Downtown Chicago was not a happy place to be in the summer of 1934, but there was Charlie Gardiner, laughing his head off in a wheelbarrow, arms and legs splayed in all directions, getting pushed around by teammate Roger Jenkins. Didn’t they know it was the Great Depression?
Chicago’s business district was particularly morose at the time. The economic collapse of the free world was into its fifth year. Many financial institutions, businesses and individuals were in ruin. The financial district called Chicago Loop was especially feeling pain in 1934. April, May and June were down months for the Dow Jones. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange was at the epicenter. Long, sullen faces were everywhere. It must have seemed like the bad times were going to last forever.
Nicknamed ‘Smiling Charlie,’ Gardiner didn’t let life get him down, even if it seemed like the world and his defenses were collapsing around him. The son of a Scottish-born rail-car worker who died when Charlie was 11, Gardiner broke in with the dreadful Chicago Black Hawks in 1927. The start to his NHL career couldn’t have been less auspicious. He won just 13 of 84 games during his first two seasons and the team around him was a mess.
Take a look at Gardiner’s second season in 1928-29. Chicago’s offense was anemic – they were called “the goalless wonders.” Vic Ripley led the team with 13 points in 38 games. Johnny Gottselig was next with eight points. The Hawks provided just 33 goals of support for Gardiner in 44 games. The fact Chicago won seven games and tied eight was a credit to Gardiner alone.
When Chicago made the playoffs the next year, Gardiner was in his glory. He wore his emotions like a wristwatch on his sleeve. He was the ultimate competitor because he was driven to play every game, every practice as though it was his last. When he lost big games, he’d cry. When he was booed, he thought about quitting. When he stopped an opponent on a breakaway, he had the nerve to puff out his chest and say, “Tough luck, try again sometime.”
In the opening round of the 1929-30 playoffs, Chicago lost the first game of a two-game total-goal series 1-0 to the Montreal Canadiens. The Black Hawks were ahead 2-1 through three periods in the second game, prompting an overtime to decide the series. Montreal’s Howie Morenz scored halfway through the third overtime frame. Gardiner was in tears.
The storyline was similar the following season, except Chicago and Montreal met in the best-of-five Cup final. Gardiner had allowed just three goals in four playoff games against Toronto and the Rangers. Facing the powerhouse Habs, Chicago won 2-1 in double overtime of Game 2 and 3-2 in triple overtime of Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead. Montreal won 4-2 on home ice to even the series, then took the Cup in Chicago with a 2-0 win in the deciding game. Following that 1931 loss, Gardiner was lauded like no losing goalie before or since. In Before The Echoes Fade, a book about Gardiner, author Antonia Chambers tells the story how Montreal players lifted Gardiner on their shoulders and carried him around the ice to their dressing room and fed him champagne because he had played so well.
Morenz called ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ the best goalie in the world: “He was the hardest netman I ever tried to outguess.”
That Stanley Cup loss in 1931 did nothing to get Gardiner down. He came back the next season and won his first Vezina Trophy, was a second-team all-star in 1932-33 and won the Vezina again in 1933-34. But Gardiner wasn’t a well man off the ice. He collapsed after a game in December 1932 and was rushed to hospital with a chronic tonsil infection that he had kept quiet all season.
About a year later, he had come to live with intense pain in his throat. Then he developed pain in his kidneys. Then he started seeing black spots. He was diagnosed with uremic convulsions. But Gardiner was the Hawks captain, and he willed his way to getting Chicago that Stanley Cup. Which brings us back to his spirited journey through downtown Chicago in a wheelbarrow.
Gardiner was bending over strapping on his pads in the dressing room prior to the playoff opener in 1934. He couldn’t believe what he overheard from second-year defenseman Jenkins. The 22-year-old from Appleton, Wis., was talking to his blueline partner Art Coulter about just being happy to qualify for the playoffs. Jenkins said he didn’t make the post-season as a rookie and was looking forward to seeing what it was like in that opening round against the Habs. It’d be nice to win a game, Gardiner overheard Jenkins say.
Gardiner sat bolt upright. Not only will we win a game, Gardiner said, we’ll win the Stanley Cup. And when we do, you can push me through downtown in a wheelbarrow.
Mush March scored in overtime of the deciding game against Montreal in the first round, the Black Hawks swept the Montreal Maroons in the second round, and Chicago captured its first Stanley Cup with a 3-1 series win over Detroit in the final. Gardiner allowed just 12 goals in eight games despite body-numbing pain and fatigue. His temperature at times topped 102 degrees, and doctors would come by during intermissions to assist him. But Gardiner had to keep playing. In the dressing room after the final, Gardiner again collapsed.
On the day of the Cup parade in mid-April, Gardiner was well enough to join his teammates in downtown Chicago. He howled when he saw Jenkins push in the wheelbarrow, scoop him up and haul him around the business district. Gardiner didn’t want it to end.
Tragically, he never lived to see his 30th birthday. Gardiner effectively sacrificed his life to win it all. Less than two months after winning the Stanley Cup and the last good belly laugh of his life in that wheelbarrow, Gardiner collapsed again. In a coma, he died on June 13, 1934, at age 29 from a brain hemorrhage brought on by the tonsillar infection.
Born: Dec. 31, 1904, Edinburgh, Sco.
NHL Career: 1927-34
Stats: 112-152-52, 2.02 GAA, 42 SO
All-Star: 4 (First-3, Second-1)
Trophies: 2 (Vezina-2)
Stanley Cups: 1
DID YOU KNOW?
Coming from Scotland as a child, Gardiner didn’t lace on blades until he was eight. Because his skating lagged, they made him the goalie. We know how that turned out, but Gardiner had plenty to fall back on. He was adept at baseball, rugby, football (he played for Winnipeg in the 1925 Grey Cup) and rifle shooting. As a young adult, Gardiner could fly a plane solo, earned a business-administration certificate, became a partner in a sporting-goods store, was a freemason and, at 29, was named the youngest Shriner in Winnipeg. He was truly a renaissance man.