It was pretty clear early on that Dave Gardner would become a hockey player. After all, his father Cal had enjoyed a splendid 12-year NHL career which saw him win two Cups. Dave's younger brother Paul would also make it to the NHL for 10 seasons.
Montreal selected Dave 8th overall in the 1972 Amateur Draft. Unfortunately for Dave the Canadiens team was deep on centers. They had Henri Richard, Jacques Lemaire and Pete Mahovlich who all were excellent centers. Dave saw limited action in the NHL as a rookie (5 games) and played mostly for the Canadiens farm team in the AHL (Nova Scotia). He scored a fine 72 points in 66 games and showed that he belonged in the NHL. Dave managed to earn a regular spot on the Canadiens team for the 1973-74 season but didn't see much ice time.
Montreal would trade him for St. Louis' 1st round draft pick in 1974 (Doug Risebrough). Dave's stint in St. Louis was brief, too A couple of months later he was traded to the California Golden Seals (who later became the Cleveland Barons) where he played four seasons of solid hockey, scoring 16 goals three times and 19 once.
When Cleveland and Minnesota merged there was no place for Dave and he was placed on the NHL reserve list where he was picked up by the Los Angeles Kings. LA placed him in Binghamton where he played in the AHL. After Dave and his family had settled there they bought out his contract and released him. Dave's hockey career seemed to be over, but he got a break when he was invited to play for Team Canada in the December 1979 Izvestija tournament in Moscow.
People from the Philadelphia Flyers organization were in Moscow and liked what they saw. They signed Dave as a free agent and assigned him to their AHL team (Maine Mariners). Dave was on fire and scored 55 points (20+35) in 37 games. He played so well that the Flyers called him up for two games in which he scored two points.
When the 79-80 season was over Dave thought that he was on his way back to the NHL. But in August 1980 Dave realized that there was no interest in his services, despite his fine performance. This time he really thought that his career was over at 28. It turned out that it would be the start of the second phase of his pro career. The European phase.
Dave was contacted by the Swiss 2nd division club Ambri-Piotta and he jumped on the offer since he felt that he still had a lot to offer in a hockey rink. And little did he know that the interest would be so intense in a 2nd division club in Switzerland. Dave soon found out that there were 8,000 people jamming an arena that only had a capacity for 6,500. The interest for hockey was huge in the small Swiss Alp village.
Soon after Dave had arrived to Switzerland he looked at his current situation:
" I think it would be a total mistake for me if I were simply dragging out my career for one extra year. I'm history now (in the NHL). At 28, I could have been getting started on something new. But this was an opportunity to see something most Canadians never experience, learn a different language and culture, be together with my family a lot, get some new perspective on hockey and life in general. The one thing that does make me laugh is guys like Lemaire (who played two seasons in Switzerland) saying they left the NHL and came to Europe to relax. Hey,I didn't get away from pressure by moving here. It's worse, if anything. I've got 7-8000 people watching me, expecting me to get three goals a night and letting me know about it if I don't. And it seems like I face most of them on the street the next day. The Canadians are under the gun all the time. I don't mind it, see. But I ain't relaxing, believe me," Dave said.
The pressure was indeed high on the Canadian players over in Switzerland. They were very well paid with NHL type of salaries. Dave was an immidiate hit in Switzerland, and he was surprised of the high playing level.
"I was surprised at the calibre of hockey. The guys don't have a lot of know-how but they're in better condition than pros back home, even though they all have daytime jobs," Dave said
Another surprising element for Dave was how enthusiastic the fans were in Switzerland.
"This country is crazy for hockey in a way Canada lived through years ago. I have trouble paying for anything around here, especially after we win. My car has my name on the side so I could never get a ticket no matter where I parked. Listen, I've got to say it. I'm big time here." Dave said.
Dave was indeed very successful in Switzerland and spent five seasons there, scoring two points per game. It was in fact his European hockey career that was the most successful one. Dave is one of many former NHL'ers who revived their hockey careers in Europe.
Had another team drafted him who wasn't as deep at the center position then Dave might have enjoyed a more successful NHL career. But as it turned out his career was pretty rewarding anyway.