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Chadwick unique among referees in NHL history

New York native earned berth in Hockey Hall of Fame despite being blind in one eye

by Stan Fischler / Special to NHL.com

Legendary hockey reporter and analyst Stan Fischler is writing a weekly scrapbook for NHL.com this season. Fischler, known as "The Hockey Maven," will share his knowledge, humor and insight with readers each Wednesday.

Today, he looks at Bill Chadwick, the first U.S.-born NHL referee to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame:

 

Bill Chadwick was one of a kind, in more ways than one.

For starters, he was the only referee in NHL history who had sight in just one eye. For another, the New York native was superb enough to be the first U.S.-born referee inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

How could this have happened? A referee who had no sight in one eye becoming one of the best in the business?

Blame it on two accidents that took place en route to what Chadwick had hoped would be an NHL playing career.

Chadwick won plaudits for his talent as a forward in New York's Metropolitan Hockey League. He was named an MHL All-Star and was being eyed by New York Rangers officials who often attended Met League games at Madison Square Garden. But as Chadwick, then 19, stepped on the ice to skate in an All-Star Game against a team from Boston in March 1935, he was accidentally hit in the right eye by a flying puck.

"The other team was already on the ice practicing when I came out," he remembered. "I stepped one skate on the ice when somebody shot the puck and hit me in the eye."

Chadwick was informed while in the hospital that he no longer had sight in the injured eye. But he returned to the ice and in 1936 won a spot with the New York Rovers, a highly regarded Rangers farm team in the Eastern Amateur Hockey League.

He appeared to be well on his way to getting a tryout with the Rangers when fate struck again. Early in the 1936-37 season, Chadwick was hit in his good eye by an opponent's stick and was momentarily blinded. He regained full vision in the eye within a few days, but he decided he'd had enough of being a hockey player. However, Tom Lockhart, who ran the Met League and the Eastern League, had become friendly with the young player and needed help one day, opening the door for a new career.

"One of Tommy's linesmen was snowbound the day of a game," Chadwick recalled, "so he asked me to pinch-hit as an official. And that's how I eventually got into the refereeing business."

Nobody in the Met League or the Eastern League made a big deal about the one-eyed referee. At the time, Madison Square Garden housed two NHL teams, the Rangers and New York Americans; Red Dutton, president of the Americans, recommended to NHL President Frank Calder that the League hire Chadwick. Late in 1939, he became a linesman (and the NHL's first U.S.-born official); a year later, at age 24, he was hired as a full-time referee.

Chadwick made it a point not to publicize his eyesight issue, but the news broke when he reported for a physical during World War II.

Like otherwise able-bodied men his age, Chadwick was drafted and was examined by Army medics. The exam came near the end of the NHL season. In order to finish officiating the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Chadwick requested a two-week delay, which was granted, but the news was leaked to a reporter for the Detroit Times.

Writer Lew Walter wasted no time doing a story that was accompanied by a headline Chadwick never forgot: "One-Eyed Referee Asks For Draft Deferment."

However, the story was never picked up outside Detroit. Meanwhile, Chadwick took his Army physical and was rejected because of blindness in his right eye. He came back and refereed in the NHL for another 13 seasons -- though not without incidents; some were amusing, others were not.

While officiating a game between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins, Chadwick mistakenly blew his whistle, costing Boston a goal. Bruins coach Lynn Patrick tongue-lashed him so vehemently that he finally skated to Boston' bench.

Chadwick looked the coach in the eyes and explained, "Lynn, I made a mistake. I can't breathe in after it. I made a mistake." Following the game, Patrick entered the officials' room and told Chadwick he'd never criticize him again. Why? "Because you were big enough to admit your mistake," Patrick said.

Spectators were less understanding. "Fans liked to needle me, yelling, 'Chadwick, you're blind.' And I'd say to myself, 'Well, they're half-right.'"

Among Chadwick's most significant accomplishments as a referee was his introduction of hand signals during the 1940s. The NHL officially adopted his signaling system in 1956, one year after he retired.

"From the very start of my career with the NHL, I studied the game very intently," he told me for my book "Metro Ice." "I got the idea for the arm signals early in my career, and I was delighted that the League made them official while I still was around.

"I tried other things to help officiating. I'd examine the history of the two teams I'd be handling and do that before every game. I'd also talk to the referees who handled the teams in previous games. If I felt my game would be especially rough, I'd tell the centers at the opening face-off, 'This is going to be a tough one. Be careful.'"

Chadwick officiated 42 games in the Stanley Cup Finals before retiring after the 1954-55 season, a record that stood until Bill McCreary surpassed it in 2010. He decided to hang up his skates because, "I wanted to go out on top." Chadwick was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1964 and the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame a decade later.

But he couldn't leave the NHL altogether. Chadwick eventually became a radio color man and later a TV analyst for Rangers games. Arthur Friedman, the statistician on New York's radio broadcasts in the late 1960s, nicknamed him "The Big Whistle," a tag that play-by-play man Marv Albert popularized. It stayed with Chadwick for the rest of his life, and he liked the nickname so much that he used it as the title for his 1974 autobiography.

Chadwick's passion for hockey was apparent to anyone who heard him on radio or TV. However, there was one night he admittedly went emotionally overboard during a game.

"It was most embarrassing," Chadwick said. "I got out of my seat one night and discovered I had called the referee 'A blind so-and-so!'"

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