Artifacts from the Archives: The Truth About Bill McCreary, and the Search for His NHL Legacy

According to the folks at hockey-reference.com, there have been 43 players in history who have played just 12 NHL games before hanging up the skates for good.  It’s a motley list, filled with everyone from first-round flameouts (Michel Riesen) to fathers of first-round flameouts (Don Biggs) to great coaches (Peter Laviolette) to brothers of great players (Stephane Roy) to brothers of announcers (Pat Micheletti) to IHL legends (Craig Fisher, although in fairness to Don Biggs he belongs in this category as well) to players who will forever be known as “not that one, the other one” (Petr Sykora.  No, not that Petr Sykora, the other one.)

Most of these 43 players are little-known outside of their hometown, the place where they played before making it to the NHL, and the place they played after exiting the NHL for good.  They come in, play a few games, and are swiftly returned back to wherever they came from…Fort Wayne, Binghamton, Flint, Kalamazoo, Halifax, and any of a few dozen other cities.  By and large, they’re forgotten over time, praised by their old teammates and coaches and families, cursed only by a handful of opposition fans from something that happened in a dusty barn with 3,500 people in the stands some years back.

But of the 12-game club, there is one player who defies everything and has become a legend that has only grown over time.  Not just in the places he toiled, and not just in the NHL, but around the world.  And it’s not from a great minor league career, not from a lifetime spent in the broadcast booth after hanging up the skates, not from finding his niche as a coach who catches a break en route to the Hall of Fame.  For this man, his legend has become blown up to astronomical proportions over the years because of the time that he collided – quite literally – with his destiny.

Bill McCreary, Jr. grew up in a hockey family; his father Bill played 20 senior and professional seasons and his uncles Keith McCreary and Ron Attwell both had long careers (with Keith playing over 500 NHL games).  Bill Jr. was born in Springfield, MA in 1960 while his father played with the AHL’s Springfield Indians under the legendary “Prince of Darkness” Eddie Shore.  I believe that Don Cherry was the first to publicly refer to Shore as such (I have no doubt that many other Springfield players referred to him as much worse in private), which bears mentioning because Cherry would play a vital role in what’s to come.

Bill Sr. retired from hockey in 1971 and went behind the bench of the St. Louis Blues after the firing of head coach Sid Abel.  He would last just 24 games before being booted in favor of Al Arbour; he would resurface behind the bench in Vancouver two years later but fail to finish the season, and the very next year with the California Golden Seals he’d coach another partial season while working in the front office.  The Seals would move to Cleveland for the 1976-77, and the McCrearys were on the move yet again.

Bill Jr. would catch on with the junior version of the Cleveland Barons as a 16-year-old that season.  The next year (1977-78), he would put up 51 goals and 123 points in just 40 games.  Upon his graduation from high school, Bill Jr. would accept a scholarship to play college hockey at Colgate University.  After an impressive freshman season that saw him put up nearly two points a game, Toronto drafted the 19-year-old McCreary in the 6th round (#114) in the 1979 NHL draft.  McCreary would play 1979-80 with Colgate, then turn pro for the 1980-81 season.  His signing was announced in June of 1980, earning just one line under the transaction report at the time.

Full preseason stats are not available, but we know that McCreary had at least one assist in a game against Montreal.  Unable to crack the Leafs’ lineup out of training camp, McCreary began the season with the New Brunswick Hawks of the AHL, but was on the short call-up list in case someone went down with an injury.

McCreary would in fact be called up to Toronto in late December 1980 and make his NHL debut in a 5-3 loss against St. Louis on December 30.

As 1980 turned into 1981, one must wonder what was going through McCreary’s mind.  Barely two years prior he’d been playing low-level junior hockey in Cleveland; now he was in the NHL on one of the most storied franchises in league history.  No doubt he was determined to make the most of his opportunity, and to go in record time from 6th-round afterthought to NHL immortal.

Fate has a funny way of interfering with things.  McCreary’s second NHL game would come on January 3, 1981 against the Edmonton Oilers; the 13-18-5 Maple Leafs were a franchise in decline, while the 9-21-6 Oilers were finding their way in just their second NHL season.  Led by the 19-year-old Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton was showing flashes of becoming a contender at some point down the road, while the Maple Leafs were in turmoil as the collapse from their dynasty of the 1960s seemed to be complete.

The game was largely forgettable, a 4-1 Edmonton win that broke them out of a 3-11-1 slide.  But what happened in that game has been replayed a million times.  Not Gretzky’s goal, not his two assists, but what happened when he tried to corral a pass at the offensive blue line that was slightly behind him.  As he gained control of the puck while straddling the blue line, Gretzky looked up long enough to see McCreary coming right for him at high speed.  With a script “Seasons Greetings” in plain view on the ice, McCreary wasn’t exactly looking to bring tidings of comfort and joy to Edmonton, or to Gretzky.

With room to move, Gretzky has smooth sailing – until he ran smack dab into McCreary.  It was like a Volkswagen taking on a semi-trailer.  McCreary hit Gretzky at the blueline so hard the Oiler lay on the ice and saw stars.

While the check was clean, McCreary wasn’t the most popular man in the building after the hit.  “When you hit a guy like him,” said the Leaf rookie, “I guess you’re going to expect some questions from the other team.”

Matheson, Jim. “Gretzky the star of his own show.” Edmonton Journal 5 Jan 1981, Sports: C1.

No penalty was called on the play, and contrary to popular opinion, McCreary was not immediately jumped and pummeled for the grievous sin of having hit the young superstar.

In the years since, a myth has developed that McCreary never played in the NHL after this particular game.  More specifically, it’s been claimed that he was blackballed for daring to hit the slightly-built Gretzky when he was off-limits for such abuse.  The problem is that despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, this gets repeated far too frequently as fact.

I do not know the exact origin of this myth.  I know it’s on an early Don Cherry video from the Rock ‘Em Sock’Em Hockey series, but I cannot definitively say that Cherry is the source of it.  However, given his widespread audience and his credibility as someone connected to the “inside game”, I’d argue that Cherry has been responsible for disseminating this to more people than anyone.

If it were limited to a single video 20 years ago, it would be one thing.  But he’s repeated it several times, including putting it in print as recently as 2009.  From his book Don Cherry’s Hockey Stories And Stuff, he repeats this myth, and it’s added to by Al Strachan. The passage reads as follows on pages 62 and 63:

The funny thing about Billy McCreary is that he finished his shift, got off the ice, and never got back on the ice, because Joe Crozier was the coach of the Maple Leafs and knew what would happen to him … McCreary never played another shift in the National Hockey League after kayoing Gretzky. The real story was, as all the hockey people knew, that the No-Hit Rule – all it was – was Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley. If you tried anything at all with Gretzky, or even looked sideways at him, Semenko was there and McSorley was there.

Al Strachan has notes throughout the book, including this one right after Cherry’s passage:

As Don said, Bill Jr. never played another NHL shift after hitting Gretzky. The Leafs sent him to their Cincinnati farm team the next day and he was subsequently traded to the Chicago Blackhawks. He spent a year in their minor-league system before leaving hockey and getting into the insurance business, where he has been very successful and has been to this day.

Holy hell.

Before going any further, I want to make clear that I don’t find anything wrong with an entertaining story, or one that’s slightly embellished for effect.  But that only goes so far as the importance of what the story is about.  If I’m talking to a co-worker and recounting a funny conversation my wife and I had, and I flip it around the actual story so that I had a casual observation and my wife said something hilarious in response to it, no one cares.  If I’m using this website and am talking about a draft pick that happened in the NHL and switch up what that team’s claimed draft board looked like, that’s pretty big.  Not many people care about a conversation between my wife and I, and its historical importance is negligible at best.  But to deliberately disseminate bad historical information on something that a lot of people care about is a very, very different story.  I mention this elsewhere in reference to Phil Esposito, who’s an entertaining storyteller but has stretched the limits of fact on multiple occasions to the point that it’s detrimental to historical analysis.

The first questions to be addressed are very simple ones: did McCreary play another shift in the NHL?  And did he play another game after January 3?

The answer to both is “yes”.  In fact, the very next night against Calgary, McCreary scored a goal at 14:56 of the third period.  It would prove to be his only career NHL goal.  Three days after that, he would take a penalty in the second period of a game against Winnipeg.  As a side note, Leafs coach Joe Crozier was fired after that game and Mike Nykoluk replaced him…and McCreary stayed up with the team.

The problem with the excerpt from Cherry’s book here is that it makes no sense.  He claims that Semenko and McSorley were there to prevent anything from happening to Gretzky.  This totally ignores the very simple fact that when McCreary blasted Gretzky in early January 1981, Marty McSorley was 17 years old and playing with the Hamilton Kilty B’s of the Golden Horseshoe League, which was Junior B.  In fact, McSorley didn’t sign a pro contract until 1982, and that was with Pittsburgh.  He was traded to Edmonton before the 1985-86 season, and wouldn’t play a game alongside Gretzky at all until almost five years after McCreary’s hit.

Both Cherry and Strachan repeat the myth that McCreary never played another shift in the NHL, which is quite clearly proven to be false.

Strachan’s very next sentence says: “The Leafs sent him to their Cincinnati farm team the next day and he was subsequently traded to the Chicago Blackhawks”.  This is possibly the most appallingly bad hat trick of history I’ve ever seen: three major errors in one single sentence.

For one thing, McCreary was not sent down the next day; he was too busy scoring his only career NHL goal in Calgary.  For another, Toronto’s top farm team in 1980-81 was the New Brunswick Hawks; “Cincinnati” that he refers to is the Cincinnati Tigers, who didn’t even exist at the time.  And finally, McCreary was never traded to the Chicago Blackhawks; he was released outright by Toronto in the summer of 1983, and would later sign as a free agent with Chicago.  As an added bonus, Chicago was officially known as the Black Hawks (not Blackhawks) until the end of the 1985-86 season.

Strachan’s next sentence: “He spent a year in their minor-league system before leaving hockey and getting into the insurance business, where he has been very successful and has been to this day.”

McCreary actually played five more years of pro hockey after being released by Toronto, all with the Milwaukee Admirals of the IHL.  Chicago had a weird affiliation setup in the mid-1980s, splitting the Nova Scotia Oilers with Edmonton for a couple years before going exclusively with the Saginaw Hawks in 1987-88.  They also loaned players throughout the IHL as needed.

And finally, McCreary went into the mortgage industry, not insurance.  That was after he retired in 1988, over seven years after hitting Gretzky and six years after Strachan’s timeline has him retiring.

That’s three factual errors by Cherry, and five additional ones by Strachan (not including the repetition of “never played another shift”, and also not including the nomenclature error of referring to the Black Hawks as the Blackhawks).

However, this isn’t about historical standards; it’s about the legacy of Bill McCreary.  And more specifically, it’s about the truly tangible legacy of McCreary.

[An interesting note is that McCreary’s brief NHL career saw him hammer Wayne Gretzky, who was wearing #99 for Edmonton.  His first NHL goal was assisted by Wilf Paiement, who was wearing #99 for Toronto.  And his first penalty was against Winnipeg, who had Rick Dudley wearing #99.  I don’t know if McCreary’s penalty came from an infraction he committed against Dudley, and short of talking to both McCreary and Dudley I won’t know for sure, but maybe if I start saying that it was (thus completing McCreary’s hat trick of 99s) it’ll become widely reported as absolute fact.]

All that we have of Bill McCreary’s NHL career is a brief clip of videotape, showing him as a 20-year-old blasting The Great One before he was “The Great One”.  Surely no one expected his NHL career to be so brief, so what’s left?  And more specifically, what happened to the jersey that McCreary was wearing?

Well, there is an answer out there.  The path that it took after McCreary was sent back to the AHL in January 1981 is unknown.  It may have been re-used by him in the preseason the next year, which of course would have been with Toronto as well.  But one way or another, it was in the shadows for over two decades.  What we do know is that it surfaced for the first time at auction in 2004.  And since then, it has changed hands on at least three occasions, but is in the same condition that it was in when it was auctioned over 12 years ago (as verified by comparisons between the auction listing and the physical jersey).

I know this because at this moment, it’s on loan to me and is in my possession.

This blue Maska knit jersey was worn by McCreary in the 1980-81 season and shows nice wear, with a few repairs, some unrepaired holes, a solid amount of pilling on both the hem on the outside and all over the inside, and what appears to be a small blood stain on the right sleeve below the numbers.  [There is also the possibility that it was recycled from the previous 1979-80 season, when #28 was worn by Carl Brewer in his late-career comeback.  However, the 1979-80 Leafs jerseys had a screened Maska logo in the lower corner while this is embroidered.]

Teams were notoriously cheap when it came to what was used on the ice, and using a jersey for extended periods of time or across multiple seasons was not uncommon.  It is very likely that this is the only blue NHL jersey that McCreary ever wore, which would make it the very one that he was wearing when he lined up Gretzky at the beginning of his too-short NHL career.

Perhaps no other 12-game NHLer is as widely known as Bill McCreary.  But then again, perhaps no one has made such a bang in such a short period of time either.

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