THE QUIET GOALIE WHO GAMBLED WITH HIS HEART

Howie Mooney
FiredUp Network Sports Writer

@HowieMooney

Tuesday, December 20, 2022


If you have ever driven through Northern Ontario, you may have driven in or past Thunder Bay.  Thunder Bay is a city that sits on the north side of Lake Superior.  It's the most populous municipality in Northwestern Ontario.  The city as we know it today was built on the lands of the Anishinabek people, which includes the Ojibwa.  Before 1970, Thunder Bay didn't exist as a city though.

The city was actually two towns: Fort William and Port Arthur.  But they amalgamated into the city we know today back in 1970.  Being up in Northern Ontario, snow and ice were and are a large part of winters there.  With those icy conditions, naturally, comes hockey.   And, of course, a number of prominent hockey players came out of both Fort William and Port Arthur and rose to great heights in the game. 

Alex Delvecchio's was perhaps the best known name to come out of Fort William.  But Jack Adams could give him a run for his money.  Others who came from there include Gus Bodnar, Gaye Stewart, Bud Poile, Lee Fogolin, Wayne Stephenson, Larry Cahan and several others.  Port Arthur can boast players like Tony Hrkac, Walt Poddubny, Dave Creighton, Connie Madigan, Bob Ellett, Nelson Pyatt and Rudy Migay.

There is one other player though, who was born in Port Arthur and who has been, perhaps, underrated and maybe forgotten over the course of time.

Bruce Gamble.

Gamble was born in Port Arthur on May 24, 1938.  At the age of 14, during the 1952-53 season, he joined the Port Arthur Bruins of the Thunder Bay Junior Hockey League.  He struggled in eleven games with the Bruins and posted a goals-against-average of 7.45.  He improved over the next two seasons and played the '55-56 year with the Port Arthur North Stars of the same league and had a stellar 3.13 GAA.  Gamble ended up carrying the North Stars to the Memorial Cup tournament, which crowned the eventual champions of Junior Hockey in Canada. 

His season with the North Stars was so good that he attracted a lot of attention from important people in the Ontario Hockey Association, the 'big' Junior league in the province.  In the fall of 1956, Gamble, now 18, found himself playing with the Guelph Biltmores and in 40 games, he looked great in allowing only 2.59 goals per game.  Gamble and his mates were good enough to make it back to the Memorial Cup tournament in the spring of 1957.

The following year, the Biltmores didn't make it to the Memorial Cup, but Gamble had been so impressive in his previous three seasons, the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens picked him up for their run at the 1958 Junior Hockey championship.  Gamble also played a game for the American Hockey League's Providence Reds in the spring of '58 as well.

For Gamble, it was now time to take the next step.  He was about to turn professional.  Remember, there were only six teams in the National Hockey League at the time, so the route that he and many others would have to take would have been through the minor leagues.  He was now 20 years old and started the 1958-59 season in the Western Senior League with the Vancouver Canucks.  He was the main man in goal for the Canucks and played 65 games, posting a very decent 3.06 average. 

He finished that season having been called up to the New York Rangers.  In three games with the Blueshirts, he gave up eleven goals.  He made 93 saves after facing 104 shots.  The Rangers were a fifth-place team that year and Lorne 'Gump' Worsley was their first-string goaltender.  Once, when asked which NHL team gave him the most trouble, Worsley replied, "the New York Rangers ".  That was the mess that Gamble stepped into for his NHL debut.

In the summer of '59, the Boston Bruins claimed Gamble in the NHL's intra-league draft.  That year, 1959-60, while the Montreal Canadiens were winning their fifth consecutive Stanley Cup in the NHL, 21-year-old Bruce Gamble was spending his time as the number one goalie for the Bruins' AHL team, the Providence Reds.  He played 71 regular season games on Rhode Island putting up a fine 3.24 average. 

While Gamble was toiling in the AHL, the Bruins were finishing out of the playoffs in fifth place.  As the regular season began in the fall of 1960, Gamble found himself in the starting role as the goaltender for the big club in Boston.  He played 52 games that year while Don Simmons played in 29.  The B's finished in sixth place though and that would be his last stint as the first-string goalie for an NHL team in a while. 

He played 28 games for Boston the next year, but he would spend most of that season and the two following years in the minor leagues playing for teams like the Portland Buckaroos of the WHL, the Kingston Frontenacs of the Eastern Pro League and the Springfield Indians of the AHL. 

In the fall of 1964, the Bruins wanted Gamble to play another year in Springfield but Gamble refused to spend any more time slaving under Eddie Shore again.  As a result, the Bruins suspended him for a year.  You didn't mess with the big boys back then, no matter how much a lot of men disliked playing for Eddie Shore.

After sitting out the entire 1964-65 season, in September of '65, Gamble was traded by the Bruins in to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a couple of players.  He spent most of that season with the Leafs' Central League team in Tulsa.  He did, however, get called up to the Leafs for ten gamesin the second half of the season.  He posted four shutouts, won five games and tied three and posted an average of just 2.51.

On Saturday, March 5, the Leafs were hosting the Chicago Black Hawks and Bobby Hull, who had already scored a whopping 50 goals in the '65-'66 season.  But Gamble was completely on his game, stopping 33 shots in a 5-0 Leafs' win.  Hull had six of those 33 shots and had a number of chances at scoring his 51st goal.

In the Hawks' dressing room after the game, Hull told reporters that "any one of them might have gone" into the net. In the first period Hull hammered a slapper from 30 feet at the Toronto net but Gamble was there with the stop.  "I saw it in time to get a pad on it," Gamble said after the game. 

Hull had a couple of grade-A chances in the third period as well.  Hull went in alone on Gamble, but a leaf backchecker got a stick on the Hawks' star.  "I tried to shoot high," said Hull, "but somebody pulled my hand just as I shot and it went low."  Gamble got most of it but the puck trickled through him.  He jumped on it before it got to the goal line.  "It was six inches short," Gamble told the press following the game.  "Too close for me -- not close enough for him."

With less than a minute left in the game, Hull let a shot go from the point that made in through a screen.  "I knew he was going to shoot, but I couldn't see him, so I tried to cover as much net as I could," Gamble said.  "I didn't see the shot, but it hit my pad.  It was his last chance."  Leafs' coach, Punch Imlach, was somewhat charitable in his praise of Gamble's play.  "The pressure was on him," the grizzled coach told the press.  From what players have said about Imlach, that's about as charitable as he would ever get.

Gamble was in goal for the Leafs' next game against his old team, the Bruins.  Toronto won 5-3 at Boston Garden.  Three nights later, Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Andy Bathgate and the Detroit Red Wings were in Hogtown to face Gamble and the Leafs.  They fired 35 shots at the Toronto' goal but left Maple Leaf Gardens on the short end of a 1-0 score.  Gamble was succinct in his summary of his play that night.  "I must be living right," he told reporters. 

Detroit's general manager and coach, Sid Abel, wasn't ready to give Gamble too much credit.  "He had a few horseshoes tonight, but you can't take away the fact that he's playing great goal."  On the following Saturday, Gamble faced down all 27 Boston Bruin shots in a 6-0 Leafs' shutout win.  The goalie from Port Arthur was making a huge case for a full-time spot with the Imlach-led Buds.

The year after, 1966-67, he played in 23 games before the trade deadline, posting a record of 5-10-4 with a 3.39 GAA.  At the deadline though, he was sent down to Tulsa and therefore, did not spend an entire season in Toronto.  Because of that, when the Leafs won the Stanley Cup that spring, Gamble's name was left off it.

That summer, the league expanded from six teams to twelve.  Terry Sawchuk was gone from the Leafs' roster, having been selected by the newly minted Los Angeles Kings.  That made a space for Gamble and he began to take advantage of the opportunity.  He saw an increase in his playing time with the Leafs right away. 

In 1967-68, he played 41 games.  He played well enough though to come in as the starter as the defending Cup champion Leafs took on the rest of the league at the annual All-Star Game on January 16, 1968.  The match was played at Maple Leaf Gardens and the home crowd buzzed as they saw their team defeat the All-Stars by a score of 4-3.  Gamble played so well that night that he was named the game's Most Valuable Player. 

Gamble played the first two periods and Al Smith, who was replacing the injured Johnny Bower, played the third.  Smith took over with Gamble having given him a 3-2 lead to protect.  The All-Stars had outshot the Leafs 19-9 in the first period but Gamble stood tall and was awarded the honours at the conclusion of the game. 

"The turning point came in that first period when we had all those chances and we couldn't beat Gamble," Toe Blake, the coach of the All-Stars told the press.  This would be the final All-Star Game played under this format.  After this one, it would become an East versus West format. 

The following year, he played 62 contests as the starting netminder.  In '69-'70, he played in 52.  All that time, he performed maskless, his trademark long sideburns visible to everyone.  He finally put a mask on in the 1970-71 season when he was 32.  Gamble was the last Leafs' goaltender to play in a game without a mask.

In January of 1971 though, his time as a Maple Leaf was over.  On the last day of the month, after having played 23 games that season and having been publicly criticized by Stafford Smythe, he was dealt with the Leafs' first-round pick in that summer's draft to Philadelphia for Bernie Parent and the Flyers' second-round selection.  It was a three-team trade.  Toronto also sent Mike Walton to the Bruins who sent Rick MacLeish and Danny Schock to Philadelphia.  Gamble would play eleven more contests for the Flyers that season, mainly serving as Doug Favell's backup.

As the 1971-72 season dawned, Bruce Gamble had no idea that it would be his last in the NHL.

The season began with Favell and Gamble pretty much splitting the games.  As the Flyers were getting set to play in their 52nd game of the season on February 8 in Vancouver, Favell had played in 28 games and Gamble had played 23.  But the former Leaf had been impressing a lot of people in Philly with his play heading up to that Western road trip.

A story in the Philadelphia Daily News on the day of the game in Lotusland was headlined 'Gamble Giving Flyers Lift'.  It seemed his 'everyman' quality made him easier to cheer on for people in The City of Brotherly Love.  In the article, it stated that "next to 'Gump' Worsley, Bruce Gamble is the unlikeliest looking pro athlete alive."  But it also said, "Every time Gamble makes a save, the Spectrum chorus chants 'Bruuuuce....Bruuuuce'".

Gamble seemed nonplussed by his sudden popularity, but he nonetheless enjoyed it.  "This is the first time I've ever heard anything like that," a smiling Gamble told the Daily News' Bill Fleischmann.  "It's a big help."  Going into the game in Vancouver, Gamble had played in eight of the Flyers' previous nine games and he would be starting against the Canucks that night as well. 

There were people in the league who weren't surprised by his strong play as the NHL season approached the three-quarter pole in the 1971-72 season.  After Gamble beat his former team at Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto's vice president, King Clancy, told Fleischmann, "Any time you let that Gamble get ahead of you, he's murder.  Gamble gets hotter as the game goes on."

The quiet goaltender vowed to stay that way despite his run of success.  "I've never said much even when things are going well.  Once in a blue moon, I'll say something in the dressing room."  He talked to Fleischmann about his long road to this point, starting with his time with the Bruins.  "That was a pretty rough year.  A lot of Boston's defensemen were just getting started, guys like Pat Stapleton, Teddy Green, Eddie Westfall and Dallas Smith."

After more than a year with the Flyers, it appeared that Gamble had become settled there.  "I've got my family in Philly now, except for my oldest, Dean," the goalie said.  13-year-old Mark was playing hockey in Cherry Hill, New Jersey but Dean was 15 and playing for St. Mike's in Toronto.  He had just made the switch from the wing to goal.

Gamble wasn't necessarily thrilled with that transition.  "He said they knew that I played goal and they didn't have anybody else.  I told him 'You're crazy but go ahead.'  My older brother was a forward.  I was the youngest so they put me in goal and I never got out."

The Tuesday night game in Vancouver went on as scheduled and Gamble's hot streak continued as the Flyers won by a score of 3-1.  Bobby Clarke scored a goal in the first period and Philadelphia carried that 1-0 lead not only into the second period but into the third as well.  Clarke scored a power play marker in the third period to make it 2-0.  Halfway through the final period, Bob Kelly made it 3-0 for the visitors. 

The Canucks' only goal came with less than two minutes remaining in the game when Wayne Connelly got one past a stellar Gamble.  Vancouver outshot Philly 31-22 but it was Gamble who stood on his head to get the victory.  But the story of the game was far from just what happened on the score sheet.  It was apparent to those who were in attendance at the game that something occurred in the first period that seemed out of the ordinary. 

In the first six minutes of the game in Vancouver, it was reported that Gamble seemed to appear dazed after it was thought that he had been hit by someone's knee or skate in the chest and fell to the ice.  After the game, he still thought he had been struck in the chest.  According to the book, '67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory and the End of an Empire by Damien Cox and Gord Stellick, Gamble "asked teammate Barry Ashbee who had hit him, and Ashbee told him that nobody had".

He had continued to play the rest of the game and he performed brilliantly.  It wasn't until after the game that he began to complain of having pains in his chest.  The morning after the Flyers landed in Oakland for their next game against the California Golden Seals, it was apparent that all was not right with the Philadelphia goaltender.  Gamble was taken to Merritt Hospital in Oakland and was diagnosed with having had a heart attack.  He was listed in satisfactory condition. 

It had been reported the day after the Vancouver game that Gamble had not been feeling all that well the day of the game with the Canucks.  He ate very little that Dat and told someone that he was experiencing an upset stomach.  He attributed it to a touch of the flu that had hit several members of the team and didn't think much of it for the rest of the day. 

Dr. Joseph Clift was in the hospital when Gamble was brought in and he spoke to the media on behalf of the hospital.  "It is possible that Mr. Gamble suffered the seizure some time during or after last night's 3-1 victory at Vancouver."  Clift said that the next two to four days could be critical.  The Flyers' team doctor, Stanley Spoont, had been in contact with Dr. Clift and was planning on flying out to Oakland to monitor Gamble as well. 

For Flyers' general manager Keith Allen, the news was a heavy blow.  "All of us in the organization are stunned.  This is a bitter setback for Bruce.  He is in the midst of the greatest series of performances he's ever produced and he has received a tremendous reaction from our fans at the Spectrum."  Of course, Allen was losing a hot goalie at the worst time of the year as well.

Gamble remained in hospital as the Flyers played the Seals on the Wednesday night.  Doug Favell played in the game and Don McLeod sat on the bench as his backup.  Oakland edged the Flyers 3-2.

By Friday morning, Oakland doctor Charles Hudson told the gathered press what many had already presumed -- that Gamble's year was over.  "He's definitely out for the season," Hudson said.  He did add that Gamble was not experiencing any pain and that he was "coming along fine.  He's quite comfortable now."  Hudson also told reporters that Spoont, the Flyers' team physician, was on his way to Oakland.  He indicated that Gamble would remain at Merritt for the next ten days to two weeks.  The hope was that he would then be able to fly back home to recuperate with his family. 

At the time, everyone knew that his season was over but nobody ever speculated that his career might end that night in Vancouver.  Indeed, that game was the last contest Gamble would ever play in his time in the NHL.  Once he was well enough, he continued to play hockey, but it would only ever be recreationally. 

In December of 1982, Gamble had taken part in a pickup hockey game with an old-timers' team, the Keystone Kellys.  The next morning, he woke up with chest pains.  He was rushed to hospital in Niagara Falls, where he died of a heart attack at the age of 44.

One of his friends and teammates in the group was Richard Dekker, who spoke to United Press International after Gamble's passing.  "It looks as though he died of a heart attack.  It's ironic the way he died -- a lot like the way his NHL career ended."  Dekker had known Gamble for three years at the time of his death and said that the former Leaf and Flyer had not worked a steady job in that time. 

Dekker said that Gamble's times playing with the Kellys "were one of the biggest things in his life.  He was really happy when a team was formed and he was asked to be a part of it."  According to Dekker, a televised series of games between teams made up of old-timers from the NHL's Original Six was going to be taking place and Gamble was excited to have been called to participate in it.  "He was really happy about that and he had been looking forward to doing the show for a long time."

Dekker talked about Gamble after the pickup hockey outing.  "He seemed fine after the game.  It is such a sad story really.  He was such a very quiet guy and he never opened up much to anyone.  He seldom talked about his past in the NHL, but he never seemed bitter about it."

Stan Obodiac was the publicity director for the Leafs for many years and he talked about the former Maple Leaf goaltender.  Obodiac said that Gamble "disappeared from the face of the earth" after he retired from hockey.  The publicity man spoke about how he received a lot of inquiries about old Leafs.  "A lot of people asked about Gamble.  But we could never locate him.  He was extremely quiet and never sought out people."

Bruce Gamble was a man who worked his way up the hockey ladder and made it to the highest levels of the game.  At his best, he could be as good as anyone. The saddest thing was that, at the moment he had been playing as well as he ever had with the Flyers, he had everything taken away from him in the blink of an eye.  Gamble's story is a reminder that no day and no life can be taken for granted.  Every day that we are here should be embraced and treasured.  No one knows when their last breath may come. 

Enjoy the time you have while you can.

*     *     *

You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 212 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts.