Sawchuk

Terry Sawchuk as he appeared in the March 4, 1966 issue of Life magazine. In a horrifying prequel to Gerry Cheevers' famous "scar mask", the real life scars accumulated by Sawchuk over twelve NHL seasons before he donned facial protection in 1962, were touched up by a make-up artist to make it appear that all had occurred within a single ugly season. The brooding eyes, however, are all Sawchuk.
Six attackers, frantic to even the score,
the rink tips, bodies piling onto me. Ferguson
hacks my bad elbow, his look says, Here’s bone for your jar
Hooks my feet from under me, lands on my legs. I punch 
at the back of his head and get this whiff of hair cream. 
All of this in silence. Nothing personal,
though there may be memories

"Next Time" by Randall Maggs,
 from Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems(Brick Books, 2008)

 It's probably yet another sign of my advancing years, but when a major record gets tied or broken I always like to reflect on the guy who set the existing standard. In a perfect world the heroes past and present meet at centre ice to congratulate each other, as Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe did in Northlands Coliseum when the Great One smashed Mister Hockey's career points record 20 years ago this fall.

Alas, Terry Sawchuk lived in an imperfect world, and he died in it, two years before the man who would break his most famous record was even born. Today, as Martin Brodeur shares the record that Sawchuk had held alone for almost 46 years, let's reflect on the man who first reached the staggering total of 103 career shutouts. Brodeur will have other days in the limelight; Sawchuk likely won't.

The NHL was half of its current age in the 1963-64 season when Sawchuk surpassed the previous standard, the 94 clean sheets of the great depression-era goalie George Hainsworth. That winter I was a much tinier fraction of my current age, taking in my first full NHL season, and Hockey Night in Canada was appointment viewing, no matter whether my Maple Leafs or the hated Canadiens were playing. My allegiances to American teams and players flipped like a switch depending on which Canadian team they were playing. It so happened that the record-setting game occurred on a Saturday night in the Montreal Forum, so I was unabashedly rooting for Terry Sawchuk when it happened...

Sawchuk loved to torment the Habs, the team he beat in the Finals for all four of his Stanley Cups. Earlier that season he had equalled the mark of Hainsworth, a former Canadien, in a memorable game against Montreal in the Detroit Olympia. Sawchuk made 39 saves in a 3-0 shutout, but played second fiddle to Gordie Howe, whose shorthanded marker in the second period was the 545th of his legendary career, eclipsing the career record of the most famous Canadien of all, Rocket Richard.

Sawchuk and Hainsworth poised together atop the leader board for ten long weeks as Sawchuk battled physical problems and Detroit's latest netminding phenom, Roger Crozier, posted a couple of shutouts in various cameos. On Sat. Dec. 28, 1963, in a televised game at the Forum, Sawchuk nursed a 1-0 lead into the last three minutes before Bobby Rousseau scored a late powerplay goal to earn a 1-1 tie and disappoint us Hab-haters yet again. I remember being upset with the ref who called the late penalty on Detroit rearguard Marcel Pronovost, as well as at the Hab-lovin' host, the odious Frank Selke Jr., who had applied the jinx by constantly mentioning the word "shutout" in the game's late stages. Whatever, the record would have to wait.

I figured that was it for my chance to see an important record, and like Howe's goal it would probably happen stateside in some game I would hear about on the radio the next morning. Well wouldn't you know it would be just three weeks later that the Wings again visited the Forum to take on the first-place Habs in another nationally-televised game. The record was still on the line, as Selke Jr. reminded us a little more circumspectly this time, and Sawchuk was not to be denied. He was in command throughout and again kept that big 0 on the board into the late stages. A last-minute penalty, again to Pronovost, caused a few anxious moments but ultimately the masked marvel was unbeatable against 36 Montreal shots and had a 2-0 shutout to prove it. A budding young goalkeeper myself, I thrilled to see my first major record set by a custodian of the cord cottage.

At the time I knew about the "how many" -- 95 -- but had little idea about the "how". How Terry Sawchuk was born in the dead of winter in Winnipeg, two months into the Great Depression. How he had lost both of his older brothers to premature deaths in childhood. How he had suffered in silence a serious elbow injury whose improper healing resulted in his right (stick) arm being two inches shorter than his glove side. How he had gone to work in a foundry at 14. How he had been rookie of the year in two minor professional leagues, convincing "Trader Jack" Adams to make room for the young phenom by trading away Harry Lumley, a future Hall of Famer and current Stanley Cup champion. How he won a third rookie award, the Calder Trophy, in his first year with the Red Wings in 1950-51. How Adams had insisted Sawchuk lose 40 pounds after that rookie season, a process that saw the previously-affable young man become sullen and remote. How he had taken the league by storm in his first five seasons, leading the NHL in Wins each year, posting a rock-steady GAA between 1.90 and 1.99 along with 9-12 shutouts in each of those seasons. How the Wings had finished in first place each of those seasons and won three Stanley Cups. How his face, and his back, had taken a cruel beating due to his unique "gorilla crouch" and his unflinching desire to stop every puck. How he had been cast aside at the caprice of Jack Adams in a blockbuster trade/salary dump in the summer of 1955, another Hall of Famer and current Stanley Cup champion traded for magic beans to lowly Boston to make room for yet another young phenom, Glenn Hall (who had himself won a league-cup double with Detroit's top farm club, the Edmonton Flyers). How this betrayal had embittered him, leading to a nervous breakdown and drinking problems that persisted for the rest of his life. How Adams had traded yet another phenom and Flyers star, forward Johnny Bucyk, to Boston to recover Sawchuk for a second term with the Wings. How both the team and its star goalie had faded from dominant to merely very good as first Montreal, then Toronto ruled the roost. How he played with pain in the one-goalie era and how he struggled with injury, including three operations on his right elbow, a career-threatening eye injury, an appendectomy, a broken instep, a collapsed lung, ruptured discs in his back, severed tendons in his hands, and countless facial injuries resulting in an estimated 400-600 stitches. How the shutout rate had slowed from a double-digit torrent to a merely respectable stream of 3-5 per season, but how year after year the total continued to mount into Hainsworth territory. How Sawchuk burned with the shame of being traded, of being merely one of the best goalies in the league, of the losing that inevitably ended every season. How Terry Sawchuk drank, and how he raged.

By 1963-64 the face was covered but no mask could hide those blazing eyes. That season would be his last in Detroit, as he guided his team within a fluke Bob Baun goal of a surprise Cup but didn't win it. Not that that would have saved him given the club's history. That fall Sawchuk wound up with "my" Leafs in Toronto, where he formed half of a venerable tandem that included the ageless Johnny Bower. For the next three seasons I watched both men as intently as is possible for a young wannabe goaltender to do. All on TV, unfortunately; to my regret I never did see Terry Sawchuk live. But I got an eyeful over the airwaves.

Terry Sawchuk was a gamer. His work habits were poor; teammate Dave Keon described his practice net as being so full of pucks it looked like a coal bin. He didn't care, unless and until practice ended with a shootout with money on the line. But come game time he battled with everything he had, bringing a nasty edge that might go off at any time on an opponent, a referee, a fan. The closest modern goalie to him in my opinion is Ed Belfour.

In his first year in Toronto Sawchuk and Bower split duties equally and became the first tandem to share the Vezina Trophy, then the equivalent of the modern Jennings Trophy (fewest GA), the fourth of Sawchuk's career. Two years later the duo shared another, sweeter fourth, as both would win their fourth and most improbable Stanley Cup. First order of business occurred late in the regular season as Sawchuk posted his milestone 100th shutout, in another Hockey Night in Canada affair that it was my privilege to watch. Sawchuk's victims were the Chicago Black Hawks, on their way to a league record for goals but held off the sheet by the venerable shutout master on this night.

It seemed unlikely at the time, but that game foreshadowed the playoffs where Sawchuk contributed 6 of Toronto's 8 wins, allowing just 5 goals in those wins but, paradoxically, recording no shutouts in the process. Five one-goal games and the greatest job of relief goaltending I've ever seen, in which Sawchuk replaced an injured Bower after the first period of Game 5 at hostile Chicago Stadium, series tied 2-2, game tied 2-2. For the next 40 minutes the powerful Hawks peppered Sawchuk with 37 shots, some 14 of them by Bobby Hull, but nary a one found a crack in his armour. 5 times the awesome Hawks powerplay (Bobby Hull, Dennis Hull, Phil Esposito, Stan Mikita, Kenny Wharram, Doug Mohns, Pierre Pilote) got an opportunity, and 5 times it was denied by the masked man's magic. The Leafs popped a couple of third-period markers against the flow of play and stole away with a 4-2 victory. Three nights later Sawchuk would flummox the Hawks one final time, this time by a 3-1 count, and the Prince of Wales Trophy winners and record-breaking Stanley Cup favourites were down for the count.

That set the stage for an all-Canadian Stanley Cup Finals, utterly appropriate in Centennial Year. To a Leaf-lovin' Hab-hatin' Canadian boy of eleven, that series meant everything: the only two possible outcomes were joy and despair. After Sawchuk got smoked in Game 1, Bower became the early series hero with a shutout and a thrilling 60-save, double-overtime win, but reaggravated his injury and was lost for the series. Into the breach once more stepped Sawchuk, and after getting lit up a second time in Game 4 he bounced back with a pair of goaltending gems as the Leafs toppled the mighty Habs 4-1 and 3-1 to take the Cup. Sawchuk ended his Jekyll-and-Hyde playoff run with a record of 0-4, 5.33 on Thursdays and 6-0, 0.82 on the other days of the week. His overall stats were middling (6-4, 2.65 GAA) enough that he got overlooked for the Conn Smythe, but he could well have won it on the strength of the several individual games that he stole.

That was the last hurrah. That fall the NHL expanded to twelve teams and both Terry Sawchuk and the Stanley Cup left Toronto forever. The aging great found himself in Los Angeles for a year, where he posted 2 more shutouts, the 19th consecutive season he had recorded at least one whitewash. After that came a third tour of duty in Detroit (just 13 GP) and then a final season at age 40 in New York backing up Eddie Giacomin. Just 8 GP, but in one of them Sawchuk recorded his 500th NHL victory (regular season and playoffs), and in another he posted his 103rd and last shutout, setting a standard that I frankly thought would never be approached let alone equalled and, presumably, broken.

That spring Terry Sawchuk died. The story has never been entirely clear, but he had a blow-up with his teammate and roommate Ron Stewart over some unpaid bills. Punches were thrown, and Sawchuk reportedly fell into a barbecue pit, injuring himself seriously. He was hospitalized for some weeks before news filtered out of his sudden passing from liver complications.

Although his death somewhat mirrored the celebrated in-career passings of famous netminders Georges Vezina and Charlie Gardiner, in more ways it resembled that of Howie Morenz who was facing the end of the line square in the face when he just let go and died. As Morenz was born to skate, Terry Sawchuk was born to tend goal. When he finally reached his "best before" date, he simply expired.

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