The most celebrated goaltender in Detroit Red Wings history—indeed, maybe in NHL history—was a tormented man. It’s been said that you have to be a little off your rocker to want to throw yourself into the path of vulcanized rubber discs for a living. Terry Sawchuk may not have been crazy, but he wasn’t happy.
It’s been documented—by his teammates, by his son, by those who covered him. Sawchuk, the Hall of Famer who did three stints with the Red Wings from 1949 to 1969, was a tragically sad man, for the most part.
Sawchuk was like the comedian who makes your sides burst with laughter but who himself is devoid of joy.
Sawchuk dominated NHL shooters in his day, racking up 103 shutouts (a record long considered unbreakable until New Jersey’s Marty Brodeur proved otherwise) and guarding the Detroit goal like an Irish beat cop in the Bowery.
He gave Red Wings fans much joy—and helped lead his teammates to three Stanley Cups—but Sawchuk was joyless in the process. He was afflicted with untreated depression, and nearly had a nervous breakdown in 1957 while playing for the Boston Bruins.
It should be noted that Sawchuk, at age 37, led the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup in 1967. The Leafs haven’t really come close to winning another since.
Yet even the great Terry Sawchuk was dispatched out of Detroit because there was someone else to take his place. It happened in 1955, when the Red Wings, fresh off another Stanley Cup victory, dealt Sawchuk to Boston to make room for youngster Glenn Hall.
It was like trading Sinatra to make room for a young Perry Como.
The two-headed goalie in Detroit has been a monster seen all too often in the Motor City. The parallel between the Red Wings goalie situations and those of the Lions’ quarterbacks are eerily similar.
Both franchises can point to the mid-to-late-1950s as to when the two-headed monsters made their debut.
On the gridiron we had Layne and Rote and Plum and Sweetan and Munson and Landry and, well, you don’t really want me to go on, do you?
On the ice it hasn’t been all that different.
Sawchuk gave way to Hall, then the Red Wings brought Sawchuk back and got rid of Hall, who is a Hall of Famer in his own right.
Sawchuk was with the Red Wings until 1964, then the merry-go-round in the Detroit net really began.
It hasn’t mattered if the Red Wings were atrocious, as they were for most of the 1970s until the late-1980s, or if they were annual Cup contenders, as they have been for the past 20 years.
The two-headed goalie monster has reared its head often, regardless.
Remember the two heads of Glen Hanlon and Greg Stefan? They led the Red Wings to the NHL’s version of the Final Four in 1987 and ’88.
How about Mike Vernon and Chris Osgood? They presided over a 62-win season in 1996, then took turns leading the Red Wings to the Cup—Vernon in 1997 and Osgood in 1998.
Dominik Hasek. Curtis Joseph. Manny Legace. Hasek again. Osgood again. Hasek again. Osgood again.
The Red Wings, with their two-headed monster between the pipes, won four Stanley Cups in an 11-year stretch.
The goalie controversies have been much kinder to the Red Wings than the quarterback ones have been to the Lions.
But you can say goodbye to both two-headed monsters—the one on the football field, and the one on the ice rink.
The Lions, with the young gunslinger Matthew Stafford, are set at quarterback for the next 10 years, his recent interception fetish notwithstanding.
And the Red Wings have no more worries in goal—provided they can keep Jimmy Howard shackled to a contract befitting his skills.
Howard, from the University of Maine, was the only Red Wing earning his paycheck for the first month of this season. And those are some big paychecks we’re talking about.
Howard is pretty much established now as one of the upper echelon goalies in the NHL. So say I.
He’s in his third full season, a late bloomer of sorts.
Howard is 27, and will be 28 in March. He didn’t become the Red Wings starting goalie until 2009, a full six years after being drafted in the second round.
He’s proving to be worth the wait.
Howard is no Sawchuk, and I mean that in a good way.
Jimmy Howard isn’t tormented. He isn’t in a dark place mentally. He hasn’t had to miss a half season at age 27 from mental exhaustion, as Sawchuk did back in 1957, when the media and fans in Boston rode him mercilessly.
And it’s not like Howard is playing incognito.
You can’t hide in Detroit if you’re a goalie. Or if you’re a quarterback. It’s not unlike other pro sports burgs that have NHL and NFL teams.
Goalie and quarterback, in most towns, are not positions for the faint of heart or weak of character.
Howard took over goaltending duties in 2009, somewhat shoving out the veteran Osgood, the starter for two of those four Cups between ’97 and ’08. There was some concern about Howard’s status come playoff time. Folks wondered aloud if the kid had what it takes to navigate through the choppy playoff waters.
Good thing the water is frozen in hockey, eh?
Howard acquitted himself well in the 2010 postseason, and even more so in 2011, even though the Red Wings didn’t make it out of the second round in either spring.
Now he’s got a stranglehold on the starting job, with only 35-year-old Ty Conklin around to back him up. Conklin will be lucky to appear in 20 games this season.
It took Howard a wee bit longer than most NHL goalies to emerge and stake his claim to being the No. 1 guy in net.
Now all the Red Wings have to do is keep him signed and happy.
The happy part shouldn’t be a problem.
Howard is no Sawchuk, after all.