Terry Sawchuk entered the National Hockey League in 1950 and proceeded to become one of the greatest goaltenders ever.
That spring, he lead the Detroit Red Wings to a Stanley Cup. Fresh out of the old United States Hockey League, where he had been Rookie of the Year and a top goaltender there for a Red Wings farm team, Sawchuk's play foreshadowed his legendary goaltender status.
Sawchuk's statistics, which culminated with an immediate posthumous election to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1971, one year after his death, is testimony to his brilliant career.
Consider this about Sawchuk, who played in the "Original Six" NHL that had only a 70 game schedule, 12 less than today:
Statistics and Awards
Calder Cup (Rookie of The Year): 1951
Stanley Cup Wins: Five—Four with Detroit in 1950, '52, '54 and '55, and one with Toronto in 1967.
Vezina Trophy: Four—Three with Detroit in 1952, '53, and '55, and shared with Johnny Bower in Toronto in 1965.
First Team All Star: 1951, '52, and '53
Second Team All Star: 1954, '55, and '63
Played in NHL All Star Game: 1950, '51, '52, '53, '54, '63, '64, '68
Shutouts: 103, most by any goaltender.
A Six Team Wonder Goalie
To play in the NHL in the pre-expansion six team era and post these kind of numbers is a testament to Sawchuk's greatness. Granted, there will be many who will say that people like Brodeur, Patrick Roy, Ken Dryden,Tony Esposito, Gerry Cheevers, Henrik Lundqvist and Roberto Luongo and others may be better. It will always be a subjective and debateable point.
However, having seen all these men and others play, my hat will always go off to Sawchuk.
There are two highly memorable moments in Sawchuk's career that I recall.
Terry's Birthday Bash
On Christmas Eve, 1963, the Red Wings were visiting the old Montreal Forum. The Canadiens were already three years removed from their dynasty of five consecutive Stanley Cups, but still had a corps of players that would be second to none in today's NHL.
That night Sawchuk faced the likes of "Big" Jean Beliveau, (Le gros Bill), Henri (Pocket Rocket) Richard, Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, a young Jacques Laperriere, as well as opposing Jacques Plante in the Canadiens goal.
The Red Wings were a middle of the road team in those days, a mere image of their halcyon days of the 1950's when they won four Stanley Cups and seven consecutive league championships. Yes, Gordie Howe was on right wing with Alex Delvechio at centre. But beyond that, this team included no other "hallowed" or "remembered" names.
Sawchuk was born Christmas Eve. Playing against the Canadiens on his birthday was special that night. Over and over again, Montreal English TV broadcaster Danny Gallivan remarked that Sawchuk seemed to be a one man show, looking to shutout the Canadiens all by himself if need be. Sawchuk had a penchant for the spectacular, and a shutout was always something he strived for.
That night, Sawchuk held Montreal at bay, and, despite allowing one goal late in the third period, basically saved the game for the Red Wings.
Winning against the mystique of The Canadiens was always a tough task. Doing it in the reverred Montreal Forum, on a Saturday night-hockey night—that was something else.
One More For Sawchuk
The 1967 Stanley Cup playoffs was Sawchuk's last hurrah. Toronto finished third that season, just ahead of Detroit who, behind the stellar goaltending of Conn Smythe winning Roger Crozier, had taken Montreal to six games in the 1966 Stanley Cup Finals.
Montreal finished second to regular season champion Chicago in 1967. Chicago had surged late in the 1966-67 season to finish atop the league for the first time in years. It was a team filled with future Hall of Famers in Glen Hall, Pierre Pilote, Stan Mikita, and Bobby Hull.
The Black Hawks also had Ken Wharram, who with Mikita and Hull had set scoring records that season. Pilote was joined by Elmer "Moose" Vasko on defense.
This team was still a tough squad that had won the Stanley Cup in 1961, dethroning the then mystical five time winning Montreal Canadiens. That spring, all expected Toronto to be made into mince meat by Chicago.
The first game went that way, with Chicago winning easily, 7-3. However game two in the old Chicago Stadium (the loudest of the old NHL arenas), lead way to a different result for the "know-it-all" prognosticators. It was Sawchuk, especially in games five and six, that derailed Chicago in six games.
In 1964 Detroit took a gamble and left Sawchuk unprotected in the draft at the annual NHL meetings.
True, they had a young man named Roger Crozier getting ready to enter the NHL. No one expected that Punch Imlach, the general manager of Toronto Maple Leafs, (who were at that time just completing their run of three consecutive Stanley Cups), would claim Sawchuk in that draft.
Toronto had Johnny Bower. All in hockey saw Bower as a "Neanderthal aged" goaltender at the time. Still, he had backed Toronto to their third consecutive Stanley Cup win that spring.
Was Bower retiring? Not at all. With Toronto's acquisition of Sawchuk, the NHL saw the beginning of the modern two goalie system.
Prior to that time, most teams carried one goaltender on the roster, leaving their back-up in the minors. An example of this happened that same spring of 1964, when Montreal traded Jacques Plante as one of a number of players to the New York Rangers.
Part of the return package was getting goaltender Lorne "Gump" Worsley to the Canadiens. He was badly injured early the first season, which resulted in Montreal calling up Charlie Hodge (Plante's understudy after Ceasar Maniago was dispatched), who almost won the Vezina Trophy on a rejuvinated Canadiens team that in 1965 won the Stanley Cup.
Worsley stayed in Quebec City for close to two years after that, while Sawchuk and Bower shared duties in Toronto. For the first time ever, the Vezina Trophy was split between two netminders.
The 1967 Stanley Cup Finals—Sawchuk's Final Big Win
Montreal had dispatched Detroit handily in the semi finals that spring. When they beat Sawchuk and the Leafs easily in the opening game of the finals 6-2, all seemed to be at an end for the aged Toronto team.
Sawchuk was replaced in goal for a Saturday afternoon game 2 at the Montreal Forum by Johnny Bower. Bower shutout the Canadiens 3-0. Bower again backed Toronto to a double overtime win in game three, giving the Leafs a 2-1 lead.
Imlach, true to form of his two goalie system, put Sawchuk in goal (more by necessity as Bower was now injured) for game 4. Montreal rebounded to win, but with there being no one else to "man the pipes" for Toronto, Sawchuk would have to rise to the occasion—which he did.
Playing injured himself, Sawchuk all but stood on his proverbial head, stopping everything the much younger and faster Montreal Canadiens threw his way. Consider the firepower the Canadiens had that spring: Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, and Ralph Backstrom centred such players as Yvan Cournoyer, Dave Balon, Bobby Rousseau, Jean-Guy Talbot, Dick Duff, and Claude Provost. They were accompanied on defense by Jacques Laperiere, J.C. Tremblay, Terry Harper, and Ted Harris, and backed by rookie sensation Rogatien "Rogie" Vachon, who was backed up by Lorne "Gump" Worsley. In fact, after Vachon was rattled by Imlach's "Junior 'B" goalie rant after game 5, venerable coach Hector "Toe" Blake of Montreal lifted Vachon for the veteran Worsley in game 6.
Worsley played well. The Canadiens did as well. However the ancient "Neanderthal Leafs" surprised everyone that spring, and won the Stanley Cup in a hard fought game 6 on May 2, 1967 in the old Maple Leaf Gardens.
George Armstrong scored into an empty net with less than a minute to go to clinch a 3-1 game 6 victory. Midway through the 3rd period of that game 6, Sawchuk was hit by a hard shot by Dick Duff on the right knee under his pad. Sawchuk writhed on the ice in pain. It was as if you could see him grimace under his mask.
Who was there to replace him? Bower was on the bench, but was supposed to be injured. He was. Imlach had a 3rd goaltender dressed in the dressing room, just in case Sawchuk would have to be lifted. All Imlach wanted was to allow for Bower to be on the bench to celebrate a Toronto victory if it came that night.
Sawchuk eventually got up and finished the game, and backed Toronto to a Stanley Cup victory.
The 1967 Stanley Cup was Toronto's last ever trophy. It was also the last of the original 6 playoff series. In the expansion draft of 1967, the NHL doubled in size, adding teams in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Oakland.
Sawchuk would be claimed by the new Los Angeles Kings. Within two years, Sawchuk would be the backup in New York for the Rangers, where at the end of the 1970 season, in a "horseplay accident" with old Toronto teammate Ron Stewart (who was also finishing his career with the Rangers), Sawchuk succumbed to injuries and died at the age of 40. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto in 1971.
How fitting that in the year of 1967—the 100th anniversary of Canada as a nation, and the last ever season of only six teams in the NHL, that both Montreal and Toronto would play for the Stanley Cup. With Montreal, then Canada's number one metropolis, hosting the 1967 International World's Faire, everyone in that city wanted the Canadiens to win a third consecutive Stanley Cup, so it could be placed in the Province of Quebec Pavillion at the exhibition.
I still remember a day in June that year, as a 14 year old, seeing the Stanley Cup being guarded by two Ontario Provincial Policemen in the Ontario pavilion. I remember asking the guards if I could touch the Stanley Cup. One of them looked down at me, smiled and said nothing. I extended my pinky finger on my right hand forward and touched Terry Sawchuk's name, recently etched on the sidewall of the trophy, half expecting an electrical charge of some sort or another to be coming forth from this icon.
Nothing happened then. However, as I sit and write here today—40 years after that last great hurrah by Sawchuk—chills run up and down my spine, as if indeed by touching that name on the side of the Stanley Cup, a residual charge remains within me.
Terry Sawchuk was indeed one of the greatest goaltenders ever in the NHL. I wish you all could have seen him play.