Thursday

Terry Sawchuk

It is a common joke that to play goal in professional hockey, you have to be a little bit crazy. For Terry Sawchuk, this was no laughing matter.

Record books show that Terry Sawchuk was one of the greatest goaltenders ever to play in the NHL. He played in 21 seasons with five different teams. His 103 career shutouts set a record that might never be broken. Sawchuk did a tremendous amount for the game of hockey, but it's a shame to see what hockey ended up doing to him.

Mike Sawchuk, Terry's older brother, was the true goalie in this family, but at the tender age of 17, Mike died of a heart ailment. The loss of his older brother had a devastating impact on 10-year-old Terry, who also lost another brother at an early age.

"I couldn't believe when it happened," Terry told an interviewer many years ago. "I missed him for a long time afterwards."

The sudden death of his brother changed Terry's personality completely.

Terry eventually strapped on his brothers pads after the regular goalie on Terry's bantam team had left.

"The pads were there, where I could always look at them," Terry said in another past interview. "The day they put me in the net I had a good game. I've stayed there since."

It was also from that moment on that it seemed he had signed a pact with the devil:

Terry's traumatic youth wasn't over. When he was 17-years old his father wrecked his back in a bad fall off a scaffold. Young Terry was left as the family's sole breadwinner. Hockey proved to be his family's salvation. He immediately cashed in a $2,000 signing bonus check from the Detroit Red Wings.

On his 18th birthday, while playing pro minor league hockey in Omaha, Terry was hit in the eye by a hard slap shot. Luckily for him a surgeon who happened to be passing through town saved Terry's vision with a successful operation.

Sawchuk entered the National Hockey League in 1951 as a bright young prospect with the Detroit Red Wings. He played all 70 games for the Wings that season, compiling 11 shutouts and a puny goals against average of 1.98. He was awarded the Calder Trophy for his spectacular play. Things went well for Sawchuk over the next four years. He won three Vezinas and three Stanley Cups, including back-to-back wins in 1954 and 1955.

Seemingly on top of the world, Sawchuk then started running into trouble. After winning the Cup in 1955, Detroit shocked everyone by trading Sawchuk to the Boston Bruins. The trade stunned Sawchuk. He started to have doubts about his abilities to play the game. He kept wondering if he was good enough despite his impressive feats.

These games going on inside of his head helped Sawchuk falter in Boston, and his absence in Detroit caused the Red Wings to falter as well. Sawchuk would soon rejoin the Wings, and eventually regain the form that made him perhaps the greatest goalie of all time. However he remained mentally unstable. The mental stress of playing goalie in the NHL combined with an incredible amount of physical injuries took their toll on Sawchuk.

Considering the serious injuries that Terry sustained during his career it's simply amazing how he could put up such impressive numbers. As a child he fractured his right arm that later required three surgeries and still grew back two inches shorter than the left one, the bone chips in Terry’s elbow numbered almost 60. Some of his other injuries included:

- The eye injury in Omaha
- A punctured lung in a car accident
- Torn tendons in his hand
- An emergency appendectomy
- Ruptured spinal discs
- Mononucleosis
- A nervous breakdown
- More than 600 stitches
- Neuritis in the nerves of his legs
- A swayed back brought on by his style of playing goal
- Insomnia
- Migraine headaches

He was once known as a good natured, fun-loving kid, but the dramatic events of his life transformed him into a very angry, chain-smoking adult, full of hate. He lived, as one can readily imagine, in constant physical pain. He was often seen in public poking and scratching at his many bodily scars. One can only imagine the severe mental anguish and trauma that went hand-in-hand with the physical sufferings.

Hockey seemed to be Sawchuk's release from the stress and games going on inside his head. He is arguably the best the game has ever seen between the pipes. He played more games and seasons than anyone. He had more wins (since surpassed) and shutouts than anyone. His amazing 103 career shutouts was once thought to be untouchable.

Terry's tragic-laden, hurt-filled short life created a moody, complex and angry individual. "When we woke up in the morning, I would say good morning to him in both French and English," said one-time Red Wings' roommate Marcel Pronovost. "If he answered, 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."

But it was Terry's actions on the ice that spoke much more loudly than his words. He won tons of awards during his playing career. Terry adopted the style of a reflex goalie, placing scarcely any emphasis on covering/cutting down angles. He had a low crouching stance and was extremely tough to beat on the first shot and he had explosive movements.

"Sawchuk was the greatest goalie I’ve ever seen, no doubt about it," Bob Pulford later said. He and Sawchuk were teammates with Toronto from 1964 through 1967. "He was the quickest I’ve ever seen."

By 1970, Terry was 40 years old and wasn't as sharp as he was during his heyday, but he clung to the only thing he knew. He spent his last hockey days with the New York Rangers. After returning home from Detroit, quite affected by his inability to get a failed marriage back on track, Sawchuk picked a fight with his Ranger roommate, Ron Stewart. Stewart had no inkling of what or why. He was just a nice guy, sharing a Long Island home with, maybe, the wrong guy.

In the unnecessary skirmish, both fell over a barbecue pit and Sawchuk suffered severe internal injuries. He seemed like he was going to recover and even forgave roommate Stewart and said it was his own fault it happened. Stewart regularly visited him in the hospital, but soon it was revealed the Sawchuk had life-threatening liver damage. During surgery, a blood clot worked its way through an artery and finally stopped this long-hurting heart.

Terry Sawchuk's hockey career began with a broken heart and an abandoned unused set of goalie pads. Just as tragically, his career ended in much the same way.

One year later after Terry had passed away he was elected into Hockey's Hall of Fame.

21 comments:

Hootin Tyutin 9:58 PM  

I just finished reading the latest edition of The Hockey News and Sawchuk was referenced briefly in the article. As a young, long time hockey fan, I have always heard Sawchuk's name but never knew much about him. Your article on Sawchuk has just made him one of my favorite players of all time. Great job.

Greg G 6:59 AM  

Terry Sawchuck was a fabulous netminder and for me he and Jacques Plante were the greatest of all. What intrigues me about Sawchuck is his life off the ice! His story is one of the most captivating of all players, especially his tragic passing. He had a fascinating career and life.

Anonymous,  10:55 PM  

He remains simply the greatest. He was between the pipes during the Wings greatest era and the LAST time the Leafs won a Stanley Cup. Sadly, he epitomized the mental/emotional qualities that all hockey fans assume of a great goaltender.

Anonymous,  12:02 PM  

Wow, this was unbelievably well written.

Never knew much about him, but you managed to pack a lot into a little.

Fantastic job!

-Jeff
Detroit

The Mocha Mom 5:22 AM  

I wasn't born in the time Terry played but I have heard his name mentioned here and there. After searching I found your article which is very well written and informative, it shed some light on who this awesome goalie was. Through this- maybe more people will understand why he was the way he was and that personal tragedies do effect people in many different ways.

dhinsona@msn.com,  3:52 PM  

I saw Terry play over the years with the Red Wings and, believe me, he was a great golie. I believe he was the first - or one of the very first - to wear a face mask. During the decades from the 50' thru the 70's - the sport of hockey in Detroit was a treat of great stars - and Terry was one of the very best.
Dr. Albaugh

Greg G,  2:55 PM  

I would like to say that I don't want to take anything away from Martin Brodeur but to get 103 shutouts (most accumulated with no face mask)stands alone in my book. I still marvel what these old time goaltenders went through to play in the six team NHL. I still believe Sawchuck, Plante and Hall are the greatest goaltenders in the history of the NHL all things considered.

Anonymous,  11:52 AM  

I WORKED WITH A GUY FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS, WE WERE EVEN PARTNERS FOR A FEW AND NOW HE IS RETIRED. THOUGH HE HAS BEEN RETIRED FOR YEARS AS A GOALIE IN THE INTERMEDIATE LEAGUES, AS A YOUNGER PLAYER HE WAS OFFERED A TRY OUT WITH THE BRUINS, AND SAT BESIDE HIS HERO, SAWCHUCK IN THE DRESSING ROOM. A STORY HE HAD TOLD ME MANY TIMES OVER AND OVER THROUGH OUT HIS CAREER. I ASKED HIM ONE TIME,
"where is he now"? HE TOLD ME SAWCHUCK DIED IN AN UNFORTUNATE, OF ALL THINGS, A GAME OF HORSESHOES ACCIDENT. WHEN I READ YOUR ARTICLE, IT NOW MAKES SENSE. HEY! THANKS MAN........

Anonymous,  9:00 PM  

I grew up watching Sawchuk play in Detroit one year after he performed something that I still find mind-boggling: He didn't allow any goals on home ice in the Stanley Cup playoffs( two games in Detroit in the semi-finals and two in the finals.How can anyone top that?

Anonymous,  3:20 PM  

I was a highschool kid in windsor and watched a redwing practise at the windsor arena in the fifties.Terry Sawchuk was stickhandling the puck through and around the wings and laughing as he did it.Eveyone was having a good time as it was the end of the workout and they were all just having fun.He could handle the puck very well.

uke1003 11:14 PM  

This guy alone, took THREE Stanley Cups away from the Habs, no goalie has ever done that in history against that great hockey franchize!

Jim Weiss,  10:03 AM  

I was lucky enough to spend two weeks with Terry at a Red Wing summer hockey camp in 1960. I never saw the side of him portrayed in this article, even though I know all goalies at that time were crazy. He came to practice every day with a smile and a great personality. On his day off, he took a bunch of us to the beach in his station wagon. I have only wonderful memories of him.

James Finkleman 9:54 PM  

I WAS JUST THINKING ABOUT MY YEARS AGO HOCKEY CAREER AND WONDERED WHAT THE PRICE OF A PAIR OF TERRY SAWCHUCKS GOAL PADS WHAT ARE THEY WORTH AS I HAD A PAIR GIVEN TO ME BY JIMMY SKINNER AS HE WANTED ME TO GO TO WAYBURN RED WINGS FOR THERE OPENING SEASON FOR JUNIOR A I ELECTED TO STAY IN WINNIPEG AND PLAY FOR THE WINNIPEG BRAVES I ENDED UP IN BRANDON TO PLAY FOR JAKE MILFORDS BRANDON WHEATKINGS I HAD SOME FAMILY PROBLEMS AND QUITE HOCKEY AND WENT BACK TO WORK IN OUR FAMILY BUSINESS SOLD MY SAWCHUCK PADS TO THE STAND BY GOALER REGARDS JAMES FINKLEMAN

LORNE VANDALE,  10:31 PM  

TERRY SAWCHCK WAS MY FATHERS COUSEN JOSEPH GEORGE VANDALE MELFORT SASK MY LATE FATHER TALKED ABOUT HIM IN 1957 JUST THOUGHT I WOULD SEND THIS INFO AS I WAS READING A WRITE UP ON HOCKEY LEGENDS

cemetery seth 2:09 PM  

Very informative thank you I also read the one on ted lindasy loved it too. Am buying both of their jerseys to add to my gordie howe. And red wings collection.

Alex,  8:33 PM  

The location of his death is mowhawk avenue in east Atlantic beach, ny. My grandmother and great aunt rented the house to rangers players at the time they practiced at long beach ice arena. The upper lever had a balcony area which was not enclosed and over looked the front yard of the house which had a hangout area with a grill. This grill from the 70' s is a standard circular one with metal legs. It was upside down and when Terry suffered his fall the grill impaled him. I was told by my family that a "famous" ranger died here and when I read up on sawchuck I put it together...I am asking them for a cop6 of a lease or anything that can prove he lived there

Billhawkfan,  2:37 PM  

The tragic story of Terry Sawchuck is really not that much of a mystery when you consider the conditions under which goalies played in that era. Wearing a mask was considered a mark of cowardice until at least the early 60's, and outside of their huge goalie pads, the other equipment netminders wore was thin compared to today's standards.

So Terry likely suffered severe trauma from being hit in the head and face likely hundreds of times from slapshots, which were also introduced in the 1950's, as well as from collisions from players crashing the net.

Teams didn't put much stock in dealing with head injuries in those days. There were no team psychologists and the credo was of course to "play through the pain".

All of this makes players like Terry even more heroic, as well as tragic, and truly defines him as probably the greatest goaltender the game has ever seen.

Anonymous,  7:32 PM  

It's nice to see Terry Sawchuk spelled his name the same as mine. I will have to do a genealogy study to see if we are related. My father, John Sawchuk Sr. was so proud of Terry Sawchuk. My name is Donna Lynn Sawchuk. I'll have to do my homework. Great history though.

Anonymous,  8:34 PM  

As a kid I use to go to Morey's Golf Course in Union Lake, Mi, my home town, in hopes of seeing Terry Sawchuk. Many times I would be lucky enough to be there at the same time he was there. He was married to the Morey daughter. He was always gracious and approachable. I have nothing but fond memories of Terry.

Anonymous,  10:56 AM  

It's always depressing to see someone, as your article says, a "happy, fun loving kid", to someone always angry in just one traumatizing event. But to go on regardless and make a lasting memory on all NHL fans no matter the past, that's the real greatness there.

Westcoast Canada 8:52 AM  

Terry Sawchuk, was undeniably one of the greatest netminders who donned the pads, and he stunned with hockey world with his athletic prowess, and his spirit. Like other famous NHL goalies: Giacomin, Plante, Parent and Rogie Vachon, for example, Sawchuk played with a battered body and thin padding. Although he was not my favourite goalkeeper to absorb his style as I played between the pipes; the man was an inspiration to aspiring hockey youngsters. His accidental and tragic death was a blow to the hockey world, and we all lost an icon too early. In those golden days, most teams had only one goalie and it was not until several years later that their sole netminder was paired with a backup. Gone are those days of moulded fiberglass masks, straight goalie hockey blades, and the tanned colored pads and gloves. Now they're a different breed and sadly all professional sports are grossly overpaid. Too bad we can't watch the old games in color to relive an era that has slipped past time us to appreciate the "roots" of this amazing and competitive sport. Terry might be gone, but his name, records and accolades will span a millenium. Thank you.

Kerwin Maude, Canada

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