FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. – Hall of Fame defenseman Bill Gadsby, who finished out a brilliant 21-season career with the Red Wings as a player and then as a head coach in the 1960s, died Thursday at Beaumont Hospital after a very long battle with throat cancer. He was 88.
A truly rugged player during an era of defensive hockey, Gadsby is one of eight members of the Hockey Hall of Fame to collect more than 1,500 penalty minutes. He’s also among a handful of players who played 20 or more NHL seasons and never raised Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Gadsby, who also played for the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers, was traded to Detroit for a minor-leaguer in 1961.
Almost immediately after the Wings acquired him, the eight-time all star struck up a friendship with hockey legend Gordie Howe that lasted the rest of his life.
Upon retiring as a player – following the 1965-66 season – Gadsby became Howe’s coach, replacing Sid Abel behind the Red Wings’ bench for the 1968-69 campaign.
In 2003, Gadsby chronicled his astonishing career and childhood in his autobiography “The Grateful Gadsby”, in which Howe wrote the foreword.
“Everyone loved him as a person and hated to play against him,” Howe wrote. “At game time, Bill was a warrior. You won’t find a more competitive athlete. He was skilled, tough, fearless. He could play mean in the name of winning. But he was an honest player. He hit you square up. He hit you fairly, and when the game was over he was as gentlemanly of a soul as you would ever meet.”
Gadsby never dwelled much about the three times he reached the Cup finals with the Wings only to lose in five games to the Maple Leafs in 1963, in a seven-game series to Toronto in 1964, and in six games to Montreal in 1966.
Actually, Gadsby, who beat polio and survived a torpedo attack during World War II, was grateful to be alive to play in the NHL.
While he was visiting England in 1939 with his mother the war broke out in Europe. During the return trip to Montreal their ship, the S.S. Athenia, was sunk in the North Atlantic by a German submarine, killing 112 passengers and crew. Gadsby, then 11 years old, and his mom survived, spending five hours in a lifeboat.
In 1952, the year that the Blackhawks made him team captain in his seventh season in the league, he was felled by polio at the age of 25.
“After I beat that polio rap I knew everything else that ever happened to me would be pure bonus,” Gadsby once said.
Gadsby had numerous health issues in recent years. A heavy smoker, he had a double-bypass in September 2005 and an abdominal aortic aneurysm four months later. He battled throat cancer for years.
As a player, he received more than 650 stitches to close cuts received from high-sticks and flying pucks, earning the rugged defenseman the moniker Scarface II, following Ted Lindsay, the Red Wings’ original Scarface.
Gadsby often laughed about the stitches to his face because he was one of only a few players who took out insurance on cuts, which paid him $5 for every stitch he received.
Injuries also played a pivotal role in his career, making Gadsby hockey’s version of Evel Knievel, from broken legs, ribs, toes, cheekbones, shoulder separations and concussions.
Following his playing career, and short coaching stint with the Wings, Gadsby chose to stay in Detroit, where he started a flourishing insurance business.
As a player, Gadsby retired following the ’66 finals as the all-time points leader among defensemen with 568 points and 1,539 penalty minutes in 1,248 career regular-season games.
Among Red Wings’ defensemen, he still ranks No. 20 all time with 112 points in 323 games.
Gadsby, who loved golfing and deep-sea fishing in Hawaii with Howe, was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1970.
He is survived by Edna, his wife of more than 60 years, their daughters Brenda, Judy, Donna and Sandy, and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.