needle points

Embroidery Lesson: The Seattle Star accounts for the damage done to Cully Wilson, star of the local PCHA Metropolitans, circa 1915.

Embroidery Lesson: The Seattle Star accounts for the damage done to Cully Wilson, star of the local PCHA Metropolitans, circa 1915.

Bill Gadsby, the Hall-of-Fame defenceman who died last week at the age of 88, suffered for his art. He hit his opponents hard during his 20 years on NHL bluelines, as the obituaries and appreciations duly noted, and that had its costs. Not that he complained. “If your going to give it,” the insufficiently proofread cover of his 2003 autobiography quotes him, “you’d better be able to take it.”

Gadsby’s career damages included the two broken legs, four smashed toes, nine fractured noses — unless, maybe, were there 11 of those, to match the 11 thumbs he injured?

Also, his stitches. At The Hockey News last week, Ken Campbell was quick to crown Gadsby as “the unofficial owner of the all-time league high in stitches with 650.” Dave Stubbs from NHL.com agreed, though he did couch the claim a little more, citing Gadsby’s “unofficial Original Six record of roughly 650 stitches sewn into his face.” In The New York Times, Richard Goldstein, who had nothing to say about records, told his readers that “Gadsby incurred some 640 stitches, many in his face.”

I write here as someone who’s spent some time browsing the medical tolls that hockey exacts from its players as well as the ways in which they’ve figured in the history and the lore of the game. I covered stitch-counting in the book that shares a name with this blog, sewed it up, maybe you’d say — or I would. Still, I’m glad to go through it all again.

First up: what’s the right number when it comes to accounting for the stitches Gadsby needed to bind all his bodily cuts and tears over the course of his NHL career?

The Hockey Hall of Fame website doesn’t hovers over a big but inexact number: “He reputedly received more than 600 stitches to his face.” Joe Pelletier at Greatest Hockey Legends.com can get behind that, even if he’s not willing to limit the count to the face: Gadsby “took approximately 600 stitches due to high sticks and flying pucks.”

Pelletier does say that the defenceman was cut for 12 stitches in his very first NHL game, in 1946, when he debuted for the Chicago Blackhawks. I can’t find anything to back that up, and if it happened, Gadsby forgot about it, too. In that autobiography of his, The Grateful Gadsby, his very own as-told-through-Kevin-Allen story, he recalls that he assisted on a Pete Horeck goal. “Other than that I can’t tell you much about the game. Probably I had too many butterflies to record much in my memories.”

How many butterflies? Sorry, no, stick to stitches. On that, the book is precise: 640 is the number we get on chapter one, page the first. Two pages on:

The reason I know how many stitches I had is that my dear wife, Edna, kept a log of how many times I was hurt, just like some spouses keep a list of birthdays and anniversary dates. That was just part of our life.

Later, with an insurance policy, Gadsby’s stitches proved profitable, as I’ve also written before — but maybe that calls for a separate elaboration, to follow.

Next question, for now: is Gadsby’s 640 some of kind of individual record among players, Original Six or otherwise?

Hockey’s stitch lit goes back almost as far as the organized game itself. Cully Wilson is a name that arises prominently from the early years. A two-time Stanley Cup winner in pre-NHL days, he had the accounting advantage of newspapermen keeping a running total of his sutures. Here’s The Calgary Daily Herald in 1926:

Wilson started his professional hockey career in 1912, and the first year out he was cut for 12 stitches.

Fast forward 14 years:

Two more stitches have been added to Cully Wilson’s carved visage, and the total in his face has risen to 80, the greatest record of any player in the history of hockey.

Sometimes mentioned as Wilson’s heir is Walter Smaill, once of the Cobalt Silver Kings and Montreal’s Wanderers, said to have accumulated 168 stitches in a career that only lasted 137 games.

Next up: Helge Bostrom, defenceman for the Chicago Black Hawks. He was on record as having sustained 100 stitches in 1931 when a skate cut three of the four tendons in his left leg in a collision with Earl Seibert of the New York Rangers and Dr. H.O. Clauss’s repair work added either 140 or 145 more to his tally.

In the late 1930s, Ching Johnson was said to have been — well, more stitched than not. An excitable columnist once said his sewings went as high as 5,000. I don’t know what Johnson thought of that, but he did respond, in 1937, to a report that he’d taken 1,000 in his time. “Where could they put them?” he’s quoted as having said. “I’ve had only 374.”

Lionel Conacher’s catalogued his career of pain for Maclean’s in 1936, including:

a total of more than 500 stitches in my face and head, another 150 or so in the rest of my gnarled anatomy.

A case might be made (as I wrote in Puckstruck) for Gordie Howe, who was declared on a 1968 magazine cover to be “Hockey’s Man Of 1,000 Stitches.” Howe’s own calculations are more modest — and unsettled. The biography on his website says that in years on the ice he amassed “500 stitches in his face alone.” That jibes with what Howe says in an “authorized autobiography” he wrote with Tom DeLisle in 1995, and … Howe!

 In another one, written with Paul Haavardsrud’s help, he begs to differ with himself. “Over my career,” he confides in Mr. Hockey: My Story (2014),

I figure I’ve taken more than 300 stitches to my face alone. [Wife] Colleen wondered if that might qualify me for a Guinness world record, but I told her I knew some goalies that definitely had me beat. For what it’s worth, as a connoisseur on the subject I can tell you that not all stitches are created equal. I labeled the area than ran from my nose to below my mouth as the triangle of pain. Taking stitches there was no kind of fun. Getting sewn up in a place with fewer nerve endings, like the forehead, is a breeze in comparison.

It’s an interesting shift. I don’t know how to explain it. What kind of audit would have been involved in this kind of adjusted reporting? Either way, of course, five hundred or three, it’s a lot. “One year I had 50 stitches in my face,” Howe told Larry Bortstein of Family Weekly in 1970. “That was a bad year. A good year is when I have 10 or less.”

Eddie Shore? His count, too, fluctuates. Was it 600? You’ll also find estimates across the years ranging from 900 through 987. Trent Frayne says 964; Shore biographer C. Michael Hiam tells us he was “cut 100 times, receiving 978 stitches.”

That last one is the number that surfaces most often — including in The Catholic Digest in 1951. Other writers are content with resonant approximations. Austen Lake, for instance: “In a rough sum, he had more stitches in his flesh than a tailor needs to make an overcoat.”

That’s probably enough for now, even as I own that we haven’t talked about the goaltenders. Let’s leave it at this: I haven’t yet happened on any, even from the desperate, maskless days pre-1959, claiming more than 500.

As for latter-day challengers, Hall-of-Fame defenceman Rod Langway is one I hadn’t come across before. He was starting into the second-last of his 15 NHL seasons in 1991 when he talked to Tony Kornheiser of The Washington Post about his close encounters with monofilament.

“Over 1,000,” Langway said calmly.

Over 1,000?

“Oh sure,” he said. “I’m close to 100 already this year. No, probably closer to 70. I took 11 in the ear in the opener against Philadelphia, these eight in the nose, that’s 19.

Langway made some cursory calculations in his head and said, “I’ve gotten stitched in seven of the 19 games I’ve played.”

Australia's Sydney Sun-Herald reports on the Yanks and their hockey, circa 1976.

Australia’s Sydney Sun-Herald reports on the Yanks and their hockey, circa 1976.