Chadwick, you bum, you're as blind as a bat!"
For 16 years, from 1939 to 1955, a baker with an upper-register decibel count hurled this specific charge at National Hockey League Referee Bill Chadwick from his seat in the reaches of Madison Square Garden. Each time Chadwick heard the critic yell he would chuckle to himself. Quietly, however, for he was not about to tell that fan—or anyone else if he could help it—that the charge was half true. As an official in one of the world's fastest major sports, Bill Chadwick was burdened with an astonishing handicap—he had vision in only his left eye. Following a freak hockey accident when he was 19 years old, he lost all the sight in the other.
"I was playing for an all-star amateur team from New York against a team from Boston," says Chadwick, who is now a Brooklyn businessman. "The other team was already on the ice practicing when we came out. I stepped one foot on the ice, when somebody shot the puck and hit me in the eye."
Doctors told the young athlete that he would never see again in his right eye, a prognosis that might have ended his career then and there. But less than six months later Chadwick won a position with the New York Rovers, a highly regarded farm team of the Rangers.
March 16, 1970
About a year and a half later, early in the 1937-38 season, Chadwick got hit in the other eye and was, momentarily, completely blind. "When the blood trickled into my eye and I couldn't see at all," he says, "I decided I had had enough hockey, at least as a player."
Within a few days Chadwick had regained full vision in his left eye, and a week later he was back in the Garden—but this time as a spectator only. When Tom Lockhart, president of the Eastern Amateur Hockey League, discovered that it was almost game time and that his regular referee had failed to arrive, he urged Chadwick to put on his skates and handle the game.
"Lockhart knew I had vision in only one eye," says Chadwick, "but he didn't seem to care. I worked the game, and apparently he liked the job I did. He asked me to be a regular linesman in the Eastern League, and then he promoted me to referee."
Chadwick's officiating also impressed Red Dutton, then president of the New York Americans. Dutton recommended Chadwick to NHL President Frank Calder, and within four years the 22-year-old Chadwick was appointed as a full-time major league referee. It was obvious from the start that he would be a good one.
"Psychologically," Chadwick contends, "having only one good eye made me a better official because the problem was always on my mind. I know I was on top of the play in most cases, and I skated harder than the other guys."
Early in his career, however, Chadwick decided it would be imprudent to advertise his defect. He confided his secret to the six NHL club owners who, in turn, told their managers, but few—if any—players or fans were aware of it. Fortunately for Chadwick, his officiating was of such a high standard—he now is one of the few referees in Hockey's Hall of Fame—that nobody in a responsible position complained about his work from 1939 through the end of the regular 1944-45 season.
By that time Chadwick had become acknowledged as the game's most accomplished referee, and so, naturally, he was assigned to handle the seventh and final game of the 1945 Stanley Cup playoffs between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at Olympia Stadium. The teams were tied 1-1 in the third period when Chadwick blew his whistle and signaled a penalty against a member of the home team.
"Gus Bodnar of the Leafs was behind his net," Chadwick recalls, "and Syd Howe of the Red Wings cross-checked him across the nose. There were only a few minutes left in the game when I gave Howe the penalty. While Howe was off, Babe Pratt of Toronto scored the winning goal, and the Leafs took the cup."
James Norris Sr., owner of the Red Wings, and his vitriolic manager, Jack Adams, never forgave Chadwick. Norris hounded him each year after that decision by demanding that he submit to an eye examination at the NHL office in Montreal.
"Frankly," says Chadwick, "I was glad that Norris and Adams were against me. In fact, it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me because, since they were against me the other five governors were for me. Nobody else in any way, shape or form let me know that I was working with only one good eye."
Chadwick was always concerned that some player might discover his handicap and needle him to distraction. He felt certain that the Red Wings, thanks to Jack Adams, must know he was unable to see out of one eye, yet none of the Detroit players ever bothered him. The same was true of Montreal and especially of the most petulant of all the Canadiens, Maurice Richard. The Rocket knew Chadwick's secret, yet never mentioned it to him.
There was one public leak about Chadwick's condition that might have been damaging had it escaped Detroit, where it originated. In 1942, shortly after the start of World War II, Chadwick was notified by Selective Service that he was to report for a physical at New York's Grand Central Palace, the Army's major induction center. It was near the end of the hockey season, and Chadwick requested a two-week delay to complete his playoff assignments. Somehow the news reached a Detroit hockey writer, Lew Walter, who wrote a short article for the Detroit Times. Chadwick remembers the headline: ONE-EYED REFEREE ASKS DEFERRAL.
Chadwick was rejected by the Army doctors, of course, and continued refereeing for thirteen more years, the longest refereeing career in NHL hockey. Despite his visual limitations, he never suffered a serious injury. He does admit to having committed many wrong calls, but so might any other honest ref. One of those goofs enabled the Canadiens to score a key goal against the Boston Bruins in a Stanley Cup semifinal game. Following the incident Lynn Patrick, the Bruins' manager, carped at Chadwick until the referee finally wheeled and skated directly to the Boston bench.
"Lynn," Chadwick said, "I made a mistake. I can't breathe in after it." Boston lost the game, and when it was over Patrick walked into the official's dressing room and told Chadwick he'd never criticize him again. "At least," said Patrick, "you were big enough to admit you made a mistake."
To this day, half-blind Bill Chadwick remains the only NHL referee to have been given a "night" as a tribute to his efficiency. He retired after the 1954-55 season at the age of 39, although several league officials tried to persuade him to continue.
"An athlete, whether he's a participant or an official," Chadwick explains, "should stop while he's on top. I did the right thing. I found that out nine years later when I was inducted into the Hall of Fame. I daresay that I got away with more on the ice—like giving Rocket Richard a pair of misconducts, one after another, in his home rink—than any of my compatriots because I had the players' respect."
Fans in several NHL cities had heard rumors from time to time that Chadwick had only one good eye, but beyond that story in the Detroit Times the report was never confirmed. The fans treated Chadwick with the same churlish respect accorded other NHL officials. He required police escorts to leave Chicago Stadium. He was hit with umbrellas in New York and just barely missed being struck by an airborne live octopus in Detroit.
Chadwick believes that part of his success was rooted in his ability to block out the knowledge of his deficiency. "Now I look back at the 16 years and wonder how I did it. I know if I had thought about it at the time I'd never have been able to do the job."
For the past three years Chadwick has been the color man on the New York Ranger radio broadcasts. He admits that he has, for the first time in his life, become involved as a fan. He unabashedly roots for the Rangers and has surprised himself several times by denouncing the quality of the officiating.
"It was most embarrassing," he says, "when I got out of my seat one night and discovered I had called the referee a blind so-and-so."