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.
On Nov. 8, 1947, Ezinicki’s crushing bodycheck left Laprade unconscious and sprawled on the ice. Rangers teammate Grant Warwick retaliated by slashing Ezinicki, who needed eight stitches for the gash on his chin.
An incensed Frank Boucher, the Rangers coach and general manager, sent a telegram to NHL president Clarence Campbell: “Laprade in hospital with concussion from charge by Ezinicki after whistle on an offside play. Referee Gravelle claims he did not see the offense. How much longer is Ezinicki going to get away with elbowing, high sticking and deliberate injuries to opponents?”
Campbell interviewed the referee and two linesmen, while film provided by the Maple Leafs led to an exoneration of the player. The movie showed Ezinicki gliding from the opposite wing to meet an unchecked Laprade at the blue line, striking him with hip and shoulder. Ezinicki’s elbow and stick were held low. The punishing blow, which sent Laprade to the hospital for two days, was entirely legal.
Ezinicki continued his hard-charging ways after being traded to the Boston Bruins in 1950. The stick-swinging fight with Lindsay happened during a game at the Olympia in Detroit in 1951. Terrible Ted got cut for five stitches and suffered seriously bruised knuckles; Wild Bill lost a tooth, suffered a broken nose, and needed 19 stitches to close a gash to his head. He also got two black eyes. Both players were fined $300 and suspended three games. Gone unremarked was that they had been teammates on the Memorial Cup-winning squad seven years earlier.
After Ezinicki was traded, Meeker made a point of noting his whereabouts whenever he stepped on the ice. “You didn’t want Ezzie to hit you,” Meeker said. “I knew where he was every second. My mind was 80 per cent on hockey and 20 per cent on protecting my ass.”
Ezinicki’s play enraged some fans. He was in the penalty box when assaulted by a female fan who swung her purse at him. She was the wife of a player he had just fought on the ice. In another incident, a female fan stabbed at his backside with a hatpin.
It was said Ezinicki carried an insurance policy for which he earned $5 for every stitch endured.
He ended his NHL career with a brief stint with the Rangers. Over eight seasons, he scored 79 goals and 105 assists in 368 NHL games. He also skated for the minor league Pittsburgh Hornets, Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks.
He took up golf full-time after retiring as a hockey player, enjoying success on the Professional Golfers Association Tour. A broken left thumb from his hockey days forced him to change his grip from overlapping to interlocking.
He twice won the New England championship and, in 1960, he won the Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Massachusetts Open tournaments.
Ezinicki qualified for the U.S. Open nine times. He is joined by San Francisco 49ers quarterback John Brodie and New York Yankees outfielder Sam Byrd as the only three athletes from a professional sport team to qualify for the annual major championship tournament.
When not in competition, Ezinicki was the long-time head professional at the International at Bolton, Mass., the region’s premier golf club, which included what was at the time the world’s longest golf course.
He displayed little of the ferocity of a hockey player when on the golf course, although he did once memorably lose his cool. Seeking to qualify for the U.S. Open in 1954, he drove out of bounds on the No. 13 hole at the Colonial Golf Club in Lynnfield, Mass. This so angered him that he broke his putter and wound up using a No. 2 iron on the greens for the remainder of his round.
Ezinicki died on Oct. 11 at Addison Gilbert Hospital at Gloucester, Mass. He leaves daughters Claudia Ezinicki of Lancaster, Mass., and Julie Zammuto of Crescent Spur, B.C. He also leaves a sister, Carolyn Hamilton, of Winnipeg. He was predeceased by his wife of 52 years, Jane (née McPherson), who died in 2003, age 75, and by a son, William, a pilot who died after a long illness in 1996, age 41. He was also predeceased by two brothers and two sisters.
Ezinicki was enshrined in the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame (2004), the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame (1986), and the New England Section of the PGA Hall of Fame (1997).