THE TERRY SAWCHUK FILE:
Born: December 28, 1929; Died: May 31, 1970
NHL games played: 971 (734 with Red Wings)
1954-55 stats (Detroit): GP: 68; MIN: 4040; GA: 132: GAA: 1.96; ShO: 12
CAREER: GP: 971; MIN: 57,194; GA: 2,389; GAA: 2.51; ShO: 103
When discussing the “best ever” at any position in any sport, certainly the arguments are subjective.
Anyone can crunch numbers to support their viewpoint.
Was Babe Ruth the best ever baseball player because of those 714 home runs and that .342 BA, plus all his other amazing statistics?
Or was it Ty Cobb for his .367 career BA and those 4,191 hits, plus the 892 stolen bases?
And so on.
Terry Sawchuk, however, seems to be widely recognized as the best goalie in NHL history. Period.
And this isn’t just coming from Red Wings fans.
Sawchuk played in nearly 1,000 games, which by itself is mind-boggling. He posted 103 shutouts, which was a league record for nearly 40 years before Martin Brodeur broke it.
But beyond raw numbers, impressive as they are, Sawchuk is considered the best because of the good old-fashioned “eye test.”
Sawchuk’s exploits exist today on grainy footage that can be found on YouTube, but the folks who actually saw him play in person—players, coaches and writers—readily rattle Sawchuk’s name off when asked who was the best goalie in NHL history.
But for as talented and blessed as Sawchuk was on the ice, he was equally as tormented off it.
He battled depression for years. He was, for all intents and purposes, an alcoholic. He was by far his own harshest critic. He didn’t smile very much, according to teammates.
Sawchuk did three separate stints with the Red Wings, but he also played for Boston, the New York Rangers, the Los Angeles Kings and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Such was the greatness of his longevity that he won his first Stanley Cup in 1952 at age 22 and his last in 1967 at age 37.
Perhaps no greater goaltending will ever be seen as what Sawchuk did in the 1952 playoffs.
There were only two rounds back in those Original Six days, and the Red Wings swept both series to capture the Cup.
Sawchuk was unbelievable that spring.
In going 8-0, Sawchuk posted four shutouts and had a tiny goals against average of 0.63.
A native of Manitoba, Canada who was of Ukrainian descent, Sawchuk’s mental darkness started when he was a youngster. A younger brother died of scarlet fever, but even worse, Sawchuk’s older brother, an aspiring goaltender who Terry idolized, died of a heart attack at age 17.
It is believed by many that the tragic death of Sawchuk’s older brother had ramifications for the rest of Terry’s life.
Another blow came in the spring of 1955, when the Red Wings traded Sawchuk to Boston not long after Detroit won the Stanley Cup. Already hyper-critical of himself, Sawchuk took the trade very hard. The Red Wings wanted Glenn Hall to be their new full-time goalie, and Sawchuk saw the trade as an insult to his abilities.
Sawchuk hated it in Boston. The fans’ criticism was relentless. He suffered a nervous breakdown and briefly retired from hockey.
The Red Wings rescued Sawchuk in 1957, reacquiring him from the Bruins for Hall of Fame forward Johnny Bucyk.
Sawchuk played in Detroit until 1964, at which point the Red Wings left him unprotected in the intraleague waiver draft because they wanted to go with the younger Roger Crozier in net.
The Toronto Maple Leafs snatched Sawchuk up on June 10, 1964 and the Leafs won the Stanley Cup three springs later with Sawchuk teaming with veteran Johnny Bower in goal.
Then it was off to Los Angeles to play for the expansion Kings in 1967.
The Red Wings brought Sawchuk back to Detroit yet again in an October, 1968 trade.
In June of 1969, the Red Wings dealt Sawchuk to the Rangers, where he finished his magnificent career.
Sawchuk was just 40 years old when he got into a scuffle with Rangers teammate Ron Stewart in late-May of 1970. The two fought over outstanding bills for an apartment they shared and planned to vacate for the summer. In the rumble, Sawchuk fell into a barbecue and suffered internal injuries. He passed away on May 31, 1970. No charges were filed against Stewart, as the death was ruled accidental.
In fact, on his deathbed, Sawchuk emphasized that Stewart was not to blame for the tragic incident.
“It was a fluke,” Sawchuk told Shirley Fischler, wife of legendary hockey writer Stan Fischler. “A complete, fluke accident.”
Sawchuk is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in Pontiac, MI.
The Red Wings retired Sawchuk’s no. 1 in 1994.
Sawchuk once summed up his career thusly.
“The day they put me in the net I had a good game. I’ve stayed there since.”
NEXT WEEK: Center Glen Skov, whose older brother Art was a longtime NHL referee.