Gordon Sparling directed Hockey Stars’ Summer, a 1951 ASN “Canadian Cameo,” with Andy O’Brien contributing the script.
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.
“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.”
By Gads: News today that Hall-of-Fame defenceman Bill Gadsby has died at the age of 88. Born in Calgary, he finished his distinguished career with the Detroit Red Wings in 1966 after a 20-year NHL career that also included stints with Chicago and the New York Rangers. (The Red Wings pay tribute to his life and eventful times here.) Above, some time in the 1950s, Toronto hatter Sam Taft takes a measure of Gadsby’s brow. (Photo: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4450)
A clowder of Detroit Red Wings takes the heat in … well, 1958 is the year cited, but given the make-up of the group, I think that 1961-62 might be more likely. From the top, left to right, that’s Leo Labine, Gordie Howe, and possibly Pit Martin (unless it’s Allan Johnson or Claude Laforge). Middle: Len Lunde, Warren Godfrey, Bill Gadsby, Vic Stasiuk. Front: Parker MacDonald, Alex Delvecchio, and Larry Jeffrey.
(Photo: Tony Spina Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)
Nothing confirmed yet, stayed tuned, but it sounds like Chicago just might — possibly — be prepared — shocking as it seems — to deal Bobby Hull.
Hard to believe, I know: just imagine the stir it must have caused in May of 1970. The Black Hawks had lost that year in the semi-finals, ejected in four games by Boston, which is when the rumours started to smolder that maybe Chicago would be trading either Hull or Stan Mikita. If it was Hull, then probably he was going to Toronto. That’s what Bill Gleason of The Chicago Sun-Times thought. Or maybe to one of the newer teams, Vancouver or Buffalo, because the NHL wanted to see them start pulling in more fans. Asked for his opinion, Chicago general manager Tommy Ivan said, “Is the report about Bobby Hull far-fetched? Well, nothing is far-fetched today.”
When Hull heard that he was on his dad’s farm near Picton, Ontario. He shrugged. “I don’t know why he said it. I guess that’s the kind of guy he is.”
“If I had a choice,” Hull went on to say, “I’d stay in Chicago. But that’s only because we own our home there and there’s a lot of stuff in the basement I’d have to dig up if we moved.”
With the NHL’s trade deadline coming down tomorrow, it’s as good a time as any to trot out a few more historical rumours. From January of 1938, for instance, there’s Red Dutton chatting away in the press about the possibility of shipping off Hooley Smith to the Montreal Maroons. Dutton was managing the New York Americans at the time, and Frank Calder had told him that Montreal was interested — the NHL president who also happened to be a director of the Amerks. It made sense, if for no other reason than the nostalgic one of Smith having captained the Maroons when they’d won the Stanley Cup in 1935.
Dutton’s heart was divided, though. “During the last few games with us,” he said, “Hooley has played the best hockey of the last six or seven seasons and I would not part with him for any amount of money if he were younger.”
But Hooley has his home and a business in Montreal and this plus the fact that I am anxious to build the Americans for the future might persuade me to consider a deal for him with the Maroons.
As for a straight swap, though, that’s out. There isn’t a player on that team I’d take on an even trade for Hooley. I’d want a first-class forward and a substantial sum of cash.
As it happened, the Maroons’ Tommy Gorman had already moved on. That same day, in the same paper, he was quoted as having said yes, he had indeed been interested in the Hooler, but that was over now. Continue reading