Bill "Cowboy" Cowley was one of the top playmaking forwards in NHL history - three times in his 13-year career he led the NHL in assists. He always seemed to know where his linemates were positioned. An unselfish player who always aimed to set up a colleague for a goal before taking a shot himself, and he rarely jeopardized his team's fortunes by taking a penalty. Because of his ability to see the whole ice, he was arguably the Wayne Gretzky of his era.
He first drew attention to himself with his exemplary play with the Primrose and Shamrocks clubs in the Ottawa City Junior League from 1930 to 1932. He then graduated to the Shamrocks' senior team in 1932-33, and he proved he could handle the tougher competition. Cowley first put up big numbers with the Halifax Wolverines of the Maritime Senior Hockey League in 1933-34, dominating the scoring race with 25 goals and 50 points in 38 games.
In 1934-35 he embarked on an NHL career with the St. Louis Eagles, who had just relocated from Ottawa. Cowley is the only Hall of Fame player to have begun his career with this club. When the team folded prior to the next season, Cowley was claimed by the Boston Bruins in a dispersal draft. The Bruins, a team stacked with experienced forwards, originally used him as a left winger, but his swift skating and precise passes forced them to move him to center.
Cowley broke through in 1937-38 with 39 points and selection to the NHL First All-Star Team. The following season, he recorded a league-high 34 assists. His passing and puck-handling wizardry helped the powerful Bruins squad win the second Stanley Cup in franchise history that year. He formed a lethal combination with Mel "Sudden Death" Hill, who scored an NHL-record three overtime game-winners in the semifinals against the Rangers. Each tally was the result of Cowley's playmaking artistry. Two years later in 1940-41, Cowley won the NHL scoring championship and helped the Bruins win their second Cup in three years.
For a short time he formed the revered Three Gun Line with Roy Conacher and Eddie Wiseman. Cowboy Cowley again topped the NHL in assists in 1940-41 and 1942-43, registering 45 in each year. His 1941 output, recorded during a 48-game schedule, represented a new league standard. After each of these seasons Cowley was awarded the Hart Trophy and placed on the NHL First All-Star Team. He earned another First-Team selection - the fourth of his career - in 1944 after scoring a career-high 30 goals, despite missing 12 games with an injury. Before the injury Cowley held a comfortable lead in the points race, and although he ended up in seventh place - Herbie Cain won the title with 82 points - his total of 71 points in 36 games hints strongly at what might have been.
Cowley played with the Bruins until the end of the 1946-47 season, and on February 12 of that season he surpassed Syd Howe as the NHL's career point leader. This mark stood for five years until Elmer Lach overtook him. Along the way, Cowley recorded at least 30 assists on five occasions. In 549 regular-season matches he accumulated 548 points and was one of the game's most reliable producers.
Cowley was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1968.