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Sawchuk's greatness celebrated with tattoo

Son, grandson pay tribute to Hall of Fame goaltender by wearing likeness of iconic mask

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

MONTREAL -- The pain of the March needle is a nasty memory. Legendary NHL goaltender Terry Sawchuk is remembered today only with great pleasure and affection by a son and a grandson who wear impressive matching tattoos of his iconic mask on their backs.

What began as casual thoughts of a small inked tribute to Sawchuk grew last winter when a bigger idea took shape. When Michigan tattoo artist Brent Davis had finished his work, Jerry Sawchuk and his 29-year-old son, Jon, were wearing stunning likenesses of Terry Sawchuk's fiberglass mask.

"We started out small, but when I talked to Brent, he said he'd rather do it the size of a softball so he could get the detail of the mask in," Jerry Sawchuk says with a laugh. "We talked about incorporating my dad's jersey No. 1 in it and it just got bigger. And Jon and I chose our backs because I was going to be 63 and I didn't think I wanted anything on my biceps."

Sawchuk, named one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players presented by Molson Canadian, was a four-time Stanley Cup champion, four-time Vezina Trophy winner and the 1951 Calder Trophy recipient as the NHL's top rookie.

A seven-time First- or Second-Team All-Star, Sawchuk led the NHL in victories for five consecutive seasons (1950-55). When his career ended in 1970 after 21 seasons with five teams, he was the NHL's all-time leader in wins (447), a record that stood for three decades, and shutouts (103), which survived 39 years until New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur earned his 104th on Dec. 21, 2009.

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

A member of the Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, Red Wings again, Toronto Maple Leafs, Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers, Sawchuk was a tortured soul much of his life. 

He battled demons seemingly forever, from the death of an older brother when he was 10 through later struggles with weight control, a shaky marriage and alcohol. Sawchuk's emotional turmoil sometimes overshadows his magnificence in the net, something that Jerry Sawchuk has lived with since his father died of a pulmonary embolism at age 40 on May 31, 1970.

He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame a year after his death, 17 years before Jon Sawchuk was born.

Jon Sawchuk (left) plays pickup hockey with his father, Jerry

"Jon knows just what he reads and what I tell him," Jerry says of his son, with whom he plays pickup hockey in the Detroit area (they're forwards). "There are always lots of questions and things on the internet. He was around Gordie Howe when he was growing up, and he's gone with me to several Red Wings events."

Indeed, early in his own hockey life, Jerry Sawchuk had followed his father's path into a net. He recalls one memorable day in goal during a boyhood session at Howe's hockey school.

"We were going through the scrimmages. My dad was teaching and I started getting into the butterfly, going down, letting my reflexes take over," he said. "My dad was an angle goalie, to perfection, and when he saw me going down a little before the shots, he let me have it in front of all the kids and coaches. 'Who do you think you are, Glenn Hall?' he yelled at me. 'Get back on your feet and cut down that angle.' So that's what I did."

Jerry Sawchuk with his father Terry, a member of the Boston Bruins in 1955-56

Terry Sawchuk played bare-faced for the first decade of his NHL career, as well as every game before that in juniors and the minor leagues. But after he was injured by a flying puck in 1962, Red Wings general manager Jack Adams had Detroit trainer and practice goalie Lefty Wilson mold a mask to protect his cornerstone goaltender.

What Wilson and assistant Donny Olesevich fashioned would become one of hockey's iconic, even haunting masks; five sheets of fiberglass with holes for the eyes and ventilation on the forehead, nose and mouth, and cheeks. Sawchuk wore this mask, which today is in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, from 1962 through his final game in 1970.

Wilson made a couple of spares that just so happened to also perfectly fit Jerry Sawchuk, who wore one when he played goal.

Detroit Red Wings trainer Ross "Lefty" Wilson molded Terry Sawchuk for this iconic fibreglass mask in 1962

"I have no idea where it went," he says with a sigh. "Maybe my aunt has it in an old hockey bag."

It was around last New Year's that Jerry and Jon began tossing around the idea of celebrating Terry's career with tattoos, Jon suggesting that a bit of body ink would be a nice salute.

"I said, 'That would be pretty awesome,' and some time went by," Jerry said. "Jon already had a small tattoo on his back, and he kept bugging me about my putting it off. In March, we finally got them done."

Jerry visited Davis at Steel Tattoo in Hartland, Michigan, and remembers the artist being really excited about it.

Davis, who says he was honored to have paid this ink tribute to a hockey legend, pored over photos of the Sawchuk mask before he found the one he most liked for its detail and color. Then he sketched it onto paper for transfer to the backs of first Jon, then Jerry, for 90 minutes of needlework.

Or, two hours, if you listen to Jerry relate the misery.

"Let me tell you something: It hurt," he says, laughing. "Two hours of pain. Jon went first. He didn't flinch at all. I'm thinking, 'This won't be too bad,' then when I got in there, when Brent started doing the straight line on the No. 1, it felt like a knife was in there, slicing me. I had no idea how long two hours can be."

Word got around that father and son now had a goalie mask on their backs, Jon on the right side, Jerry on the left.

"We were a hit in the locker room," Jerry says of their first hockey game after the tattoos had been applied. "Then people at work heard about it and I ended up taking off my shirt about 20 times."

On New Year's Eve in Toronto, during a dinner hosted by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to honor the first 33 members of the 100 Greatest NHL Players, Jerry contemplated his father's place in hockey, a pioneer who is remembered as one of the greatest to ever play the game.

Hockey Hall of Fame goaltending legend Glenn Hall on Dec. 31, 2016 with his son Pat (far left) and Jerry Sawchuk and Michel Plante, sons of the late goalie greats Terry Sawchuk and Jacques Plante.

"I don't think my dad ever knew how good his accomplishments were," he said that night. "He never liked the spotlight, but it would be hard to say that he wouldn't be satisfied with what he did to revolutionize the game."

A son and a grandson now proudly wear Terry's mask. And if Jerry Sawchuk never knew the torture his father endured playing goal on his way to hockey immortality, he felt more than a little pain of his own when a tattoo artist's buzzing needle put beneath his skin a colorful, striking reminder of his legendary dad.

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