Terry Sawchuk is the best goalie who ever lived.
Emile Francis, during his tenure as New York Rangers GM a half-century ago, made that assertion dozens of times, as did countless wise hockey folk. Francis, now 92 and living in Florida, maintains that claim to this day. He’s trustworthy when it comes to puckstopping, because he played goal at just about every pro level, including stints with the Rangers and Chicago Black Hawks.
I can second the motion about Sawchuk being the best because of two games I’ll never forget – and which I watched in person. In both contests, he put a stamp on his greatness.
The first was a Toronto-Detroit playoff game at Maple Leaf Gardens in March 1952. Sawchuk was in the process of winning eight straight playoff games, leading the Red Wings to their fifth Stanley Cup. Detroit won the game 6-2 as the 22-year-old Sawchuk outduelled Hall of Famer Turk Broda.
An NHL sophomore at the time, Sawchuk had four shutouts in the playoffs that season and averaged a meager 0.63 goals against per game. From his rookie year in 1950-51 through 1954-55, his goals-against average was less than 2.00 and he racked up 56 shutouts.
The second of his masterpieces took place just after Sawchuk, then 25, had been traded to the beleaguered Boston Bruins. Watching the Rangers totally overwhelm the visiting team at Madison Square Garden Oct. 29, 1955, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
To this day, I consider Sawchuk’s work against the Blueshirts that night as the best exhibition of goaltending I’ve seen in more than 70 years of watching goalies. But I’ll get to that later.
First, let’s focus on the remarkable transformation of this rubber-stopping specimen from a fat NHL rookie to a frighteningly skinny pro decades later. “When I first played against him,” Francis said, “he weighed 220 pounds, but when I picked him up in New York to play for us as a Ranger (when Sawchuk was 39), he weighed 170 pounds.”
What Francis could have added was that the Winnipeg-born Sawchuk was the most troubled, most injured and most heroic major leaguer who ever donned a pair of goalie pads. Yet when his career began as a Red Wings prospect, right after the Second World War, he was still in mint condition. “We were teammates and roommates on the Omaha Knights in the USHL,” said Max McNab, another Red Wings prospect. “It was 1947-48 and he was just a big, happy puppy dog. He eventually turned into the best goalie I ever saw.”
It was 1947-48 and he was just a big, happy puppy dog. He eventually turned into the best goalie I ever saw.
– Max McNab
But McNab only saw a part of Sawchuk’s facade. Tragedy began infecting the Sawchuk persona when he was 10 and his older brother died of a heart attack. Less than two years later, Sawchuk injured his arm while playing football. For months, he walked around with a severely broken arm. When surgery was finally performed, Sawchuk’s right arm remained permanently bent and two inches shorter than the left. Over the years, doctors removed more than 60 bone chips from the arm, giving him no further mobility but relieving some of the chronic pain.
Interestingly, Sawchuk was just one component of the most productive goalie machine ever conceived in the NHL. Under the manipulation of manager Jack ‘Jolly Jawn’ Adams, the Red Wings thrived thanks to an assembly line of star stoppers. They had three Calder Trophy winners – Sawchuk, Glenn Hall and Roger Crozier – from 1950-51 through 1964-65. Previously, there was Johnny Mowers, who won a Stanley Cup in 1943, followed by Harry Lumley in the midst of the Second World War. After helping Detroit win another title in 1950, Lumley was shipped out to make way for Sawchuk, Hall and Crozier.
After leading his mates to a second straight Cup in 1955, Sawchuk was at the peak of his young career and seemed to be a fixture in Detroit for at least a decade. But that didn’t satisfy the Red Wings’ high command.
Adams stunned his prodigy – and most of the rest of the hockey world – by trading Sawchuk to Boston. Accompanying him in the blockbuster deal were Vic Stasiuk, Marcel Bonin and Lorne Davis. In return, the Red Wings obtained Ed Sandford, Real Chevrefils, Norm Corcoran, Gilles Boisvert and Warren Godfrey.
I attended one of Sawchuk’s first games in a Boston uniform Oct. 29, 1955, and, as it happened, it turned out to be a night of goaltending that I’ve never forgotten.
The pre-game pundits figured it would be yet another slaughter of the bumbling Bruins. And under normal circumstances, it should have been. But there was nothing normal about Sawchuk’s scintillating performance in the 1-0 win.
Writing in The New York Times, here’s how Deane McGowan described it: “Only the sensational work of Sawchuk in the Boston net kept the Rangers from keeping their home victory streak alive. In the second and third sessions, Sawchuk came up with saves that were little short of miraculous.”
The 36 saves hardly tell the story, because it seemed every single one of them was spectacular as the Rangers endlessly stormed Sawchuk’s barricades. Alas, his Beantown stint soon turned into a mental and physical disaster. Several bouts of depression and a case of mononucleosis reduced his body to skeletal proportions. When asked how it felt to have the virus, Sawchuk quipped, “It feels like the white corpuscles and the red corpuscles have picked sides and are fighting each other in my veins.”
At 27 and down to 166 pounds, Sawchuk felt he’d had it. To the astonishment of all, he announced he was retiring. “I thought it best to quit,” he explained, “since my nerves were really shot.”
Others called it ‘The Boston Flu,’ since Sawchuk never felt comfortable in New England. His “retirement” lasted until the beginning of the next season (1957-58) when Adams sweet-talked the Bruins into giving him the rights to Sawchuk. “Terry is too good a goalie to remain out of hockey,” Adams said, and he was right. Dealing Hall to Chicago, Adams bet his reputation on Sawchuk and was vindicated.
Sawchuk played seven more years for the Wings, often displaying his pre-illness form. Detroit didn’t win another Cup, though the Wings led 3-2 in the 1964 final. In Game 6, Sawchuk thought he had another shot at champagne, but in overtime a knuckleball shot by defenseman Bobby Baun beat him. “That’s how it goes in this game,” Sawchuk philosophized. “I had a good line on that lousy bouncer. Then at the last minute, it hit the shaft of Bill Gadsby’s stick and shot to the top corner. I never had a chance.”
Toronto won Game 7 and the Cup, but Leafs coach Punch Imlach was so impressed with Sawchuk that he obtained him from Detroit to team with another veteran, Johnny Bower. This, despite the fact Gerry Cheevers was starring for the Leafs’ farm club in Rochester. “I’ve always rated players who have played in the NHL over those who have not,” Imlach said. “Sawchuk and Bower have made it. Cheevers has yet to prove he’s an NHL goalkeeper. Why should I gamble?”
The Bower-Sawchuk tandem proved Imlach a genius. Bower, 40, had already won three straight Cups and was stable enough to deal with Sawchuk’s traumas, which persisted in Toronto. “Sawchuk reminds me of a prisoner in a wartime concentration camp,” said Toronto journalist Jim Hunt.
Conversely, Bower believed his new partner would do wonders for the Maple Leafs. “I told Punch right off the bat,” Bower said, “ ‘I don’t know how you got him, but we’re going to win another Stanley Cup.’ ”
Sure enough, they did, but it happened the hard way. Very hard – but mostly because of injuries and their age and certainly not because of any rivalry. At the start of the season, Sawchuk shook Bower’s hand and agreed that no matter who won the Vezina Trophy, they’d split the $1,000 prize between them.
As it happened, Toronto clinched the Vezina March 28, 1965. Sawchuk played 36 games (16 wins), Bower 34 (14 wins). At the time, the league rule was the trophy went to the goalie playing the most games. Here’s how the pair reacted:
Bower: “It was a team win, but the Vezina belongs to Terry. He won more games than I did.”
Sawchuk: “Nuts. I’ll split the bonus with him, but John’s name belongs on the trophy.”
Appropriately, the NHL immediately changed its rule, which meant that in 1964-65 Sawchuk and Bower became the first teammates to share the Vezina Trophy.
That was a tough act for two senior and seemingly over-the-hill future Hall of Famers to follow, but in 1966-67 they pulled off a Stanley Cup show-stopper for the ages.
Facing the league-leading Black Hawks in the opening round, the Leafs battled their way to a 2-2 tie in the series. Bower started Game 5 but was shaky and pulled after the first period. Although Imlach knew Sawchuk was banged up, the coach inserted him in goal to open the second period.
Soon after, Sawchuk delivered one of the most courageous acts in goaltending history. Bobby Hull, who had led the NHL with 52 goals and packed the league’s hardest shot, fired a bomb that hit Sawchuk’s shoulder so hard the goaltender collapsed to the ice.
Trainer Bob Haggert rushed onto the ice. “I thought Sawchuk was dead,” he later said. Eventually, Haggert revived Sawchuk and asked him if he thought he was all right. Sawchuk looked hard at the trainer and snapped, “I stopped the damn shot, didn’t I?”
That save turned the game and series in the Leafs’ favor heading into the Cup final against the Montreal Canadiens. Imlach called that save, and the inspiration it provided, one he’d never forget: “That afternoon, Sawchuk beat the Chicago team, although Bobby Hull knocked him cold, and it looked like he had been killed!”
His club an underdog again, Imlach decided to start Bower against Montreal. Bower was solid, helping Toronto to a 2-1 series lead, but he pulled his groin in the warmups before Game 4. Sawchuk was forced to take over and, according to hockey historian Eric Zweig, “was out of sorts in a 6-2 loss.”
But Sawchuk got his act together in Game 5, a 4-1 win. He started Game 6 and had to finish it. Bower was unfit to play but Imlach urged him to dress and sit on the bench to fool the Habs, which he did.
Meanwhile, Sawchuk played the game of his life. Canadiens captain Jean Beliveau put it all in perspective after the Leafs had won the Cup. “Terry came up with the key saves and gave them time to get ahead,” Beliveau said. “There were three or four shots in the early part of the game you could usually count on as goals. Sawchuk turned back everything in the first period when we gave it our best. That was the game right there, and the Cup, too.”
In the winning dressing room, champagne and beer were being spritzed, but Sawchuk nixed the drinks. “I don’t like ale or champagne,” he said, “and I’m too tired to dance around. But this had to be the biggest thrill of my life. I’ve had a lot of good moments, but nothing compares to this.”
Then, a pause from the 37-year-old: “I’d like to leave hockey like this – in style.”
That game marked the last contest before NHL expansion in 1967-68 and more work for Sawchuk – 3,000 miles away. He was chosen by the new Los Angeles Kings in the expansion draft, played one season on West Coast and then returned to Detroit in 1968-69. A year later, Francis signed him to the Rangers and there was time for one last hurrah.
On Feb. 1, 1970, Francis benched starting goalie Ed Giacomin in favor of the 20-year-veteran. Tired and out of shape, 40-year-old Sawchuk was making only his fourth of eight starts for New York in the whole season. Not even the Rangers’ faithful thought he could help the Blueshirts win.
They were wrong. Sawchuk blanked Pittsburgh 6-0, notching the 103rd shutout of his career. The record-setting whitewash occurred 20 years after he had been called up to the Red Wings from the minors and posted his first NHL victory, a 1-0 shutout of the Rangers.
At the time, no one else had ever recorded 100 shutouts. The closest was the legendary George Hainsworth, with 94. “That’s the story of Sawchuk’s career,” Francis said, “not letting the puck get past him.”
Sawchuk suited up for the Rangers and played his last NHL game on April 14, 1970. He was being considered as a possible backup or goaltending coach for 1970-71 when tragedy intervened. Along with his housemate and teammate Ron Stewart, Sawchuk was spending the off-season at a rental in suburban Long Island, not far from where Francis and his family lived. On April 29, the cycle of unfortunate events began moving in earnest.
According to author George Grimm, who thoroughly investigated the case for his detailed book on the Francis-era Rangers, We Did Everything But Win, an argument between Sawchuk and Stewart over who was supposed to clean the house took place at a local pub. Stewart also claimed Sawchuk owed him some money. They eventually drove separately back to their rented house.
When they arrived, the argument continued in front of two witnesses: Stewart’s girlfriend Rosemary Sasso and Sawchuk’s pal Ben Weiner. Sawchuk tried to grab Stewart but was pulled back by Weiner, with the two men tumbling on Stewart.
How Sawchuk was injured in the fall remains unclear. Either he fell on Stewart’s knee or the barbecue grill. Regardless, he was significantly injured and Sasso, a registered nurse, contacted Dr. Denis Nicholson.
According to Grimm, the doctor arrived and “found Sawchuk pale, in shock and with very little blood pressure.” He was rushed to hospital suffering from damage to his gallbladder and liver.
First his gallbladder was surgically removed and later his liver repaired. All this was done in veritable secrecy, for a short time. A month after the original lawn confrontation, Sawchuk’s condition had worsened to the point where he was transferred to a bigger New York hospital which treated acute illnesses. When doctors discovered internal bleeding, additional liver surgery was performed.
Grimm: “Following surgery, Sawchuk regained consciousness briefly but died in his sleep from a blood clot on May 31.”
Francis, who was in Quebec at the time, returned to New York as soon as he got the news that his goalie was in desperate straits. After visiting the hospital, Francis went home only to be awakened at 6 a.m. to be told Sawchuk was dead. Francis later went to the city morgue in Manhattan and identified the body. “It was,” Francis said, “a tragedy that far transcended hockey.”
Born: Dec. 28, 1929, Winnipeg, Man.
NHL Career: 1950-1970
Teams: Det, Bos, Tor, LA, NYR
Stats: 447-330-172, 2.51 GAA, 103 SO
All-Star: 7 (First-3, Second-4)
Trophies: 5 (Vezina-4, Calder-1)
Stanley Cups: 4