Canadian hockey player
He's been called the greatest goaltender in National Hockey League (NHL) history. He won the Stanley Cup four times, earned the Vezina Trophy for the year's best goalie four times, and his performance in a 1967 playoff game is still called the best display of goaltending ever. Goalies ever since have imitated the way he crouched in front of the goal. In a sport full of tough,
tenacious men who play hurt, his countless physical injuries and mental wounds still became legendary. Terry Sawchuk triumphed, faltered, raged, rebounded, and triumphed again, always in pain.
Terry Sawchuk was born December 28, 1929 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Sawchuk's father, a Ukrainian immigrant, had met his mother when they were working in a burlap factory together. Sawchuk learned to skate at age four, and started playing hockey with his older brother Mitch on an ice rink at his uncle's house. Mitch and another brother died while Sawchuk was young, and Sawchuk wore Mitch's old goalie pads when he played. A Winnipeg-based scout for the Detroit Red Wings invited him to Detroit to work out with the team when he was fourteen, and he signed a contract with the Wings soon after.
Rookie of the Year
Sawchuk left home at sixteen to play in junior leagues, then spent most of three years in the minor leagues, playing for Omaha in the United States League and Indianapolis in the American Hockey League. He was named Rookie of the Year in both leagues and led Indianapolis to the AHL's Calder Cup in 1950. He played his first NHL game on January 8, 1950, at age twenty, filling in for the Red Wings' injured goalie, Harry Lumley. In seven games for the Red Wings that year, Sawchuk was 4-3, with a goals-against average of 2.28. That proved he was ready to play goal in the NHL, so at the end of the season, the Red Wings traded Lumley to Chicago and made Sawchuk their regular goalie. He played in every Wings game in 1950-51, his first full season, shut out the Wings' opponents eleven times, compiled a GAA of 1.98, and won the Calder Trophy for NHL Rookie of the Year.
Right away, Sawchuk's stance in goal attracted attention around the league. Back then, goalies would usually bend at their knees but keep their upper bodies erect. Instead, Sawchuk bent deeply at the waist. "I found that I could move more quickly from the crouch position," he explained in an interview quoted in Chris McDonell's Hockey All-Stars. "It gave me better balance to go both ways, especially with my legs. Scrambles and shots from the point were becoming the style in hockey when I broke into the NHL. From the crouch, I could keep the puck in my vision much better when it was coming through a maze of players." Goalies around the league eventually adopted his stance.
The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in Sawchuk's second full season with them. He again played every game, had twelve shutouts and a 1.91 GAA, and won the Vezina Trophy. The Red Wings swept through the playoffs, winning the semi-finals and finals four games to none. Sawchuk didn't let in a single goal in any of the home playoff games. "Sawchuk is their club," declared a frustrated Maurice Richard after his Montreal Canadiens lost in the finals (according to David Dupuis's book Sawchuk ). "Another guy in their nets and we'd beat them."
|1929||Born December 28 in Winnipeg, Manitoba|
|1944||Works out with Detroit Red Wings at age 14|
|1946||Begins playing junior hockey|
|1947||Joins Omaha in the United States League|
|1948||Joins Indianapolis in the American Hockey League|
|1950||Plays first NHL game for Detroit|
|1950||Becomes Detroit's number-one goalie|
|1952, 1954-55||Wins Stanley Cup with Detroit|
|1953||Marries Pat Morey|
|1955||Traded to Boston|
|1957||Temporarily retires from hockey after illness|
|1964||Leads Detroit into Cup finals despite pinched nerve|
|1964||Chosen by Toronto in waiver draft|
|1967||Wins fourth Stanley Cup with Toronto|
|1970||Dies from internal injuries after scuffle with roommate|
For the next three seasons, Sawchuk remained at the top of his game. The Red Wings won two more Stanley Cups, and Sawchuk won the Vezina Trophy two more times. Each year, he let in an average of less than two goals per game. "The key for us was Sawchuk," Wings defenseman Bob Goldham once said, looking back on the 1954 and 1955 Stanley Cup wins, according to Dupuis's Sawchuk. "He was the greatest goaltender who ever lived. We could always count on him to come up with the big save."
A Dark Temper
But even in those early years, Sawchuk revealed a dark, depressive temper. The first time Detroit sports writer Joe Falls ever saw Sawchuk in 1953, "he was raging with anger and shouting obscenities and throwing his skates at a reporter," Falls is quoted as saying in McDonell's Hockey All-Stars. A 1954 photograph taken at the Red Wings' Olympia Stadium shows Sawchuk climbing a metal fence to get into the crowd and confront a heckler. He got married in 1953, to Pat Morey, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a Detroit-area golf course owner, but he often took his drunken rage out on her after spending nights carousing with Detroit Lions football players. In February 1955, coach Jack Adams briefly benched Sawchuk because of his drinking and ordered him to undergo psychiatric counseling. (Adams only told the press he was resting Sawchuk.)
In 1955, Adams traded Sawchuk to the Boston Bruins. The trade shook Sawchuk's confidence. He did well during his first season in Boston, posting nine shutouts, but faltered in 1956-57. He came down with mononucleosis, missed several games, and came back to play before he was fully recovered. He didn't play as well after his return, still feeling sick and weak, and worried about his performance until he began to suffer from insomnia. Miserable, he told the Bruins he was retiring from the game rather than let his team down on the ice—and his angry coach labeled him a quitter in the papers. He went back to his home in Detroit, where the Red Wings' team physician examined him and declared he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He called a press conference, explained his decision, and announced he might return to hockey if his health improved. He tried to work as a car dealer, insurance salesman, and bartender. When the Red Wings decided they wanted him back for the next season, he gladly returned to hockey. But his mental instability had become public knowledge, a famous example of the self-doubt and lonely despair that can take over a goalie's mind.
Sawchuk spent seven more seasons as the Wings' goalie, but the team wasn't quite what it once was. He was still a solid, talented goalie, but never posted the amazing statistics of his first years. During the 1960-61 season, as more teams began to carry two goalies on their rosters, he had to share goaltending duties with Hank Bassen. "It really rocked his world," his wife, Pat, told Dupuis for his book. "If he sat out a game, there are no words to describe his depression." He still drank heavily, which caused pain to flare up in his legs. He frequently lashed out at his wife and children, and his infidelities became obvious. Twice, his wife filed for divorce but reconciled with him.
Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World's Greatest Goalie
On January 10, an ankle injury forced Terry from the second period of a game at the Forum. He was expected to miss the next game against the Leafs two nights later, but ever the warrior, Terry recovered and suited up….
With sixty-three seconds left in the opening period, Terry dove to make his ninth save of the game and had Leaf Bob Pulford fall over his outstretched body. Terry put his catching hand down on the ice in an attempt to keep his balance. At that exact moment, Pulford, trying to get back on his own feet, accidentally stepped on the back of Terry's hand. The pain shot up Terry's left arm. Throwing off his glove, he looked at the back of his hand.
"It looked like a little cut at first," he said later, "then it opened up and I could see the knuckle bones. I tried to open my hand as I was going off the ice but the fingers snapped right under. Funny thing, it hurt very little."
Terry was rushed to Toronto East General Hospital, where he was diagnosed as having three severed tendons above the knuckle. The one-hour surgery included gouging the hand to refind the severed retracted tendons, multi-stitching to reconnect the tendons, and then closing the wound….
Terry's injury led to an innovation. Wings' trainer Lefty Wilson designed and attached a hard protective covering over the exposed knuckle area of Terry's catching glove. The feature was quickly adopted by all goalies in the NHL.
Source: Dupuis, David. Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World's Greatest Goalie. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing, 1998, pp. 158-159.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1950-51||All-Star First Team|
|1950-51||Calder Memorial Trophy|
|1951-52||All-Star First Team|
|1952-53||All-Star First Team|
|1953-54||All-Star Second Team|
|1954-55||All-Star Second Team|
|1958-59||All-Star Second Team|
|1962-63||All-Star Second Team|
|1970-71||Lester Patrick Trophy|
|1971||Inducted into Hockey Hall of Fame|
In his twenty years as an NHL goaltender, Sawchuk suffered repeated injuries and was in and out of hospitals all the time. As a young player, he had multiple elbow surgeries to remove bone chips from youthful injures. In his first years in the NHL, when each team had only one goalie and no one wore a mask, games would stop if a shot or a stick cut a goalie's face, the team's trainer would quickly sew up the wound, and the goalie would keep playing. Sawchuk got an estimated 400 stitches in his face and head before he started wearing a mask in 1962. He broke bones and suffered concussions. Once, in 1963, a teammate's skate slashed his hand open. "It looked like a little cut at first," he said (according to Dupuis's Sawchuk ), "then it opened up and I could see the knuckle bones." Doctors had to reattach his tendons in surgery.
Sawchuk played his last great season as a Red Wing goalie in 1963-64. A pinched nerve put him in the hospital again during the playoffs—but he left, went to Olympia Stadium for the third game of the semi-finals, made twenty-six saves and shut out Chicago, then went back to the hospital. The Wings advanced to the finals, but lost to Toronto in seven games. Detroit hockey writers named Sawchuk the team's most valuable player of the season.
Still, Detroit let Sawchuk go in the waiver draft that year, and the Toronto Maple Leafs acquired him. The next year, he shared the Vezina Trophy with fellow Leaf goalie Johnny Bower. In 1966, he collapsed from back pain during a round of golf. Doctors discovered two herniated discs in his spine. He had surgery that fused two of his vertebrae together, and doctors warned he might not be able to play again. But that warning seemed to compel him to play even harder. His win-loss-tie record for the 1966-67 season was 15-5-4, and he achieved his 100th shutout that year.
In the 1967 semi-finals against Chicago, Sawchuk played the first four games, and won two and lost two. Exhausted, he insisted that Bower start the fifth game. But the coach put Sawchuk in to start the second period after Chicago scored two quick goals in the first period, shaking Bower up. Many hockey writers consider Sawchuk's performance that night the best game a hockey goalie ever played. A Bobby Hull slap shot hit Sawchuk in his tender shoulder and knocked him down, but he kept playing through the severe pain. Sawchuk made thirty-seven saves in two periods, robbing scoring champs like Hull and Stan Mikita . He didn't let in a goal, and the Leafs won 4-2. They went on to win the series, then defeated Montreal in six games to win the Stanley Cup, Sawchuk's fourth.
His Last Years
The Los Angeles Kings took Sawchuk in that year's expansion draft, and the aging goalie played for three different teams in the next three years. By the time he was traded back to Detroit and then to the New York Rangers, the aging goalie was serving as a backup. Early in 1969, after more of Sawchuk's alcoholic fits of temper, his wife left him, taking their seven kids, and divorced him. He moved in with some of his teammates.
His violent temper led to his tragic death. In April 1970, Sawchuk got into an argument with roommate and teammate Ron Stewart. They got into a shoving match, then both fell to the ground. Sawchuk suffered internal bleeding, and surgeries failed to heal the injuries. He died on May 31, 1970.
|Boston: Boston Bruins; Detroit: Detroit Redwings; Los Angeles: Los Angeles Kings; NY: New York Rangers; Toronto: Toronto Maple Leafs.|
Sawchuk's record of 103 shutouts may never be broken. He played in a record 971 regular-season games; he was one of the last great goaltenders from the era when goalies played every game, when their careers were one long endurance test. All goalies sacrifice their bodies, absorbing the blows of speeding pucks, and all struggle with the intense mental challenge of carrying the praise or blame for their teams' successes and failures. Sawchuk faced those trials in more games than any other goalie, and may have suffered more than anyone else. His achievements and his tragedies, his physical stamina and mental torment, make him not only hockey's best goalie, but the ultimate goaltending legend.
Dupuis, David. Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World's Greatest Goalie. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing, 1998.
Fischler, Stan. Goalies: Legends from the NHL's Toughest Job. Toronto: Warwick Publishing, 1995.
McDonell, Chris. Hockey All-Stars: The NHL Honor Roll. Willowdale, Ont.: Firefly Books Ltd., 2000.
Boston Bruins Legends. http://www.bruinslegends.com.
Detroit Red Wing Alumni Association Legends. http://www.redwingalumni.com.
Iovino, Jim. LCS Hockey Greats of the Game. http://www.lcshockey.com.
Sketch by Erick Trickey