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Bill Gadsby: Stanley Cup eluded scrappy star NHL defenceman

Portrait of Bill Gadsby of the Detroit Red Wings, believed to be from the 1966-67 season.

David Durochik/AP

Bill Gadsby broke numerous bones, suffered at least two concussions and sported more stitches on his face than Frankenstein's monster.

Though often injured, he rarely missed a game in a 20-season National Hockey League career. He endured all those aches and all that pain in pursuit of a goal that ultimately eluded him.

Mr. Gadsby, who has died at 88, is considered one of the greatest players to fail to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.

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It was not for lack of trying. The big defenceman survived in an era of bloody NHL vendettas, playing as though he was a Hatfield and all his opponents were McCoys.

The six-foot, 180-pound defenceman was known for administering punishing body checks. He once left rival defenceman Tim Horton, a Toronto Maple Leafs player with his own deserved reputation for toughness, crumpled in a corner with a broken leg and a broken jaw.

Despite his intense and not always lawful pursuit of the puck (he spent the equivalent of more than 25 games in the penalty box), Mr. Gadsby had a reputation for a sunny disposition away from the rink. He attributed this to his great fortune in having survived two near disasters – the sinking of his ship by a Nazi submarine and a bout with polio at the height of his playing career.

William Alexander Gadsby was born on Aug. 8, 1927, in Calgary to English immigrants Elizabeth and Bill Gadsby. The boy played hockey on frozen ponds and sloughs, determining at a young age that he would earn his livelihood on ice.

In 1939, he accompanied his mother on an overseas trip to visit relatives in England. As Europe teetered towards war, the pair boarded the passenger liner Athenia for the return voyage to Canada on the very day Germany invaded Poland. They were at sea when Britain declared war. Hours later, a German U-boat struck the ship with a torpedo. Mother and son were rescued by a freighter after bobbing in a lifeboat in the icy waters of the North Atlantic for five hours. The attack killed 112 passengers and crew. The Gadsbys arrived safely in New York later in the month aboard the Mauretania.

Young Bill played junior hockey in Edmonton, where he was scouted by Bill Tobin of the Chicago Black Hawks. The rookie signed for the breathtaking sum of $7,500 (and a $3,000 signing bonus) and was assigned to the Kansas City Pla-Mors farm team. After just 12 games, the 19-year-old was called up to the woeful parent club.

In his first NHL game, he was clipped in the face by an errant stick. Twelve stitches were needed to close the gash, the first of what he concluded were more than 640 by the end of his playing career. He was nicknamed Scarface (as was teammate Ted Lindsay) for the amount of needlework he had undergone.

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He had icy blue eyes set apart in a long, horsey face bracketed by large jug ears with a nose that showed each of its 11 breaks had come from a different direction.

In the summer of 1952, as training camp neared, Mr. Gadsby's health took a precipitous decline. "Worst damn headache of my life," he once told The New York Times. He had contracted polio and spent three weeks in hospital, being released in time to join the Black Hawks for an exhibition game.

A steady player more than a flashy one, Mr. Gadsby never scored more than 14 goals in a season, though he became an adept playmaker who accumulated many assists after being traded to the New York Rangers early in the 1954-55 season.

In 16 seasons, Mr. Gadsby had only skated in 23 playoff games and had never won a series to advance to the Cup finals. That changed when he was acquired by the Detroit Red Wings. Mr. Gadsby skated in the Stanley Cup finals in 1963, '64 and '66 on a team featuring the scoring prowess of the great Gordie Howe, who would become a lifelong friend. Still, a championship eluded Mr. Gadsby. He even suffered the indignity of being the goat in Game 6 of the 1964 finals when Toronto defenceman Bobby Baun, his ankle fractured earlier in the game, floated a shot towards the Detroit goal which deflected off Mr. Gadsby's stick and into his own net. The Leafs defended their championship by winning the next game. It was the closest Mr. Gadsby got to winning the Cup.

He retired after the 1965-66 season as the all-time leading NHL defenceman in games played (1,248), points (130 goals and 438 assists for 568 points) and penalty minutes (1,539). He set an NHL record for assists in a season by a defenceman with 46 in 1958-59 (a mark Bobby Orr would smash a decade later).

In the summer of 1968, Mr. Gadsby was named coach of the Red Wings. He insisted he would emphasize more bodychecking by his defencemen.

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"When the forwards can come up the ice with you with their heads down, then you're in trouble," he said.

The Red Wings went 33-31-12 and missed the playoffs. They began the following season with two victories only to have owner Bruce Norris fire the coach an hour before the start of the third game of the 1969-70 season. As the team went on to lose a game against the visiting Minnesota North Stars that evening, fans at the Olympia chanted, "We want Gadsby!"

Away from the arena, Mr. Gadsby operated several successful enterprises, including an insurance business and a golf centre in Howell, Mich.

Mr. Gadsby died on Thursday in hospital in Farmington Hills, Mich. He had been diagnosed with throat cancer many years earlier. He leaves his wife, Edna, their four daughters, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

A three-time First Team All-Star and a three-time Second Team All-Star, he was also a three-time runner-up for the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenceman. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1970, an honour acknowledging his consistency and perseverance.

The old player would accept no pity for his ill-fated pursuit of hockey's holy grail. He titled his 2003 memoir, The Grateful Gadsby.

"After I beat that polio rap," he once said, "I knew that everything else that ever happened to me would be pure bonus."

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