Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Gardiner's Finest Hour

     The 1934 Stanley Cup finals against the Detroit Red Wings would be a real test for the Blackhawks and their star goalie Chuck Gardiner. Not only had the Hawks finished second to the Wings in the regular season, but they hadn’t won a game in Detroit in more than four years—and the first two games of the best-of-five series were to be played in Detroit’s Olympia Stadium.
     In the first game, Gardiner and Wings goalie Wilf Cude both performed brilliantly. The game was deadlocked 1-1 after regulation play and remained so through an entire sudden-death period. Had Gardiner allowed another goal, the Wings would have had all the momentum—as well as further proof that the Hawks couldn’t win at Detroit. But at 1:05 of double overtime, Paul Thompson scored the game-winner for the Hawks. In the second game, Gardiner completely stymied Detroit as the Hawks gained a 4-1 victory. The Hawks needed to win just one more game to secure the Stanley Cup.
     Showing some grit of their own, however, the Red Wings won the third game 5-2 at the Stadium. Another heroic effort by Wilf Cude made the difference. Cude turned aside 42 shots, despite sustaining a broken nose in a nasty collision with the Hawks’ Rosario Couture midway through the second period. Although they outshot the Wings 44-36, the Hawks were beaten convincingly. Gardiner and forward Johnny Gottselig, close friends off the ice, almost came to blows late in the game. “Everything was breaking against us in those last few minutes and their nerves blew up,” Hawks coach Tommy Gorman explained to the press. “After the game was over they shook hands, and the incident is completely forgotten.”
     Hawks owner Major Frederic McLaughlin deduced that Gardiner was suffering from “nervous exhaustion” and packed him off to Wisconsin for two days of rest and relaxation. Gardiner returned in time for the fourth game of the series, but teammates wondered if he would be able to play effectively—if at all.
     He played. It was April 10, 1934, and a throng of almost 18,000 at the Stadium was treated to one of the most dramatic, tension-filled contests imaginable. Again Gardiner and Cude were superb under the most intense pressure. While the crowd grew progressively more anxious, the game remained scoreless for three periods. Then the first 20-minute overtime session came and went.
     The big break came halfway through the second overtime when Detroit defenseman Ebbie Goodfellow was sent off for tripping. The Hawks’ top forward line of Doc Romnes, Thompson, and Mush March had peppered Cude all night to no avail, but now they had a man advantage. Their first two rushes up ice were thwarted by the Red Wings. On the third try Romnes surged over the blue line and slid the puck to March. Though he was knocked offstride by a Detroit defender, March still managed to fire a low wrist shot from about 20 feet out. Cude got a piece of it with his right leg, but the puck spun into the net behind him. The Stadium erupted. March—all five-foot-five and 140 pounds of him—dove into the net to retrieve the puck for a souvenir. The Hawks were Stanley Cup champions.
     Gardiner had played his best game when it counted most, stopping 40 shots in 90 minutes of play. In eight playoff games, he had lost only once. In the seven winning games, he had allowed a total of seven goals. He had recorded two shutouts. “He’s the greatest goalie that ever donned the pads,” said Gorman. “He won the title for the Blackhawks. Without him, we wouldn’t have made it.”
     The next day, Gardiner collected on an early-season bet he had made with defenseman Roger Jenkins. Because the Hawks had won the championship, Jenkins owed Gardiner a wheelbarrow ride around downtown Chicago. Flourishing a bouquet of roses presented by Lionel Conacher, Gardiner was carted through the streets of the Loop while teammates and bystanders cheered.

     Only two months after his greatest triumph, Chuck Gardiner was dead. On June 10, 1934, he collapsed in Winnipeg and fell into a coma. As was not uncommon at the time, Gardiner was initially treated at home, but when his condition worsened he was moved to a hospital. Blackhawks general manager Bill Tobin wired Mrs. Gardiner offering to send specialists from Chicago, but it was too late. On June 13, only a few hours after entering the hospital, Gardiner died. He was 29 years old.
     An autopsy determined that a brain tumor was the cause of Gardiner’s death. Only now did Tommy Gorman and others reveal that Gardiner had experienced severe headaches and nausea during the latter part of the regular season and throughout the playoffs. It turned out that he had been ill for months, yet he had not missed a single minute of play. He had, in fact, played more determinedly even as his symptoms became more ominous.
     “Gardiner was loved by everybody who knew him,” said Tobin. “He was hockey’s greatest goaltender. His loss is going to be a terrible hardship to the team.”
     Gardiner remains the only goalie to captain the Hawks and the only goalie to captain a Stanley Cup championship club.

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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