Bill Ezinicki feared no man on the ice. The hockey player delivered bone-crunching bodychecks, engaged in fisticuffs with all comers, even endured attacks from enraged female fans. For his unflinching aggressiveness, he earned the memorable nickname Wild Bill.
Ezinicki, who died in Massachusetts on Oct. 11 at the age of 88, once engaged in so bloody a stick-swinging duel with Terrible Ted Lindsay that even decades later hockey players spoke of it in hushed tones.
He twice led the National Hockey League in penalty minutes, testament both to his ferocity and a scofflaw’s disregard for the rule book.
He began his NHL career with the Maple Leafs and it was said Toronto was the only city in the six-team circuit in which he was not hated.
“Anybody in another sweater was an enemy,” he once said.
In a game at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1947, Ezinicki caught New York’s Edgar Laprade with a bodycheck witnesses described as the hardest ever delivered in the arena. Laprade was carted unconscious from the ice and Ezinicki suffered a gash to his face from a stick wielded by one of Laprade’s enraged teammates.
The right-winger proved a valuable member of the Maple Leafs, helping the team win three consecutive Stanley Cup championships from 1947 to 1949.
“Ezzie never hit anybody dirty in his life,” insists Howie Meeker, 87, a teammate on those championship teams. “Boy, could he hit!”
An unflinching antagonist on the ice, Ezinicki also showed deft skill and gentlemanly deportment on the golf course, where he was one of Canada’s top amateurs before turning professional. His success at two demanding sports – rinks and links in the shorthand jargon of sportswriting – made him a rare figure on the sporting scene.
He was born in Winnipeg on March 11, 1924, to the former Olena Herchuk, also known as Helen, and Frank Ezinicki, immigrant parents of Ukrainian extraction. Frank worked for a coal company and as a stonemason. One of his specialties was the crafting of curling rocks.
Bill Ezinicki was one of six children. (Though he would later use the name William, Bill is the only given name on his birth certificate.) A clever boy, he did well in school. In winter, he skated on outdoor rinks, learning the skill of stickhandling, an important talent lest the puck be lost in a snowbank.
As much as he enjoyed skating and playing hockey, he found his true passion in striking a golf ball. He was still in elementary school when his father got him a second-hand set of clubs. The boy placed the bag across the handlebars of his bicycle before riding to a nearby farmer’s field, where he spent hours smacking balls across a pasture.
As the Depression deepened, he earned coins by caddying at a local course. When business was slow, he took to the course himself, paying a reduced junior rate. He made a habit of playing holes Nos. 1 to 14, before heading back to the first tee to start over again, squeezing in 32 holes for the price of 18.
After playing midget and juvenile hockey in his hometown, Ezinicki travelled to Ontario at age 18 to skate for the Oshawa Generals. The forward averaged more than a goal a game. In his second season with the team, the Generals defeated the Trail (B.C.) Smoke Eaters to claim the Memorial Cup junior championship.
Ezinicki enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, serving for four months before being discharged for medical reasons. He then applied for an army spot, only to be rejected. A few months later, he was ordered to report for another medical checkup, which ended with him arrested and placed in the guardhouse overnight after getting into a dispute with a medical officer. He then served briefly in the army as a private based at Shilo, Man.
Ezinicki made his NHL debut with the Maple Leafs during the 1944-45 season, scoring a goal and adding four assists in eight games during which he also served 17 minutes in penalties.
Some sportswriters thought the cutthroat nature of NHL play would make for a short career for so slight a player with so rambunctious a style as Ezinicki’s. Instead, he earned a spot on the Toronto roster as a physical player who could also score.
“The Red Wings displayed a certain desire to play it the hard way in the first 10 minutes,” wrote Globe columnist Jim Coleman after one game, “until Ezinicki chilled a couple of them.”
In Game 2 of the 1947 Stanley Cup finals, Montreal’s Maurice (Rocket) Richard, frustrated by close checking, highsticked Toronto’s Vic Lynn. As soon as Richard got out of the penalty box, he clubbed Ezinicki in the head, for which he was assessed a match penalty and a one-game suspension. In the next match, Ezinicki “wore his scars with distinction,” hockey historian historian Charles L. Coleman noted. Toronto won the Cup in six games.