Hockey fans tend to be quite proud of how tough players are. There's Bob Baun's 1964 Cup Final OT goal on a broken ankle, Steve Yzerman and Bobby Orr's bad knees, Mario Lemieux and Saku Koivu coming back from cancer...the list is long.
Few, however, have heard the tale of Blackhawks goalie Charlie Gardiner, who quite literally put his life on the line to help his team win the Cup.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Charlie spent most of his life in Winnipeg. Working his way through the ranks of the local teams, he was known as the “Wandering Scotsman” for his habit of leaving the net to stop challengers or handle the puck, an unusual habit for goalies of the era.
A local hero, he caught the eye of the Blackhawks, who signed him in 1927 in hopes of improving their somewhat mediocre team. Try as he might, he could not save the team known as Chicago's “goalless wonders,” and though team owner Major McLaughlin had lost faith in him, the coach did not.
Despite the team's 7-29-8 record, Charlie acquitted himself quite well. Five of those wins were shutouts, and his GAA was 1.85. Still, fans aren't very forgiving and the booing had gotten to Gardiner. At the end of the 1928-29 season, he was ready to go home. Teammate (and future Hall of Famer) Duke Keats persuaded him not to, and also helped him learn to think like a shooter.
Charlie and the team steadily improved and midway through the next season, McLaughlin was turning down offers for the Wandering Scotsman. By 1930-31, Charlie was leading the league in shutouts with twelve. His 1.73 GAA was nothing to sneeze at either.
With his lightning quick hands and feet, he was rarely caught out of position. He continued his habit of coming out of the net to challenge shooters or grab the puck, and earning grudging praise from opposing players.
In 1933, he was elected captain of the Blackhawks. Having earned a Vezina in 1932, and taken part in the Ace Bailey All-Star Game, there was only one thing left for Charlie: A Stanley Cup. He had helped the team to the Cup Final before with no success.
Charlie had a secret though. He was suffering from a tonsil infection that had begun in 1932 and never fully went away. Despite his stellar play, he was often very sick. He would vomit and/or collapse in the dressing room, suffering high fevers. On at least one occasion he was rushed to a hospital after a game.
After a summer of prescribed treatment (rest, fluids, and aspirin), Charlie felt ready for the season. He wanted to play so much that he actually lied to Blackhawks GM Tommy Gorman, telling him the condition was gone. It's possible though, that the symptoms had receded and Charlie thought he was cured.
He wasn't though, and in January 1934, Charlie began experiencing severe pain, especially in his head, neck, lower back, and kidneys. He told a suspicious Gorman it was just a persistent bad headache. As it got worse, he began seeing black spots in his vision and suffering high fever. He began to display other symptoms of uremia. He would often drape himself across the goalpost due to extreme fatigue. Sometimes he'd even black out momentarily. A doctor tended to him between periods.
Once a rather outgoing and cheerful man, his moods became mercurial. His behaviour became erratic. The team assumed he was suffering from “nerves,” and sent him off for a day of rest between games. Despite all of the incredible pain he was in, Charlie only allowed 12 goals in 8 playoff games (a 1.50 GAA).
An intensely competitive player, Charlie did not suffer losses lightly. "He just went all to pieces, and after [a 1934 playoff loss to Detroit], while we were still in our underwear, we had a scuffle in the dressing room. Major McLaughlin (the owner of the team) came in and turned the shower on and threw us both in and told us to cool off,” teammate Johnny Gottselig recalled.
Before the final game on April 10, 1934, Gardiner told his teammates that they only needed to score one goal to win, and he'd do the rest.
With 18,000 fans crammed into Chicago Stadium to watch, Charlie kept his word. The 0-0 game went into double overtime, and finally, Mush March slammed the puck past the Detroit goalie, securing Chicago's first-ever Stanley Cup.
After their win, Charlie collected on a bet he'd made with teammate Roger Jenkins, and thousands watched as Jenkins pushed Gardiner around the Loop in a wheelbarrow. It was the first and last Stanley Cup celebration for Gardiner.
A few weeks later, Charlie Gardiner collapsed and ultimately died of a brain hemorrhage. He was 29 years old. The goalie who had served the Blackhawks so well and had never missed a minute of six (almost 7) consecutive seasons was no more.
“He pioneered so much of the game. He was the first one to skate out and cut off the angle and fall down to block shots. Other goalies just stood up in the nets in those days,” Gottselig said. “He was a great one,” Mush March agreed.
The Hall of Fame agreed as well, and in 1945, Charlie Gardiner, the first and only goalie to captain his team to a Stanley Cup, became a member of the inaugural class.
He hasn't been forgotten in the UK, either. In 2012, the Elite Ice Hockey League switched to a conference system, and named one of them Gardiner in his honor.