This is an edited version of a story written by John Halligan, the author and long-time Rangers executive, who passed it along to us:
Bill (The Big Whistle) Chadwick, a native New Yorker and the first United States-born official in the National Hockey League and later a popular broadcaster for the New York Rangers, died Saturday, October 24, in Cutchogue, NY. He was 94.
For 16 seasons, from 1939 to 1955, and despite being blind in one eye, Chadwick was one of the best officials the NHL has ever known. He invented and perfected the system of hand signals to signify penalties, and the system is now used by hockey officials throughout the world.
William Leroy Chadwick was born in Manhattan on October 10, 1915. He became an amateur hockey player of some note while attending Jamaica High School, where one of his teammates was John Mitchell, the future United States Attorney General under Richard Nixon. He also excelled at baseball, winning the city championship with Jamaica in 1933 and playing at various times against future Major Leaguers Phil Rizzuto and Sid Gordon.
But hockey was Chadwick’s sport of choice, and he honed his skills on racing skates at Baisley Park and Goose Pond in Queens and at the Brooklyn Ice Palace.
Following high school, Chadwick played under an assumed name at Fordham University. A center, he also starred with the Jamaica Hawks and the New York Stock Exchange Brokers in the Metropolitan Amateur Hockey League.
In 1935, playing for a Met League All-Star Team at Madison Square Garden, Chadwick was struck in the right eye by an errant puck as he stepped onto the ice to face a team from Boston. He spent a week at Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital, but doctors were unable to restore the vision in the eye.
Despite the injury, and over the fierce objections of his parents, Chadwick continued to play hockey with the New York Rovers of the Eastern Hockey League. Then, early in the 1936-37 season, he was hit in his left eye by an opposing player’s stick. The injury wasn’t nearly as serious as the earlier one, but Chadwick knew his hockey-playing days were finished.
“Nobody loved the game more than I did, but I couldn’t take the chance of losing the other eye as well,” Chadwick recalled in his autobiography, The Big Whistle (with author Hal Bock, Hawthorn Books, 1974).
In March of 1937, Chadwick was a spectator at the Garden, watching the Rovers in pre-game warm-ups. He was paged over the public address system and asked to report to the penalty timekeeper’s bench. The scheduled referee that afternoon, Ray Levia, was stuck in a snowstorm, and Tommy Lockhart, the Garden’s amateur hockey boss, asked Bill to referee the game. “Where’s the whistle?” Chadwick said.
Lockhart was impressed with Chadwick’s work and soon offered him a full-time officiating position. “My salary was $55 a week,” Chadwick recalled, “which wasn’t bad, but you had to cover all of your own expenses. I worked the northern circuit of the league, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and River Vale, NJ.”
Chadwick soon caught the attention of Frank Calder, the president of the National Hockey League, and late in 1939, Calder asked Chadwick to join the NHL as a linesman. He accepted and became the NHL’s first United States-born official, working his first game at the Garden, the Montreal Canadiens versus the New York Americans. A year later, he was promoted to referee.
“There were some prejudices against me being an American and all,” Chadwick remembered, “but I had the full support of Calder and his successor, Clarence Campbell. Lester Patrick, the Rangers’ general manager, was also a great booster of mine.”
As for his vision handicap, Chadwick often said: Psychologically, I think it even made me a better official because it was always on my mind, so I tried even harder not to make a mistake. I skated harder than the other guys.”
As for the hand signals, Chadwick doesn’t recall exactly when he started using them. “Somewhere around 1943 or 1944 would be fairly accurate,” he told Halligan in a 2004 interview.
“I know it was during the Stanley Cup Finals. There was so much noise that I had difficulty communicating with the penalty timekeeper. So I began using a kind of sign language, touching my leg for tripping, my elbow for elbowing, and so on. That’s how it started.” Chadwick’s signals were not made official by the league until 1956, the year after he retired.
In 1965, at the urging of Emile Francis, the Rangers’ long-time general manager and coach, Chadwick embarked on a remarkable, 14-year broadcasting career, working first on radio with play by play man Marv Albert, and most notably, on television with Jim Gordon for nine seasons.
He called Ranger games with great flourish and more than a few trademark phrases until 1981. “Shoot the puck, Barry, shoot the puck!” he often exhorted defenseman Barry Beck. Others included: “That guy handles the puck like a cow handles a gun” and “He couldn’t put the puck in the ocean if he was standing on the end of the dock.”
“Bill was a natural for broadcasting even though he wasn’t formally trained in it,” said Francis. “He and Jim Gordon got more mail than some of our players. For a native New Yorker to do what he did in hockey at that time was really unbelievable.”
Arthur Friedman, the Rangers’ long-time statistician, dubbed Chadwick “The Big Whistle” in 1969, and the nickname stuck, thanks to considerable usage by Gordon, Albert and Sal Messina. “That nickname made me a celebrity,” Chadwick recalled. “If it weren’t for Artie Friedman, my book wouldn’t have had a title.”
As a referee, Chadwick worked more than 900 regular-season games, plus a record 42 Stanley Cup finals games, including 13 games in which the Cup was decided.
In 1964, Chadwick was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, only the fifth official, and the first American-born official, to be so honored. In 1974, he was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame, and in 1975 he won the Lester Patrick Award for outstanding service to hockey in the United States.
Chadwick retired in 1988 to Cutchogue, New York, on Long Island’s north shore, about 100 miles east of New York City. “You know how far out on Long Island, I am?” he joked. “When I turn to my left, I see Portugal.”