Monday, October 26, 2009

The Big Whistle

No, it's not about a train. The Big Whistle was the nickname given to Bill Chadwick, a legendary NHL referee and Ranger broadcaster, who has now passed away at 94.

It's been a long time since Bill was on television doing Ranger color commentary, but anyone who was a Ranger fan during the 60s, 70s and 80s would know him. And to know him, was to love the gravel voiced broadcaster who could tell you stories of early days of NHL hockey and who more than once called them like he saw them. Even if he only had vision in one eye, what he saw and told was worth twice as much.

The years he was a Ranger broadcaster, either with Marv Albert, or with Jim Gordon, were some of the best and the absolute worst Ranger years. There were good teams, even great teams, but no Stanley Cup. Players came, but mostly came and went.

One player, Gene Carr, was memorable because he was fast, had flowing blond hair (no helmets, then), but nearly no offensive ability. He was fragile looking. A revolving door was likely to leave a bruise. Bill described Gene's chances of adding a goal to the scoreboard by telling us, and his broadcast partner: "Jim, Gene Carr couldn't put the puck in the ocean." Carr really couldn't, and was eventually another ex-Ranger. Many, many people became ex-Rangers.

Another favorite Chadwick observation was when he described the Rangers as being sluggish: "Jim, the Rangers are skating in sand tonight." They were painful to watch at times.

Bill's between period interviews with King Clancy, scion of the Toronto Mable Leafs, were the stuff of legend. Clancy, who had to be an an octogenarian, watched the Maple Leaf games from a private booth at one end of the old Maple Leaf Garden, complete with his cane (or was it a shelagh?) and keen eyesight.

When he and Bill got going we'd hear of how the rinks used to be lit by drop lights. So the players adopted the practice of flipping the puck into the offensive zone high, like a pop-up, in the hopes the puck would be above the lights and not be visible to the defensive team until it was too late when it came down below the lights.

In the the era that Chadwick was a referee there were only 6 teams in the NHL. Six teams, 20 players to a team. One hundred-twenty men, usually all Canadians, were professional hockey players. Given the length of the season, eventually 80 games, they could play each other 18 times a year. A LOT of animosity built up between players when they played each other home and home, as they often did on the weekends. Bill said he often had a referring mess to clean up because everyone was trying to settle a score from the game before.

When I first started to follow the Rangers as a kid Chadwick was also described as a Vice President of Weissberger movers. I could never reconcile an ex-hockey referee and broadcaster being associated with a company that had a warehouse two blocks from my family's flower shop on Third Avenue. Weissberger movers delivered the voting machines when we once became a polling place one election year. (Never sold a single flower that day.)

Chadwick never looked out of shape, always looking good in a suit. Somewhat like John Forsythe, steel grey hair, executive looking. I guess he did look like a vice president, come to think of it.

The Garden as I've known it has always been on the West Side. The "Old" Garden on Eighth and 49-50th Streets, and the "New" Garden, over Penn Station. There's a line in the musical West Side story that is sung by one of the Jet gang members: "When you're a Jet you're a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day."

I like to think Chadwick never stopped being a Ranger fan. Even when they were skating in sand.

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