In the Original Six era, many goaltenders were famous for their heavily stitched up and scarred faces, but we would be remiss not to acknowledge some defensemen who faced similar levels of punishment. Bill Gadsby was known as one of the hardest-nosed defensemen in the NHL who would do anything for his team. Born in Calgary, Alberta in 1927, Gadsby played in Edmonton during his junior days before later catching the eye of the Chicago Black Hawks. Gadsby joined the team in 1946-47 as a 19-year old and played 48 games, scoring 8 goals and 18 points, remarkably good totals for a rookie, leading the NHL’s defensemen with his 8 goals.
Gadsby took a step back in the 1947-48 season as he played a full 60 games and opposing forwards grew to understand his style of play. Although Gadsby had a similar season in 1948-49 as well, it’s important to note that despite not being one of the best defensemen in the league at this time, Gadsby was still a top 2 defender for the Black Hawks. With the dawn of 70-game seasons, Gadsby’s offensive game was revitalized in 1949-50 and he scored 10 goals to go along with his 35 points, behind only Red Kelly in both stats. He also totaled 138 PIM, the highest mark he would hit in his entire career. Gadsby was en route to another solid season in 1950-51 when he suffered an injuries to his shoulder and leg, shortening his season to just 25 games and 10 points. While still playing less than a full season, Gadsby did play more in 1951-52 with 59 games played, scoring 7 goals and 22 points.
In 1952, Gadsby was named the captain of the Black Hawks at 25 years old. Gadsby had a rough year offensively, matching his prior year’s 22 points, but in nearly a full season at 68 games. Still, Chicago was finally more successful, earning Gadsby his first taste at NHL playoff hockey. Unfortunately for Gadsby and the Hawks, they bowed out in a seven-game series to the Canadiens, with Gadsby himself managing just 1 assist. Unwilling to easily accept defeat, Gadsby returned with a furor in the 1953-54 season, and scored 12 goals and 29 assists to set a personal high of 41 points and again finish just shy of Red Kelly. For the second time in his career, Gadsby was voted to the Second All-Star Team.
Shortly into the 1954-55 season, Chicago traded away their captain to the New York Rangers, where Gadsby would continue his quest for post-season success. In 1955-56, Gadsby would have what was arguably the best season of his career. He scored 9 goals, but had an incredible 42 assists, nearly tying the assist record set by Doug Harvey just one season earlier in 1954-55. Not only did Gadsby lead the league in assists, but his points totaled to 51, finally besting Red Kelly and earning him a spot on the First All-Star Team. Though he beat Kelly in Norris voting, it was Harvey who would take the honour of the NHL’s best defenseman, placing Gadsby at second in the Norris voting race. The Rangers made the playoffs and unlike the last time, Gadsby did not waste his chance to shine, scoring 4 points in 5 games. Still, the Rangers couldn’t beat the deadly Canadiens, and Gadsby’s playoff success remained limited to the first round.
While slightly less incredible, Gadsby still had another fantastic year in 1955-56, finishing second to Harvey in assists and points with 41 points. Gadsby was voted to the Second All-Star Team for a third time and the Rangers once again made the playoffs. Alas, the Rangers ended up facing the Canadiens and again dropped out in 5 games, but Gadsby did manage 3 points along the way, pulling his own weight. By the 1956-57 season, it was clear that Gadsby was in his prime and playing the best hockey of his life. Gadsby set a career-high of 14 goals and added a league-leading 32 assists for an NHL-best 46 points, despite missing five games during the season. Gadsby was voted to be an NHL First Team All-Star and again finished just short of Doug Harvey in the Norris voting. For the first and only time in his career, Gadsby even received attention for the Hart trophy finishing 6th in the voting. Despite facing the Boston Bruins instead of the Canadiens in the playoffs this time, the Rangers still fell, but in six games.
Determined to succeed, Gadsby, now 31 years old, has another incredible season in 1958-59, setting the new NHL record for assists by a defenseman with 46 assists. Gadsby also led the NHL’s defensemen with 51 points. Disappointingly, the Rangers missed the playoffs and, to put the cherry on top, Gadsby again finished second in Norris voting, this time to Tom Johnson of the Canadiens. After that season, Gadsby began to look a little deflated from his vain efforts to carry his teams to success. His 1959-60 season, while still strong, wasn’t at the dominant level he had previously shown. Gadsby improved slightly in the 1960-61 season, finishing third in points with 35, though his Rangers missed the playoffs again.
Gadsby was finally traded to the Detroit Red Wings prior to the 1961-62 season, expecting to largely serve a veteran leader’s role, as he was now 34 years old. Gadsby played in all 70 games and somewhat surprised with his fifth 30+ assist season and 37 points for fifth among all NHL defensemen. As Gadsby transitioned into his senior years, he transitioned his style to become more of a hard-nosed defensive physical defender and saw his PIM numbers once again rise. In 1962-63, he notched 28 points for third among NHL defenders and 116 PIM. Detroit made the playoffs and Gadsby would have another chance with a new team. Facing his old Chicago Black Hawks team, Gadsby’s Red Wings would come out victorious, finally granting Gadsby access to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time. They faced the last year’s returning Cup winners, the Toronto Maple Leafs and fell in five games.
Gadsby scored just 18 points in the 1963-64 season, but his role was known at this point. The Red Wings finished fourth in the regular season and faced the second-place Chicago Black Hawks in the playoffs. Gadsby again bested his former team as Detroit knocked out Chicago in a long seven-game series. Detroit unfortunately lost again to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the finals, but lasted seven games this time, resulting in a long and exhausting 14-game playoff run.
Despite not scoring a single goal in the 1964-65 season, Gadsby was recognized for excelling in his new role and a physical stay-at-home defender for Detroit, and was voted to the Second All-Star Team, as well as finishing third in Norris voting. In 1965-66, Gadsby perhaps surprised some, scoring 5 goals and 17 points in just 58 games. The Red Wings made the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season and Gadsby again had the pleasure of beating his former team, the Black Hawks, this time in six games. In the finals, the Red Wings faced the Montreal Canadiens and Gadsby would score the last goal of his NHL career in game one during the second period, en route to a 3-2 victory. After winning the first two games, the Canadiens came back strong and won the next four to take the Stanley Cup away from Gadsy and the Red Wings. Gadsby would then choose to retire, just a few months shy of his 39th birthday.
Gadsby retired at second in assists (438) and points (568) among defensemen, behind, you guessed it, Red Kelly. It wasn’t until the 1972-73 season that he was bumped down to third in points by the legendary Bobby Orr. His old assist record of 46 assists set in 1958-59 was tied twice by Pierre Pilote, but wasn’t surpassed until Pat Stapleton finally did it in 1968-69 with 50 assists. Gadsby served as Detroit’s coach for a short period after retiring before being let go after the team was unsuccessful. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1970.