Former NHL defenseman Bill Gadsby died last week at age 88. Gadsby, who spent 20 years minding the blueline for the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings, was tough as a two-dollar steak and representative of the robust, resilient players who skated in hockey’s pre-expansion era.
Gadsby not only tallied 130 goals and 438 assists, becoming the first defensemen to score more than 500 points during his career, but also notched more than 1,500 penalty minutes, while sustaining some 640 stitches and numerous broken bones while playing in the NHL between 1946 to 1966.
To say that Gadsby was a survivor would be an understatement.
As a 12-year old, he and his mother were aboard the British liner SS Athenia in early September 1939 when it was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine. The pair spent several hours in a lifeboat before being rescued. Some 128 passengers and crew died when the vessel sank.
When Gadsby was 25, he contracted polio at the Blackhawks training camp and narrowly averted paralysis, according to the New York Times. He quickly recovered and went on to play in 68 games that season.
Gadsby retired in 1966, the season before Bobby Orr made his debut with the Boston Bruins and revolutionized defense. While Orr would obliterate scoring records for defensemen, hockey didn’t forget about Gadsby. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1970.
Gadsby played long before the era of big money, yet, as the Times recounted, he found an interesting way to earn some extra compensation.
“When a local insurance man started offering players stitch insurance, I signed up immediately,” he once told the Hockey Hall of Fame. “Under terms of the $100 policy, I would receive $5 for every stitch I received that season.”
Soon afterward he incurred a cut that required 30 stitches to his lower lip.
“I had to laugh at the poor agent,” he said. “In less than two weeks I had paid for the policy. I had gotten back all my money, plus a $50 profit. I think they stopped offering that policy not long after that.”
(Top: Bill Gadsby, left, talks with teammate Gordie Howe, prior to a Detroit Red Wings game in 1963.)