Hockey Central

Terry Sawchuk:

A Great – And Greatly Troubled – Goaltender

Most hockey historians agree that the game has never seen a finer goaltender than Terrance Gordon Sawchuk, better remembered by teammates as "Uke" or "Ukie," nicknames recalling his Ukrainian heritage. During Sawchuk's first five NHL seasons, his goals-against average never climded above 1.99, an astonishing achievement. There were four Stanley Cup championships along the way – three with the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings of Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay and Red Kelly, and a final, heartbreakingly heroic stand with the Toronto Maple Leafs during Canada's Centennial spring of 1967. He won the Calder Trophy in 1950-51 as the league's top rookie and won the Vezina Trophy on four occasions. He was elected to seven postseason all-star teams and in 1964 he surpassed George Hainsworth to become the all-time shutout leader.

Like so many of the greats, Sawchuk brought something new to the game. He was the first to adopt the crouch, bending so deeply that his chinn almost touched his padded knees. He found that he was quicker from this position, especially when he had to kick out a leg to stop a shot, and from down low he was able to catch sight of the puck through the legs of opponents attempting to screen him. The famous "Sawchuk Crouch" was copied by a generation of young goalies.

An acrobat on ice, Sawchuk's every incredibly rapid movement was an explosion of action and a release of pent-up tension. Before he finally donned the Frankenstein face mask in 1962, it almost hurt to watch his face during a game. Every save appeared to cost him so much.

But all this is only part of the Sawchuk legend. "He was the greatest goalie I ever saw, and the most troubled athlete I ever knew," recalled Joe Falls, sports editor of the Detroit Free Press at the time of Sawchuk's tragic death in 1970. "The first time I met Terry Sawchuk he was raging with anger and shouting obscenities and throwing his skates at a reporter. This was in 1953. In all the years to follow, he never really changed."

Born in the working-class Winnipeg suburb of East Kildonan on December 28, 1929, Sawchuk became a net-minder at the age of 10 when he inherited the goalie pads of his older brother Mike, who died suddenly of a heart attack at age 17. The passing of the brother he adored was but the first in a procession of family tragedies, injuries and accidents that would plague Sawchuk for the rest of his life.

By the time he was fifteen, Sawchuk starred for the Junior A Winnipeg Rangers. Signed after that initial campaign by Detroit Red Wing scout Bob Kinnear, the Wings shipped Sawchuk east the next season to the Ontario town of Galt, where they sponsored a squad in the Ontario Junior Hockey League, considered the top junior loop in Canada. The next fall Sawchuk, by now 17, proved the sensation of the Wings' training camp. "I've never seen a young goalie with more ability," raved Detroit coach Tommy Ivan. After just four more games of seasoning in the junior ranks, Detroit turned Sawchuk professional with Omaha of the United States Hockey League. There Sawchuk quickly made his mark, capturing the rookie of the year award for 1947-48. He repeated as top rookie the following year in the American Hockey League, after earning promotion to Indianapolis, the Wing's top farm club. The next season his superlative goaltending led Indianapolis to the AHL's championship, the Calder Cup.

Detroit general manager Jack Adams, whose squad had just won the 1950 Stanley Cup, felt so confident of Sawchuk's abilities that during the following summer he traded Harry Lumley, the Wing's incumbent netminder and himself a future Hall of Famer, to Chicago to make room for Sawchuk.

Thus began a five-year reign of excellence that saw Sawchuk capture the Calder Trophy (no one had ever before swept the freshman honors in hockey's top three professional leagues), win the Vezina Trophy three times, and help Detroit to three Stanley Cup championships.

As early as his sophomore season, Sawchuk was widely acclaimed as the greatest goaltender in the history of the game. "There simply isn't any question about it," insisted New York Rangers general manager Frank Boucher in January of 1952. "Oh, I know what some of the old-timers are going to say. That Sawchuk is just a kid and has to stand the test of time ... But I'm sure that they'll be saying the same thing about Sawchuk years from now."

At the age of 22, Sawchuk had not only arrived as one of the game's marquee players, but he had been stamped as something unique, a goalie unlike any who had come before. Sawchuk's playoff performance that spring, when the Red Wings captured the Stanley Cup in the minimum eight games, remains unmatched by any goaltender in the modern era. He surrendered just five goals during the two playoff series against Toronto and Montreal for a minuscule goals-against average of 0.62. His four playoff shutouts qualed the record shared by Davey Kerr of the New York Rangers and Toronto's Frank McCool. But Kerr had needed nine games to get his four in 1937, and McCool thirteen in 1945.

The next season Sawchuk easily captured the Vezina Trophy, and he won it again in 1955 when Detroit took the second of two straight Stanley Cup titles. By now his credits included First Team All-Star selections in 1951, 1952 and 1953, and spots on the second squad in 1954 and 1955.

But despite the accolades, trouble loomed ahead for Sawchuk. Teammates noticed a souring of his personality as injuries and other troubles took their toll. Even for a goaltender, his litany of health problems seemed almost surreal. By the mid-1950s he had already suffered through several operations to remove bone chips from his right elbow, which he had injured playing football as a child. An eye injury while he was with Omaha almost ended his career before it really got started. His appendix had ruptured one off-season and another summer a lung collapsed in an automobile accident. In the years to come, Sawchuk would be troubled by neuritis, a painful inflammation of the nerves in his legs that doctors at first felt might eventually put him in a wheelchair; two herniated discs in his back further aggravated this condition. His upper back became severely swayed, caused by a condition called lordosis, the result of back muscles that had been shortened by years of crouching in goal. Sawchuk also suffered from insomnia, caused by the constant throbbing of pain in his back and legs, and persistent mirgraine headaches.

"When it came time to waken him I often had to help him out of bed and, later, into the car for the trip to the rink," Sawchuk's wife, Pat, told an interviewer. "Then he'd take a painkiller pill, timing it so he would unstiffen by the time the buzzer sounded to skate out onto the ice."

Increasingly fond of drink, Sawchuk often showed up for practices in a foul mood, hung over from the night before. At the best times, reporters approached him warily, hoping to be lucky enough to catch the goalie on one of his good days.

"His style was to listen placidly to a question, then look the reporter in the eye and snarl, 'get lost', or words to that effect," Jim Proudfoot of the Toronto Star remembered. "A simple question, sensible in his case, such as 'how do you feel' would elicit this response: 'With my hands, dummy.' To a query about some on-ice incident – 'you saw the game, didn't you?'"

Teammate Marcel Pronovost, who roomed with the goaltender for years on the road, often recalled how, when they first awoke in the morning, he would say good morning to Sawchuk in both French and English. "If he answered," recalled Pronovost, "I knew we would talk at least a little that day. But if he didn't reply, which was most days, we didn't speak the entire day."

Almost immediately after Detroit's Stanley Cup victory in 1955, Jack Adams stunned the hockey world by trading almost half of his championship squad on blockbuster deals with Chicago and Boston. Sawchuk, despite his recent Vezina win, was depatched to the Bruins.

Adams explained that he made the trades to make room on the roster for such talented youngsters as Norn Ullman and Bronco Horvath. Slated to take Sawchuk's place in the Detroit goal was minor-league sensation Glenn Hall, another future Hall of Famer netminder.

Sawchuk never did adjust to life as a Boston Bruin. "Terry didn't like anything about Boston," remembered his friend Johnny Wilson, a teammate in Detroit. "He didn't like the city or even the arena. Terry was developed in a winning organization. And then suddenly he was with a team struggling to make the playoffs. I don't think he appreciated that."

Though Sawchuk played well, Boston finished out of the playoffs in fifth place in 1955-56. The next season both he and the team started strongly. By Christmas Sawchuk led the Vezina race and was playing so well that people were already talking him up as a potential candidate for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

Then once again he was struck down by the injury whammy that had long been the bane of his existence. Sawchuk contracted infectious mononucleosis, a disease of the blood stream that affects the glands and causes loss of strength and a general feeling of lassitude. He entered hospital to begin a convalescence that was expected to last as long as two months.

But Sawchuk surprised everyone by returning to the Boston cage in less than three weeks. Doctors consulted by the press unanimously agreed that this was not nearly enough recuperation time from mono for an NHLgoalie, who every game carried 35 pounds of soaking wet equipment and endured an unnaturally heightened level of physical and emotional stress. The suspicion quickly grew that the Bruins, desperate to secure a playoff spot, callously decided to roll the dice on Sawchuk's health and rush him back into the lineup.

Depression is often a side effect of mono, especially among sufferers, who, like Sawchuk, don't get the rest and relaxation they need to start to feel better again. Night after night he lay in bed staring at the ceiling and smoking cigarettes. Disgusted by his indifferent play and confused by his emotional turmoil, Sawchuk announced to the Bruins that he was quitting the game.

Talk of retirement was nothing new for the high-strung netminder. Throughout his career – when he was sick or injured or depressed about a slump – Sawchuk would often threaten to quit. The difference was that this time he really meant it.

Sawchuk's walkout quickly became the biggest story in the game of hockey since the Richard Riot in Montreal two seasons before; front-page news in most league cities the next morning. Ironically, on the day that he announced his retirement. NHL headquaters in Montreal also announced the All-Star squads for the first half of the season. On the strength of his brilliant work before he became sick, Sawchuk out-polled all other goalies in the voting to earn a place of the first team.

At first the Bruins took a hard line against their errant goaltender, placing him on "permanent suspension." Then realizing the magnitude of their loss, they softened their stance, asking him to reconsider. Finally, after acquiring the services of promising netminder Don Simmons from the AHL's Springfield Indians, they returned to their original hard line. "The game is bigger than Sawchuk," Boston general manager Lynn Patrick pronounced angrily.

And so the stage was set for Sawchuk's return to the Red Wings, who as it happened were in the market for a goaltender. Though Glenn Hall had been voted the league's top rookie, and was elected to the Second All-Star Team as a freshman and to the first team as a sophomore, the volatile Jack Adams had found him wanting. Adams placed most of the blame on Hall for the team's early exit from the playoffs that spring.

After time to recuperate and think it over back at his home in suburban Detroit, Sawchuk concluded that he would indeed like to continue his playing career, especially if a deal could be worked out transferring him back to the Red Wings. In truth, though he played for four other organizations during his career, Sawchuk was never really happy – or at least as happy as his irascible nature permitted – unless he was wearing Detroit's famous winged wheel.

That June of 1957 a deal was struck transferring Sawchuk back to Detroit in return for 22-year-old left winger Johnny Bucyk and an undisclosed sum of cash. Though unappreciated by Adams, Bucyk quickly blossomed in to stardom with Boston, going on to score 545 goals for the Bruins over the next 21 seasons.

Sadly for Sawchuk, the Detroit squad he rejoined was but a pale shadow of the champions he had left behind in 1955. A string of disastrous trades had decimated one of the greatest teams in hockey history. After finishing in third place, Detroit was humiliated by Rocket Richard and the Montreal Canadians in a semifinal sweep. The next year, 1958-59, the Red Wings hit rock bottom, finishing last in the standings for the first time in the club's history.

Sawchuk continued to play well, but by now he no longer necessarily ranked as the best goalie in the game. Many would have picked Montreal's Jacques Plante, Chicago's Glenn Hall, or possibly Toronto's Johnny Bower ahead of him. Still, Sawchuk was a standout on some good, though not great, Detroit teams in the early 1960s. Led by the ageless Gordie Howe, Alec Delvecchio and Norm Ullman up front, and anchored by a defense corps that included Marcel Pronovost and Bill Gadsby, the Wings reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1961, 1963 and 1964.

By the start of the 1963-64 campaign Sawchuk was closing in on one of the most coveted records in hockey: George Hainsworth's mark of 94 career shutouts. His history-making 95th whitewash came in Montreal on January 18, 1974, after he foiled a third-period breakaway by John Ferguson to preserve a 2-0 score.

Coming off a season in which he had set the shutout record and been named team MVP, the by now 34-year-old fully expected to finish out his career with the Red Wings. But that spring Sawchuk was bitterly disappointed when Detroit set him free and Toronto claimed him in the third round of the annual intra-league waiver draft. His replacement in the Detroit goal would be young Roger Crozier, who had shared the job with Sawchuk for part of the previous season.

Punch Imlach's Maple Leafs had won the Stanley Cup the past three years, twice beating Detroit in the finals. Having Sawchuk and Johnny Bower, two future Hall of Famers, on the same squad seemed almost an embarrassment of riches. Bower recalled "going to Imlach and telling him that he'd just bought himself a Stanley Cup."

The two veterans, who had faced each other way back in the Calder Cup final of 1950, proceeded to form hockey's most formidable and famous goaltending platoon. They shared the Vezina that first season, 1964-65, and continued to provide Toronto with stellar protection for two more years. The Stanley Cup victory prophesied by Johnny Bower came to pass during Canada's Centennial spring of 1967, when the Maple Leafs beat Montreal in a thrilling six-game final.

Though bruised and ravaged by injuries, Sawchuk was at his most phenomenal in that series, just as he had been against the Blackhawks of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita in the semifinals. Many observers felt that even he, hockey's greatest netminder, had outdone himself. "I've never seen such goaling," said an awed Bobby Hull.

"It would be nice to go out a winner, the first star in a Cup-winning game," Sawchuk said afterwards, talking as he had so often before about quitting hockey. He was still contemplating retirement the following June when the Leafs chose to protect Johnny Bowere rather than him in the original expansion draft, which saw the league grow from six to twelve teams. Made the draft's top pick by the Los Angeles Kings, Sawchuk found the offer of a $40,000 annual salary too rich to refuse and signed on for a minimum of two more years.

No one, including Sawchuk, knew it then, but he was pretty much through. The Stanley Cup victory in Toronto proved to be a glorious last harrah. He struggled through one campaign with Los Angeles and then was sent packing to Detroit, where he was third goalie behind Roger Crozier and Roy Edwards in 1968-69.

Yet still he kept on playing. After his wife divorced him, he needed the money for support payments for seven children. The final stop of an unparalleled career came with the New York Rangers the next season, when as the backup to Ed Giacomin, he made eight appearances, which included his 103rd and final shutout, a 6-0 decision over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

In all his life, Sawchuk had never felt so low as he did that season. His drinking, which had become progressively heavier with the passing years, got worse following the divorce. He became more irritable and even less tolerant of reporters, fans and anyone else outside a small, select circle of friends.

Then came the shocking end that shook the hockey world and made headlines across North America, who shared a rented house on Long Island with his Ranger teammate Ron Stewart, got into a drunken argument with his friend over how much responsibility each had to clean up the place before handing the keys back to the owner, and about money Stewart felt was owed him for household expenses. During a brawl on their front yard, the goalie hit his stomach heavily on either Stewart's knee or a barbeque grill, nobody was certain which.

The tumble caused extensive damage to Sawchuk's liver and gall bladder. During the next month, he underwent surgery for the removal of his gall bladder and then to remove blood from his lacerated liver. The scarred and battered body Sawchuk had pushed so hard through 20 NHL seasons grew weaker by the day. Finally, on May 31, 1970, just hours after a final operation, he slipped away.

In the days that followed speculation abounded about the role Ron Stewart had played in the goalie's death. There was talk that Stewart would face a charge of involuntary manslaughter. But a Long Island grand jury deliberated less than half an hour before ruling that Sawchuk's death was "completely accidental."

Terry Sawchuk's legend has grown larger with every year since his tragic passing. In 1971, he was postumously awarded the Lester Patrick Memorial Trophy – for "outstanding service to hockey in the United States." Also that year, voters waived three-year waiting period and elected Sawchuk to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Then, on March 6, 1994 came the honor that would have pleased him the most. His beloved Red Wings officially retired Sawchuk's Number 1 and a commemorative banner was hoisted to the rafters of Joe Louis Arena. It hangs with the other retired numbers of Gordie Howe (9), Ted Lindsy (7), Sid Abel (12) and Alex Delvecchio (10).

"The Uke was the best goalie I ever saw," Gordie Howe marveled that glorious evening, "He was everything that a goalie should be."