangers weren’t finished. With just a few seconds left on the clock Tony Leswick of the Rangers tried to spear Durnan with his stick and the usually peaceful Ab DeMarco went after Ken Mosdell. Police were finally called in to disperse the angry players as the final buzzer sounded.
Ironically, Reardon, the man who started it all, missed the festivities, while being stitched up in the Garden’s infirmary. At the time neither Reardon or his teammates knew exactly whose stick had struck him, causing the injury. Reardon didn’t find out it was Gardner until the next season when Hal Laycoe was traded to Montreal and told him. “That,” said referee Hayes, “started the hottest feud I remember.”
Reardon vowed revenge on Gardner, who had by then been traded to Toronto. The dispute climaxed in November 1949 when Gardner had his jaw shattered by Reardon. Desperately hoping to end the feud, NHL president Clarence Campbell forced Reardon to post a $1,000 bond against future violence, with the stipulation that if he went after Gardner again, he wouldn’t get his money back.
Gardner played in 126 games for the Rangers over three seasons, scoring 28 goals with 36 assists and 103 penalty minutes. He was dealt to Toronto in April, 1948 along with Bill Juzda, Rene Trudell and the rights to Frank Mathers for defensemen Wally Stanowski and Moe Morris. Cal had the best years of his career while with the Leafs, scoring 58 goals with 95 assists over four season, playing in two All-Star games and winning two Stanley Cups.
He was sent to Chicago in 1952 and later dealt to Boston before landing in Springfield of the AHL in 1957 where he served as player-coach. Cal then played for Providence and Cleveland of the AHL and Kingston of the EPHL before retiring in 1961 at the age of 36. He later became a member of the Maple Leafs broadcasting team and general manager of an Ontario radio station.
Gardner’s two sons Paul and Dave, also had long NHL careers.