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The Verdict: Gardiner gone but not forgotten in fascinating new book

Tuesday, 11.02.2010 / 11:00 AM / The Verdict
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian
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The Verdict: Gardiner gone but not forgotten in fascinating new book

Antonia Chambers could not resist. When the Blackhawks earned a trip to the Stanley Cup finals last spring, she and her husband booked their own excursion to Chicago for Game 2 at the United Center. Traveling from Alexandria, Va., staying in a hotel and obtaining tickets was not a cheap proposition, but the experience was priceless.

“Row 16 of the 300 Level,” she recalls. “I thought the players would look like ants, but they were great seats in a great building. And a great game. Two goals in 28 seconds, the winner by Ben Eager from Dustin Byfugilen, and Antti Niemi was terrific in the third period of a 2-1 victory. It was worth the wait.”

THE VERDICT

Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.

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She became a Blackhawks fan when she was 5, watching hockey with her Dad in Niagara Falls, and she’s 55 now, so her recollections of Chicago’s 1961 Cup team are somewhat fuzzy, yet lasting. And, oh, Antonia Chambers knows about waiting. She waited 12 years to find a publisher for her book, “Before the Echoes Fade,” and that was worth it too. Her labor of love is exhaustive and splendid, a comprehensive tribute to Charlie Gardiner, the goalie who led the Blackhawks to their first Cup in 1934, but never lived to fully enjoy that championship or his place of honor in NHL history.

Antonia’s real job, an important one, is with the U.S. Government. Her other passion is hockey, specifically the Blackhawks. She reads the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times online, and of course visits chicagoblackhawks.com. She watches however many games as time permits on TV via the NHL package. She subscribes to The Hockey News, which recently ranked Gardiner the 15th best netminder ever, ahead even of Tony Esposito. And, as an accomplished author, she has a story to tell.

“It all started with Fischler’s Hockey Encyclopedia,” she says, referring to one of the numerous tomes produced by Stan Fischler, legendary journalist/broadcaster/historian/raconteur and his bride, Shirley. “There was a very nice piece about Charlie Gardiner, or Chuck, as he was also called. But it occurred to me that for one of the original inductees into the Hall of Fame, there was not much at all written about him. I was reminded of Brian’s Song, the tale of Brian Piccolo, the running back for the Bears. Yet, there was no book about Gardiner and his tremendous achievements. I decided, why not me?”

Antonia began the project in 1989, and the more she pursued it, the more she became involved. She ventured to Toronto to scour Hall of Fame archives. She went to Gardiner’s former home of Winnipeg—“in the spring,” she says, “not the winter”—to pore over newspaper clippings. She visited countless friends and relatives of Gardiner, including his son, Bob, and Art Coulter, a bygone teammate. She built her “vacations” around gleaning recollections in the pre-Internet age, and burned midnight oil to build a biography that she was not sure would see the light of day.

“It certainly wasn’t for the money that I did this,” she says. “But as I got deeper and deeper into Charlie Gardiner’s life, I realized he was not just an exceptional athlete, but a really good person who was a revered citizen for what he did in his community. I remember talking to Art Coulter, who was so generous with his time. He told me he wouldn’t do all the interviews for anyone, but he would for Charlie because he was so special. We all hear about how goalies tend to be a bit eccentric. But Gardiner was so normal, a perfectionist who still was known for his personality and his smile.”

Gardiner, born in Scotland, took over for Hugh Lehman as the Blackhawks’ unmasked man in the late 1920s and was instantly brilliant. The squad in front of him did not always cooperate. Chicago won just 7 of 48 games in 1928-29, but Gardiner’s goals against average was 1.85. He won the Vezina Trophy in 1932, despite being a contemporary of the Montreal Canadiens’ iconic George Hainsworth, and again in 1934, when the Blackhawks claimed second place behind Gardiner’s airtight regular season: 10 shutouts in 48 starts with a 1.63 GAA.

But all was not well. Gardiner had turned melancholy and subdued, presumably from a lingering tonsil infection. As Chambers describes, however, the young man fought “pain shooting upward from his throat to his head, pain burning like liquid fire through his kidneys.” In January, Gardiner told coach Tom Gorman, “I can’t see... black spots before my eyes.” Gorman told Gardiner those black spots were just pucks.

The Blackhawks beat the Canadiens and Montreal Maroons in the first two playoff rounds, then faced mighty Detroit in the Cup final. Wilf Cude, a pal from Winnipeg, was the Red Wings’ goalie, but Gardiner was so obviously ill and uncharacteristically wthdrawn after losing Game 3 that management sent him to Milwaukee to unwind before Game 4 in the Stadium. Pale and exhausted, Gardiner implored concerned teammates to give him just one goal. He would make it stand up, even if he barely could himself.

At 10:05 of the second overtime before a capacity crowd, Harold ‘Mush’ March beat Cude on the 53rd Blackhawks shot and Chicago won, 1-0, to capture the Cup, three games to one in the best-of-five series.

“Without Gardiner,” praised Gorman, “we wouldn’t have made it. He’s the greatest goalie that ever donned the pads.”

That was April 10, 1934. Ten days later, Gardiner returned to Winnipeg. He visited a doctor who prescribed rest. But he was a man of the people, and the people wanted to see him. They did not have long to celebrate, nor did he. Two months after raising his stick to hail the Blackhawks’ first Stanley Cup, Charlie Gardiner collapsed, went into a coma, and eventually died of a brain hemorrhage at age 29.

“A sad, sad story,” says Antonia Chambers. But a story that she tells as it has never before been told in “Before the Echoes Fade.”