It’s always difficult to compare the greatness of players past and present; all you can really do is study the stats and see how they measure up by the numbers.
Take Martin Brodeur and Terry Sawchuk, for example. Brodeur just passed what was thought to be Sawchuk's unassailable shutout record of 103, which naturally inspires debate about which one was better. Traditionalists will argue that Brodeur has played for a defense-first team wearing oversized pads and facial protection, while more modern thinkers would point out that Sawchuk faced far inferior talent that was using wooden sticks that weren't curved.
And while there are some interesting statistical parallels between Martin Brodeur and the man he surpassed in all-time shutouts, it’s Brodeur’s calming personality that couldn’t possibly make him more different than Terry Sawchuk.
Sawchuk played most of his career as a chain-smoking nervous wreck who seemed bent on self-destruction. He was perceived as a moody, aloof cuss who seemed to be dogged by the dark clouds of insecurity. One of the NHL’s true tragic heroes, Sawchuk began goaltending in organized hockey when he was 10 years old, using the pads that were worn by his dead brother, Mike, who suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 17. A brilliant goalie, Sawchuk seemed possessed by inner personal demons and was an alcoholic. After a scuffle with former teammate Ron Stewart in 1970, Sawchuk died of a blood clot despite undergoing three surgeries.
Brodeur, on the other hand, has played under some of the most intense scrutiny and has the demeanor of a guy who has never had a bad day in his life. He’s extraordinarily well-adjusted by goaltending standards and never seems to exhibit any outward signs of feeling the pressure. Say what you will about Brodeur benefiting from New Jersey’s defense-first style, but it’s worth noting nearly half (48) of his shutouts came in tight, pressure-packed games that ended 0-0, 1-0 or 2-0.
On the ice, aside from the shutouts, both Brodeur and Sawchuk share some common traits. Sawchuk popularized the goaltending “crouch” and rarely went to his knees to make a save, while Brodeur is regarded as one of the few stand-up goaltenders in today’s game. It may be hard to believe, but Sawchuk struggled terribly with his weight early in his career, while Brodeur doesn’t exactly fit the mold of a professional athlete.
Sawchuk won four Stanley Cups as a player; Brodeur has three. Each of them won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie and each has three first-team all-star berths and four second-team berths to their credit. Sawchuk won the Vezina Trophy four times when it was awarded to the goaltender with the lowest goals-against average and Brodeur has won the same number of Jennings’ for the same statistical achievement. Brodeur has won four Vezina Trophies as the NHL’s best goalie and Sawchuk would have likely won a similar number had the structure of the NHL awards been the same.
At age 37, Brodeur certainly has a few more shutouts up his sleeve before he calls an end to his Hall of Fame career. The Edmonton Oilers, Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks hold the distinction of being the only teams that haven’t been shut down by the modern-day Mr. Zero – Hall of Famer Frank Brimsek was the original – so when you look at it that way, the new all-time leader in shutouts still has some work to do.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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