MONTREAL -- Detroit Red Wings goaltender Terry Sawchuk had a date with destiny at the Montreal Forum on Jan. 18, 1964, even if the home team wanted no part of this history and tried ferociously in vain to prevent it.
Fifty-three years ago Wednesday, Sawchuk made 36 saves in a 2-0 shutout of the Montreal Canadiens. It was the 17th and final time that he would shut out the Canadiens in the regular season, and this effort truly was one for the books; it gave the future member of the Hockey Hall of Fame 95 NHL shutouts to lift him past former Canadiens goaltender George Hainsworth on the all-time list.
Sawchuk would end his career six seasons later, recording his 103rd and final shutout, then as a member of the New York Rangers, in a 6-0 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 1, 1970.
He would hold the shutout record, one that many thought never would be broken, until Dec. 21, 2009. It was that night, almost four decades after Sawchuk's death (May 31, 1970) at age 40, when Martin Brodeur had his 104th shutout in a 4-0 win against the Penguins.
Sawchuk was on the brink of history in 1964 when he arrived in Montreal, with three shutouts to that point in 1963-64.
His third had come against the Canadiens on Nov. 10 at the Detroit Olympia, which tied him with Hainsworth with 94. That game would be much more famous for Red Wings superstar Gordie Howe passing Canadiens icon Maurice Richard for the NHL regular-season goal-scoring lead with the 545th of his career, scored shorthanded against Canadiens goalie Charlie Hodge.
"It had been expected that the Rocket's goal record would be passed. It was only a matter of time," Red Wings defenseman Marcel Pronovost told author David Dupuis in the 1998 biography, "Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World's Greatest Goalie."
"However, the shutout record of Hainsworth, now that's another story. Nobody ever thought it would be touched, but Terry was on the verge of doing it. We couldn't believe it."
Hainsworth had ranked No. 1 in NHL shutouts since 1936. He won the Vézina Trophy in 1927, 1928 and 1929, the first three seasons it was awarded following the 1926 death of Canadiens goaltending icon Georges Vezina. Hainsworth sometimes was booed by Forum fans for no reason other than he was in the goal crease of a beloved, sadly missed Canadiens star, who died from tuberculosis at age 39.
Hainsworth's name surfaced more and more while Sawchuk closed the gap, the Red Wings goalie shrugging off his chase of the record as secondary to his team's success.
And then Sawchuk seized the record, typically telling reporters later, "I didn't give a darn about [the shutout] during the game. The win was more important."
He was exhausted, physically and emotionally, a famous image by Canadiens photographer David Bier showing him slumped between coach Sid Abel and Howe, both men offering their congratulations.
But how perfect that Sawchuk had turned this dramatic page against the Canadiens in the Forum, a game in which his work "bordered on sheer thievery," according to one report.
Sawchuk had been more ornery than ever in the white-hot spotlight of this record chase, in pain with a wrenched back since November. Never happy with reporters in his face, he was being pursued relentlessly.
But he was brilliant from the opening faceoff that night, making 13 saves in the first period. Floyd Smith's goal on Hodge had the Red Wings leading 1-0 after one period.
The Canadiens stormed the Red Wings in the second, but Ralph Backstrom, J.C. Tremblay and Jean Beliveau were unable to beat Sawchuk. John Ferguson was foiled on a breakaway, and as a thank-you later that period he delivered a butt-end to Sawchuk's gut, one that brought Red Wings trainer Lefty Wilson onto the ice.
Sawchuk and Hodge turned aside 10 shots apiece in the second period, and the score remained 1-0 until Detroit's Eddie Joyal scored 35 seconds into the third.
The game's final minute had nothing to do with the Canadiens wanting to win; it had everything to do with Blake frantic to deny Sawchuk his record, especially since his last shutout had come on the night that Howe had passed Richard in career NHL goals.
Video: Terry Sawchuk was four-time Vezina-winning goalie
The plot thickened when Blake pulled Hodge in the final minute. Pronovost was serving a penalty assessed with 47 seconds left, but the Canadiens couldn't score.
"When they pulled Hodge, we thought, 'You sons of [guns], you won't give Terry his record, eh?" Pronovost said. "We'll show you. It only made us all madder and we dug down deeper."
In the dressing room, Sawchuk would warm, a little, to his landmark achievement.
"I guess we'll have to start on the next 95," he kidded reporters, suggesting that he was lucky to make a save with the shaft of his stick on a shot he never saw. "Thirty-six shots? That many? I didn't think there were that many."
He later said of his record shutout, "There's not that much about it. It's not like Gordie Howe's [goals] record. But I'll tell you this: It's much harder to get. You've got to play 60 minutes to get my record."
Nearby, Howe was beaming.
"He's an old pro," Howe said of Sawchuk when asked whether this was the best game he'd ever seen the 35-year-old play. "He plays them all great. He's too great a player to let anything like pressure bother him."
The only wart on the evening for Sawchuk was that he had just bumped to No. 2 the goaltender he had worshipped as a youngster and into his Winnipeg minor-hockey nets.
It was in the Montreal Forum that Hainsworth had charted much of his path to hockey immortality, a seemingly uncatchable record Sawchuk had chased his entire career.
And now the record was his, finally, corralled in the same arena where his hero had played some of his finest games, Sawchuk having long ago dreamed of one day just playing in Hainsworth's crease.