When Players were Paid Per Stitch

terry sawchuck

Photo: TIME Magazine – Terry Sawchuk: A Face Only a Hockey Puck Could Love

In the mid-1940s, word went out to NHL hockey players that a Detroit insurance company had a brand new policy to offer. National Casualty was, at the time, already insuring many professional athletes against injury, but never before had their coverage narrowed in to the very needle sewing up cuts suffered in the course of on-ice play.

Executive Jean Caspar was the man with the plan. By the terms of the company’s newest policy, players who paid a $100 premium would receive $5 for every stitch used to bind their wounds during a given season.

Defenceman Bill Gadsby of the Chicago Black Hawks was one who signed up with enthusiasm. Not long after he did, a rising shot form Toronto’s Hugh Bolton found Gadsby’s face as he stood in front of his own net. “I never saw the puck until it split open my lower lip with a cut that seemed to be as wide as the Grand Canyon,” Gadsby later wrote. “The final tally was 30 stitches. It was the ugliest gash of my career. My diet consisted of tea and toast for about three weeks. I lost 11 pounds.”

If he allowed himself a (sore) smile, it may have come when he calculated the cash dividends. “In less than two weeks I had paid for the policy,” he recalled. “I had gotten back all my money, plus a $50 profit.”

While players like Gadsby might have argued they’d earned their rewards, there are also accounts of a thoughtful (unnamed) few who didn’t mind finding a way to inflate their profits. Dr. John Finley, long-time Detroit Red Wings’ club doctor, has said that it was common enough in those bygone days for a wounded player to request an extra stitch or two, just to up National Casualty’s pay-out.

“The company also learned,” noted a Boston newspaper, “that what might be a three-stitch cut in one town could be good for eight stitches in a place like Toronto, where doctors believe in sewing machine precision instead of a mere basting job.”

After a couple of years, the company did see that they might have a losing proposition on their hands, and duly adjusted the $5-a-stitch benefit to make it a flat $10-a-cut fee.

But even that would prove too rich (not rich enough?) for the company’s bottom line. About five years after the company started paying stitch insurance, National Casualty eliminated the policy outright.

A year after that, they got out of the hockey business altogether. Injuries were rising too fast, Jean Caspar said. “We keep reducing the benefits and raising the premiums,” he confessed with what seems like surprising candor. “But even that did not permit us to keep the hockey division on a paying basis.”

NHL president Clarence Campbell shrugged off the snub: players, he pointed out, were already insured by their clubs. He did dispute Caspar’s assertion that injuries were becoming more and more common: the league’s statistics showed just the opposite.

Caspar’s answer to that? Even if that were so, it didn’t make any difference to his company, he said, when the players they were insuring were always the ones getting hurt.

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  • Murray White 4 years ago

    Saw him play and was boo out of Boston. For years when he was with Detroit he wouldn’t dress for the game here.

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