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Hall-of-Famer Bill Gadsby: A 20 year great, with no Stanley Cups—but he did influence four Cups for the Leafs

Watching an interview with Panther forward Cory Stillman last night on Leafs TV before the game reminded that the versatile veteran had helped two different teams win the Stanley Cup in the last several seasons.

Stillman is a fine player, and certainly contributed to each of those Cups, but sometimes timing has a lot to do with being a “winner”. You can be a solid player who contributes year after year, but if you and your team don’t get a lot of breaks along the way, winning a championship is very, very difficult to achieve.

Some guys play their entire career and never have the opportunity to win a Cup. Ray Bourque almost went that route—a splendid Hall-of-Famer who played 20+ years with the Bruins with nary a Cup win on his resume.

But in his second year in Colorado, Bourque finally earned a well-deserved ring.

That happy ending though, was not in the cards for one of the finest all-around defensemen of my youth, the rugged and talented Bill Gadsby.

Gadsby started his NHL career at 19 with the Black Hawks, and, remarkably, never played another day in the minors for the next twenty years in the old six-team NHL. He was tough and played through injuries, rarely missing games.

From the Hawks, he was traded to the Rangers where I was old enough to see him play in the late ’50 and early ‘60s.

There is an interesting Maple Leaf side note to Gadsby’s career. During the 1959-’60 season, the Red Wings tried (for the first time) to move disgruntled defenseman Red Kelly. Leaf fans know that Kelly ended up with the Leafs, but what happened is this: The Wings traded Kelly to the Rangers for Gadsby and Eddie Shack. Kelly refused to go the Rangers. He “retired” and took a job in local industry in Detroit.

However, General Manager Punch Imlach and his sidekick King Clancy (with permission) sweet-talked Red into joining the Leafs, and the Wings were so ticked at Kelly at that point that they relented, just to move him. They traded him to the Leafs for young defenseman Marc Reaume.

Of course, Gadsby and Shack were stuck with the Rangers, knowing the team had already tried to trade them.

In fact, a season later, Gadsby was traded—again—to the Wings, after Shack had been dealt to the Leafs. The player the Rangers acquired never played for them, and Kelly and Shack went on to win four Stanley Cups in Toronto in the 1960s.

As for Gadsby, he continued his stellar play in Detroit. (We have included a picture of Gadsby celebrating Gordie Howe’s record-breaking 545th career goal against Charlie Hodge and the Habs in Detroit in 1963. I believe Gadsby assisted on the historic marker.) I remember him as a strong skater, solid on his feet though not particularly fast as I recall. He wasn’t really an offensive defenseman by the time I remember him best in his later years in Detroit but looking back at his career stats, he put up some significant numbers throughout his career, including a ton of assists in his Ranger years.

He was tough, played hard, blocked tons of shots and was a smart player .

How good was Gadsby? To put it in perspective, in an era that had not only Kelly, but guys like Doug Harvey and many other greats in the league, Gadsby was an first or second team end-of-season NHL All-Star seven times—three times with the Hawks, three more time in New York, and once more at the end of his career with the Wings.

I mentioned that he never played on a Cup-winning team. It’s not that he didn’t deserve it, or come close, notably in Detroit.

The Wings lost in the ’61 finals just before Gadsby arrived. But he was a major factor in Detroit getting to the finals in 1963, 1964 and 1966. Each time they lost—the last time to Montreal, four games to two, in a series Detroit led two games to none at one point.

In 1964, the Wings probably should have beat the Leafs in the finals. They were leading the series three games to two. Game six went into overtime—the night the famous Bobby Baun goal sent the teams back to Toronto for Game 7, which Toronto won.

Gadsby retired after the Cup finals loss in 1966. He was named Head coach of the Wings before the 1968-’69 season, and though the team finished above .500, they missed the playoffs. The next season, the team won their first two games under Gadsby but he was fired. New advisors convinced Red Wing owner Bruce Norris that Gadsby wasn’t “sophisticated” enough to coach in the NHL, which to me was a crock.

Though Gadsby’s firing was unjust, it must have been satisfying when he was elected into the NHL Hall-of-Fame in 1970.

I will always remember an interview Gadsby gave to the Detroit Free Press during his one full season as Wings coach. The team was struggling a bit, and he was talking about the challenge of finding players and prospects. I may not be quoting him exactly, but he said something to the effect of “…maybe we should go watch some of the kids playing on the River Canard…”.

Well, the “River Canard” was the winding river in my home town of River Canard, where we kids, and I’m sure generations before and after me, played old-fashioned outdoor hockey on natural ice from morning till night, or until our feet were so frozen it killed us just to take our skates off.

I remember showing the article to a few of my hockey-playing buddies, and were excited at the prospect of Gadsby—or anyone from the Red Wings, for that matter—making the trek across the border to watch us teenagers play on our hometown river. It was an off-hand comment by the all-time great, but heady stuff nonetheless.

Though I was never a Red Wing fan, far from it, I had an admiration for Gadsby that only grew as the years went on. I realized and began to more fully appreciate what a truly outstanding career he carved in the NHL. Not a Cup champion but to me, he was a winner.

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