'The Big Whistle' passes away at age 94
Hall of Fame referee was Rangers broadcaster for 14 years from 1967-1981
• Halligan Shares 'Big Whistle' Memories
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Bill “The Big Whistle” Chadwick, who will forever be remembered by Rangers fans for the 14 seasons he spent as a radio and television color commentator, passed away on Saturday, just two weeks after turning 94 years old. Chadwick had been in declining health for a number of years and died while in hospice care.
If there were two voices that defined Rangers hockey of the 1970s, they were Chadwick and play-by-play man Jim Gordon, who passed away in February 2003 at the age of 76. Working in tandem, they called more than 650 regular-season and playoff games, and were right there when the Blueshirts went all the way to the 1979 Stanley Cup Finals.
First nicknamed “The Big Whistle” by Rangers statistician Arthur Friedman in 1969, Chadwick had begun his hockey career as an amateur player in the old Metropolitan League before earning a spot on the New York Rovers -- a Rangers-sponsored amateur club of the Eastern League -- in the mid-1930s. Sidelined by an injury to his left eye, he switched to officiating and reached the NHL as a linesman for the 1939-40 season.
Just before he turned 25, Chadwick was promoted to the role of full-time NHL referee, and he worked in that capacity from 1940 to 1955. During that time, he became the first ref to use hand signals so that fans in the stands would know what type of penalty was being called -- a practice that continues to this day.
One of the things that made Chadwick’s success as a referee remarkable was that he was legally blind in his right eye as a result of an injury suffered while playing for a Met League All-Star team at Madison Square Garden in 1935. He did not publicize his vision problems during his officiating career, but whenever fans or players complained that he was blind, he was known to tell them that they were “only 50 percent right.”
In 1964, nine years after his retirement, Chadwick was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Referees/Linseman category. Ten years after that, he would become the first referee ever inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.
At the age of 51, Chadwick was urged by Rangers coach and general manager Emile Francis to pursue a second hockey career in broadcasting. He began his radio duties alongside Albert, but it wasn’t until he arrived on television five years later that Chadwick’s voice became synonymous with Rangers hockey to fans in New York.
“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."
Chadwick truly put the “color” in the role of color commentator. Outspoken and opinionated, he was never afraid to say what was on his mind, even during the course of a game. His somewhat unlikely pairing with Gordon was magical, since Gordon often found himself having to keep Chadwick in check, and their banter became a kind of entertainment in itself for fans watching the Rangers on TV.
For example, Chadwick once criticized Rangers center Gene Carr, saying Carr “couldn't put the puck in the ocean.” Carr was later traded to the California Golden Seals and scored a goal against the Blueshirts in a game at Oakland that Chadwick was calling.
"I thought you said Carr couldn't put the puck in the ocean," Gordon said during the broadcast.
"Well," Chadwick responded, "it's a bigger ocean out here."
Chadwick connected with Rangers fans like few broadcasters could because he was one of them. Born in Manhattan, he grew up in the city and spoke with a distinct New York accent. He had first embraced the team as a boy, when the Rangers were a new NHL team. He wore his passion on his sleeve, and it was clear that he spoke for the folks watching at home when he questioned an official’s call or even encouraged one of the players as if he were sitting in the stands, rather than the broadcast booth.
One of Chadwick’s most memorable catch-phrases evolved during his final two seasons as a broadcaster, after defenseman Barry Beck joined the Rangers. Frustrated by Beck’s seeming desire to pile up assists as the expense of possible goals, Chadwick began emphatically saying “Shoot the puck, Barry!” during broadcasts. The sudden, repeated urging struck a chord with fans, who began chanting it at The Garden whenever Beck got the puck at the point during a power play.
Chadwick’s outspoken nature and willingness to criticize players on the air might have been one reason he was asked to yield his position in the booth to a recently-retired Phil Esposito in 1981. Chadwick remained with the Rangers for one season as a special-assignment reporter before retiring from broadcasting at the age of 66.
Retaining his ties to the Rangers, Chadwick joined former Blueshirts star Steve Vickers and former public-relations executive John Halligan to organize the first Rangers Golf Classic to benefit the Rangers Alumni Association in 1983.
Chadwick also remained opinionated well into his later years and was no fan of the league’s current two-referee system.
"Look at the game today, it's too damned crowded out there," Chadwick told a reporter in 2002. "You got two linesmen, you got two referees. And they're not getting any better officiating. They're not getting any even officiating. No two men in the world think alike at the same time. And you get a game that's refereed tightly on one end, and loosely on the other. I just don't understand it.”
Chadwick was pre-deceased by his wife Millie. In addition to his son Bill of Malibu, Calif., Chadwick is survived by five grand-children, Arielle, Chelsea, and Kylie Chadwick, all of Malibu, Jessica Andrews of Highlands Ranch, Colo., and Matthew Kolon of Bejing, China; four great grandchildren; and his long-time companion Joan Langemyr of Cutchogue, N.Y.