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100 Greatest Players

Terry Sawchuk: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Four-time Vezina Trophy winner helped Red Wings win Stanley Cup three times in four seasons

by Bob Duff / Special to

Terry Sawchuk's career was one of melancholy brilliance.

It was born of tragedy and it ended in tragedy.    

In between, Sawchuk stopped the puck as well as anyone who has ever strapped on goalie pads.


Video: Terry Sawchuk was four-time Vezina-winning goalie


"A lot of people think he was the greatest goalkeeper who ever played the game and I include myself in that group," Hall of Fame goaltender Glenn Hall said.

When he was done in 1970, Sawchuk had more shutouts (103) and had played (971) and won (447) more games than any goalie in NHL history.

While those records have since been broken, there is one Sawchuk mark that remains. In each of his first five full NHL seasons, Sawchuk posted a goals-against average under 2.00, something no other goaltender has achieved. Sawchuk led the NHL in wins in each of those seasons and had 56 shutouts in that span, helping to lead the Detroit Red Wings to the Stanley Cup three times in four seasons between 1951-52 and 1954-55.


Games: 971 | Wins: 447 | Losses: 330 | Ties: 172 | GAA: 2.51


If not for the death of his brother, Sawchuk might never have been a goaltender.

"I inherited a set of pads from my older brother," Sawchuk told the Omaha World-Herald. Mike Sawchuk died at 17 of a heart ailment in 1939, when Terry was 10.

Bob Kinnear, a Red Wings scout in Winnipeg who is credited with discovering Sawchuk, steered him toward goaltending.

"The Red Wings asked me to scout for them in Winnipeg around 1944 and gave me the money to build an outdoor rink," Kinnear told The Canadian Press. "I had a 10-team house league and Terry's older brother Mike came out and he played goal.

"Terry followed him and he played defense."

Kinnear said that after Mike's death, "I suggested that Terry try playing goal. He brought the equipment and was great from the time he put the pads on."

At 14, Sawchuk attended Detroit's training camp and began a rapid rise. He played junior hockey for Windsor of the Ontario Hockey Association in 1947-48, but didn't stay there long.

"A few games into the season, (Detroit general manager) Jack Adams called me and said, 'I've got some bad news Jim'," Jimmy Skinner, Windsor's coach at the time, told the Windsor Star. "'We've got to move Sawchuk to Omaha'."

Detroit's United States Hockey League farm club in Omaha had traded veteran goalie Harvey Jessiman to Philadelphia of the American Hockey League, leaving a spot open for Sawchuk, one he quickly made his own.

Sawchuk was named USHL Rookie of the Year. The following season with Indianapolis, he won the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the AHL's top rookie.

The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1949-50, with Sawchuk going 4-3 with a 2.29 goals against average in seven regular-season games. It was enough to convince Adams that he had his goalie of the future and could part with Harry Lumley, who was traded to Chicago.

The move looked good when Sawchuk went 44-13 with a 1.99 goal against average to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie in 1950-51.

"In all my hockey I have never seen a young goalie handle himself as well as Sawchuk," Red Wings coach Tommy Ivan told The Canadian Press.

Winning the Stanley Cup for the first time the following season, Sawchuk helped Detroit roll through the playoffs at 8-0. He had four shutouts, a 0.63 goals-against average and a .977 save percentage.

"You couldn't put a pea past him," Red Wings forward Alex Delvecchio said.

Sawchuk made things look easy in net, but away from the rink that wasn't always the case.

"Terry was someone who compartmentalized his life," said David Dupuis, author of "Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World's Greatest Goalie." "His teammates were his teammates, his family was his family, his friends were his friends and he never let someone from one compartment gain entry to another."

On the ice, Sawchuk was plagued by serious injury and a shocking lack of confidence in his abilities.

"As soon as I go into the net, I bend down and take a sideways peek at the goal posts," Sawchuk told the Springfield Union. "If they look close, I know I'm gonna have a good night.

"Some nights, those posts look a mile away."

Marcel Pronovost, Sawchuk's close friend and teammate with Detroit and the Toronto Maple Leafs, felt Sawchuk's insecurities often got the better of him.

"He was always worried about how he would take care of his family when he was done playing," Pronovost said. "He worried about whether he would be able to give them all he could."

He did give his family a Christmas to remember. On Dec. 23, 1967, while playing for the Los Angeles Kings, Sawchuk arranged for a truckload of crushed ice to be dumped on the front lawn of their home in Hermosa Beach, California, so his children would have snow for Christmas.

Pronovost remembered seeing both sides of Sawchuk at the rink.

"One time, a young boy got hit with a puck during a game," Pronovost said. "They brought him in the dressing room afterwards and Terry got his stick signed by all the players and gave it to the boy. Then he turned to me and said, 'If you tell the press about this, I'll kill you.'

"That's the way he was. He liked to present himself as this moody, aloof person, because then people would leave him alone."

Skinner said, "He was a very low-key guy. And he could be moody and surly when he played. He didn't talk much. You had to really get to know him to get him to talk."

Life as a goaltender exacted a tremendous toll on Sawchuk's body. He received more than 400 stitches to his face and head, broke his nose twice and had back problems that required the removal of two discs. He also broke his left foot, seven ribs and his right elbow, which never healed properly.

"At the time, you were trying to do two things: Stop the puck and not get killed doing it," Columbus Blue Jackets president and former NHL goaltender John Davidson said, referring to the goalie equipment of the Original Six era, and the fact that there rarely were backup goalies to relieve injured starters.

Sawchuk once checked himself out of the hospital to play a 1964 Stanley Cup Playoff game. He shut out the Chicago Black Hawks (as they were then known) in a 3-0 victory, then returned to the hospital.

The lack of job security -- there were six spots for starting NHL goalies -- led him to play through injury. Even Sawchuk's famous crouch that revolutionized goaltending, allowing him to gain a lower line of vision and more easily pick up shots through traffic, was a product of pain. A childhood baseball injury had shortened his right arm.

"He never had a flexible right arm after that," former teammate Johnny Wilson told the Springfield Union. "Yet he refused to let that hamper him.

"When you consider that the man played 21 years in the National Hockey League, always fighting some kind of ailment, you have to acknowledge that he was quite a man. He would play the whole season, then spend a lot of the offseason in the hospital. He didn't have many pleasant summers."

There were some spectacular winters, though. Sawchuk was a three-time NHL First All-Star Team selection and a four-time Second Team choice. He won the Vezina Trophy four times and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1971.

With the Boston Bruins, Sawchuk briefly retired from hockey in 1957, only to return with the Red Wings for the 1957-58 season and help them reach the Stanley Cup Final three times between 1961 and 1964.

Signed by Toronto in 1964, Sawchuk combined with teammate Johnny Bower to win the Vezina Trophy in 1964-65. He helped the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup in 1967.

Sawchuk was claimed by the Los Angeles Kings in the 1967 NHL Expansion Draft, but returned to the Red Wings in 1968-69 before joining the New York Rangers the next season.

"He loved hockey so much, he wouldn't think of retiring," Wilson said. "He thought he could play for eternity."

Sawchuk would never discover what life after hockey would be like. He was injured in a scuffle with Rangers teammate Ron Stewart on April 29, 1970, and died in the hospital on May 31, 1970, at age 40.

"I had tears in my eyes when I heard," Pronovost said.


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