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Ex-Blackhawks star Bill Gadsby, dead at 88, survived Nazi attack

Bill Gadsby in his days with the Blackhawks. File photo

Bill Gadsby was a rugged defenseman whose 20-year National Hockey League career with the Blackhawks, New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings won him a slew of accolades.

A seven-time All-Star, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1970, ranked No. 99 when Hockey News put together an all-time list of “100 greatest hockey players” in 1998, listed as No. 63 by the 2009 book on the New York Rangers “100 Ranger Greats” and named by the Chicago Sun-Times in 2010 as one of the top 50 Blackhawks players ever.

Mr. Gadsby, who played eight-plus seasons with the Blackhawks and retired as the NHL’s assists leader among defensemen (437), died March 10 at Beaumont Hospital in Farmington Hills, Michigan, according to his wife of 63 years, Edna. He was 88 and lived in Southfield, Michigan.

William A. Gadsby was born Aug. 8, 1927, in Calgary, Alberta.

That he survived long enough to get to the NHL was something of a miracle, he recalled in a 2005 Sun-Times interview. On Sept. 3, 1939, when he was 12, he and his mother were traveling back to Canada by ocean liner from a trip to see family in England when the ship was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland. They bobbed for hours in a lifeboat before being rescued. The death toll was 118.

“My mother and I were on the ship Athenia when the Nazis torpedoed it in the first hours of World War II,” Mr. Gadsby said. “Quite a few people drowned. I can still hear voices yelling, ‘Women and children first!’ We were rescued in life rafts by an English freighter. I remember filling sandbags on the beach in case the Nazis came ashore.”

That wasn’t his only close call growing up.

Bill Gadsby
Bill Gadsby

“I was about 14 in Calgary when a huge piece of concrete fell from a building about four stories up and just grazed my shirt,” he said in the 2005 interview. “I would have been killed.”

The threats weren’t as dire in hockey. Still, he suffered plenty of wounds playing in the pre-helmet era of the sport.

“I had 640 stitches, 11 broken noses, many broken toes, a fractured fibula and a broken shoulder that still protrudes two inches higher than the other,” he recalled.

He said his wife Edna “kept a list of the stitches. If a doctor was unavailable, she’d get out scissors and tweezers and remove them herself. If that isn’t love, what is?”

His worst cut?

“Toronto’s Hugh Bolton sent a rocket screeching toward the net. Just as he completed his follow-through, Bill Mosienko skated in front of me, and I never saw the puck. The cut in my lip was as wide as the Grand Canyon. The final tally was 30 stitches. My diet was toast and tea for three weeks. I lost 11 pounds.”

Not that Mr. Gadsby minded the violent nature of hockey.

“I enjoyed the physical side of hockey,” he told his biographer. “I enjoyed hitting people with hard, clean body checks. I didn’t want to maim my opponents. I just wanted to get their attention. My belief was every time you hit someone, you took something out of him.”

Mr. Gadsby started in the NHL with the Hawks, playing in Chicago from the 1946-1947 season to 1955. He was made team captain and had a total of 54 goals and 131 assists with the Hawks.

“We had great players like Johnny Mariucci, Bill Mosienko, Doug and Max Bentley, Roy Conacher, Bert Olmsted and Gus Bodner,” Mr. Gadsby said in the Sun-Times interview. “But we were never above .500. We didn’t have enough supporting players.”

He remembered Mariucci as “the toughest man I ever met. When I first came up to the Blackhawks, I watched this great veteran slather liniment over his body to reduce the pain so he could play.”

Bill Gadsby. Hockey Hall of Fame
Bill Gadsby. Hockey Hall of Fame

He said of Mosienko: “I was on the ice for the Blackhawks in 1952 when Bill scored three goals in 21 seconds. I’ve never seen anything like it since.”

While playing for the Blackhawks, Mr. Gadsby was diagnosed with polio during pre-season training in 1952. He made a full recovery, which wasn’t often the case then, and was able to play the full season.

The Hawks later traded him to the Rangers, where he had his best seasons, setting what was a record at the time for assists by a defenseman in 1958-1959 with 46.

The day before the Rangers traded him to Detroit, the Rangers played the Red Wings, and Mr. Gadsby had a run-in on the ice with Gordie Howe, the great scoring star.

“I was told the story by Bill a few years ago,” said Howe’s son, Mark Howe. “Gordie and he went into a corner, and Gordie told Bill to take it easy because he was going to be playing here tomorrow.”

Bill Gadsby ended his playing career with the Detroit Red Wings and also briefly coached the team. AP file photo
Bill Gadsby ended his playing career with the Detroit Red Wings and also briefly coached the team. AP file photo

Mr. Gadsby ended his playing career with the Red Wings, retiring in 1966 after playing a total of 1,248 games and finishing with 130 goals and 438 assists.

He never won the Stanley Cup. But he reached the Stanley Cup finals three times, all with Detroit — in 1963, 1964 and 1966.

He later coached the Red Wings for just over a season, going 35-31-12 and quitting during the 1969-1970 season after just two games — both of them wins.

Even after leaving Chicago, the Blackhawks had a way of sticking with him — though not necessarily in a good way.

He remembered one encounter with Hawks scoring great Bobby Hull as particularly rough: “Bobby hit me with a shot in the solar plexus that rendered me unconscious for several seconds” — but he added, “I played the next shift.”

In “The Grateful Gadsby,” the 2003 memoir that Gordie Howe urged him to write, he wrote: “If I have a pulse, I believe I should play.”

Hull’s teammate Stan Mikita was worse in Mr. Gadsby’s view: “I had my worst fights with that guy. I admired him as a player, but he was a dirty, little guy and as tough as they come. He’d get in front of the crease and butt and spear and trip. I probably hit him 12 times harder than I hit anybody else to get his attention. Sometimes, he’d crawl to the bench, but then he’d be back out there again. I’d say, ‘One of these days, you’re not going to get back up,’ and he’d say, ‘We’ll see who doesn’t get back up.’ ”

After hockey, Mr. Gadsby remained in Detroit, where he worked as a salesman for a crane company, ran a hockey school and lived near his best friend and all-time hockey great Gordie Howe.

But the grind got to him, he recalled in the 2005 interview, in which he spoke of how he became an alcoholic — and ended up beating the bottle.

Bill Gadsby. Hockey Hall of Fame
Bill Gadsby. Hockey Hall of Fame

“It started with business dinners after company hours,” he said. “It’s a terrible feeling when you need a drink at 10 or 11 a.m. My daughters and their husbands finally came to the house to confront me. They sat around the kitchen table and let me have it. I entered Alcoholics Anonymous and was saved. It’s been 17 years since my last drink. Now, it’s coffee, coffee, coffee.”

In retirement, Mr. Gadsby liked to play golf and go deep-sea fishing in Hawaii.

Beside his wife, survivors include his children Brenda Golembiewski, Judy Gadsby, Donna Malott and Sandy Groth, 9 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. A funeral was being held Saturday in Beverly Hills, Michigan.

Contributing: USA Today Network