A ship bombing that killed 128 people the day World War II broke out could not kill Bill Gadsby. Polio gave Gadsby its best shot in the 1950s, but not only did he recover from the affliction, he played in the NHL for another 14 seasons. Bobby Hull once hit him right in the heart with a slapshot. It knocked Gadsby unconscious, but could not keep him from jumping over the boards for his next shift.
They did not make them much tougher than Gadsby, who died Thursday morning at the age of 88. He cheated death a number of times in his life, but Gadsby will be remembered from being one of the greatest players in NHL history to never win a Cup. And as difficult as it was to make the NHL during the six-team pre-expansion era, it was even tougher to play 1,200-plus games and not win at least one Stanley Cup.
But so it was for Gadsby, whose career will always be measured by equal amounts of guts and sustained excellence rather than individual awards or Stanley Cups. Gadsby played a total of 1,248 games in the NHL without ever once sipping champagne from the Cup. That doesn’t put him in a terribly exclusive club, since 28 players in the history of the game have played more games than Gadsby did without winning hockey’s holy grail. But only eight of them – Phil Housley, Mike Gartner, Harry Howell, Jean Ratelle, Norm Ullman, Marcel Dionne, Mats Sundin and Adam Oates – have played as many games as Gadsby without winning the Cup and are alongside him in the Hockey Hall of Fame. (Jarome Iginla will undoubtedly be the ninth if he does not win a Cup by the end of his career.)
That did not deter from Gadsby’s great career, however. One of the league’s more underrated defenseman, he was a first-team all-star three times and a second-teamer twice. He was the first defenseman in the league to reach 500 points and the second, after teammate Gordie Howe, to play 1,000 games in the NHL. Only 10 players in the Hall of Fame accumulated more penalty minutes than the 1,539 Gadsby spent in the penalty box.
“A great defenseman and a great man,” said former teammate Ted Lindsay when contacted by thn.com. When asked how tough Gadsby was, Lindsay replied: “He was plenty tough. In a six-team league, they all had to be tough.”
An outstanding open-ice hitter, Gadsby is best remembered for a check on Tim Horton in 1955 that left Horton with a broken jaw and a broken leg and sent him to the hospital where he had to be fed intravenously for several days. “It scared the hell out of me, seeing blood come out of Tim’s mouth and ear,” Gadsby told hockey historian Dave Stubbs in recent years. “I thought he was dead.”
Gadsby took as much as he gave, though. He’s the unofficial owner of the all-time league high in stiches with 650 and once paid $100 for an insurance policy that would pay him five dollars per stitch. Not long after, he was cut for 30 stitches and bragged later that the policy paid for itself and netted him a $50 profit. Gadsby broke his leg twice, his thumbs 11 times and his nose nine times.
When he wasn’t hurt, Gadsby was one of the best two-way players of his era. He blocked shots and went head-to-head against the best players in the game, all the while being a force at the other end of the ice. His 46 assists for the Rangers in 1958-59 stood as the league record until Bobby Orr shattered it with 87 assists 11 years later.
Gadsby played most of his career with the moribund Chicago Black Hawks and New York Rangers before moving to the Detroit Red Wings in the early 1960s. The only problem there was that the Toronto Maple Leafs were in the middle of their own mini-dynasty and when they weren’t winning Cups, the Montreal Canadiens were. Gadsby went to the Stanley Cup final three times in four years with the Red Wings and he came awfully close.
In 1964, the Red Wings led the final 3-2 over the Toronto Maple Leafs with the chance to win the Cup on home ice in Game 6, but that was the famous game when Leaf defenseman Bob Baun came back to score the overtime winner on a broken ankle. The Leafs went on to win the Cup at home. Two years later, the Red Wings stunned the Canadiens by taking the first two games of the final at the Montreal Forum, only to lose the next four straight.
Gadsby never harbored any ill will over his lack of team success and was always grateful for the good fortune he had to play in the NHL. As his health failed in recent years, his wife Edna, who would often removed Gatsby’s stitches with kitchen scissors, took care of him. “The greatest thing in his life was his wife,” Lindsay said. “He was a very lucky man to have such a wonderful woman.”