Skip to main content

Chadwick never set out to be a hockey innovator

by Evan Weiner

"Being an American and all of the referees are Canadian, they were like dead fish. You never noticed the referee, but they noticed me and they had to notice me because I made my presence known."
-- Bill Chadwick

It is pretty common for referees at all levels of hockey, from the beginners to the NHL, to give hand signals when doling out penalties. But the practice that was started back in the 1930s by Bill Chadwick came about purely by accident.

Chadwick, who recently passed away at the age of 94, refereed more than a 1,000 NHL regular-season and playoff games between 1939 and 1955. He returned in 1967 and became a broadcaster and lasted until 1981, having two different and very successful careers, even though he never set out to have either one.

Chadwick was a former hockey player with the New York Rovers of the Eastern Hockey League who literally was called out of the stands to officiate a game. He seemed lost without his gloves and stick, but that is getting a little ahead of the story. Chadwick was a rarity, an ice hockey player who honed his skills in New York City and played in the Metropolitan Hockey League. He seemed to be headed to a higher level of hockey when disaster struck.

"I started refereeing, I was out injured playing with the New York Stock Exchange in an All-Star Game (at Madison Square Garden when he was hit with a puck in his eye as a 19-year-old in 1935). I lost the sight of my right eye. I played for two more years (with the Rangers' minor-league New York Rovers team) and got hit in the left eye and I had to quit," Chadwick said.
"In 1937, (Eastern Amateur Hockey League Commissioner) Tom Lockhart called me out of the stands. It was a snow storm and the referee didn't show up and he says, 'Bill will you referee?' I didn't know anything about it, but I refereed and a year and a half later I was in the National Hockey League.

"But getting back to Lockhart -- he said you got to take your hands out of your pockets (while officiating). I was skating with my hands in my pockets, so I started using signals. Ten years after I retired, in '55, the league adopted them. … I became very vocal, also."

During his time as a New York Rangers radio and TV analyst, Chadwick became known as "The Big Whistle." But he did more than just whistle down plays. He actually became a part of the game in an era where referees were seldom noticed. The hand signals he introduced were a product of common sense.

"I thought it was every obvious when they were holding to hold my hand up like this," Chadwick said, demonstrating a hold during an interview done in the 1990s. "Interference, I used to spread my arms -- they changed that one I guess, or tripping is very easy, slashing was very easy, and I used to use it. And when I called the play I hollered it out and everybody in the building heard me.

"It was educational."

Chadwick's gesture for holding was grabbing his wrist; for slashing he used his right hand to chop down on his left arm; his tripping call was a chopping motion behind the knee. No one in the NHL, from executives to his fellow referees to the players, knew that he was blind in his right eye. He just went about doing his job.

Chadwick wasn't entirely original in his creation. He gave some credit to a basketball referee he watched during those days for some inspiration.

"I think I might have taken some, and not on purpose (from) Pat Kennedy (who) was a basketball official at that time and he was very vocal and I think I might have adopted some of that. Not intentionally, but I did," Chadwick confessed.

Chadwick was the only American-born referee in those days, and he stood out for a number of reasons. He was loud, he had hand signals and he had personality.

"Being an American and all of the referees are Canadian, they were like dead fish," said Chadwick. "You never noticed the referee, but they noticed me and they had to notice me because I made my presence known. Dead fish, that's right. (Fellow referee) Red Storey was colorful. … In the beginning (the players) thought I was showboating, but after a while they liked it because I explained it to them."

Chadwick never was a zebra; during his day referees wore a shirt complete with a tie and a white sweater. He was rather thankful he never wore a black and white striped shirt.

The showboating didn't prevent Chadwick from being elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1964. In 1966, Chadwick became the first referee elected into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.

An entire generation of hockey fans in New York had no idea Chadwick was a Hall of Fame referee in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. He was one of the Rangers' selling points in the 1970s even though they had a pretty good team, with Hall of Famers like Rod Gilbert, Brad Park, Ed Giacomin, Jean Ratelle and later Phil Esposito. Chadwick talked about his wife Millie, spoke fractured English and had a way with words. He criticized players and officials alike and had quite a following. He was vocal and became a Rangers booster to the point where he had a catch phrase whenever defenseman Barry Beck had the puck at the point. During telecasts Chadwick would act like a typical Rangers fan, complaining that Beck seemed more interested in setting up plays rather than shooting at the net. Chadwick during a broadcast said "Shoot the puck, Barry," and that became a chant at the Garden during Beck's Rangers career.

Chadwick had two great careers and came up with a hockey innovation that is used at every hockey game played around the world. That is quite an accomplishment for someone who never set out to change the hockey world.

View More

The NHL has updated its Privacy Policy effective January 16, 2020. We encourage you to review it carefully.

The NHL uses cookies, web beacons, and other similar technologies. By using NHL websites or other online services, you consent to the practices described in our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service, including our Cookie Policy.