His face was his business card. Scarred and battered, stitches running diagonally above one eyebrow and bisecting the other, Terry Sawchuk’s face mutely attested to what he was.
He was a goaltender for 15 seasons before masks became standard equipment. He played most of his career before doctors realized the damage repeated concussions could do, before massage therapists soothed players’ muscles and psychologists soothed their psyches.
He was one of the best goaltenders the NHL has ever seen, an innovator who introduced the crouch that allowed him to capitalize on his quickness and remarkable agility. Playing with Detroit, Boston, Toronto, the Kings and New York Rangers, he recorded 103 shutouts, more than any goalie before or since. His record of 971 games played may never be equaled because few goalies today are as driven as he was.
He won a case full of trophies and had his name inscribed on the Stanley Cup four times, three with Detroit Red Wing teams whose rosters read like a Hall of Fame roll call.
After winning the Cup with the Maple Leafs in 1966-67, he landed in Los Angeles for a season with the expansion Kings at 37. Traded back to Detroit and on to the New York Rangers, he played merely eight games in the 1969-70 season.
He died a shocking death in May 1970, at 40, the result of internal injuries he suffered in a fight with teammate Ron Stewart after a dispute over the bills for their rented home.
Sawchuk, whose talent was so apparent at 14 that he was invited to work out with the Red Wings, felt most at home when he was standing between the pipes. Off the ice, he was never entirely happy. The child of an emotionally distant mother who had lost two other sons, he withdrew into himself.
Later, he drank too much. He was moody, frequently unfaithful to his wife and sometimes cruel to her and their seven kids before they divorced in 1969. He endured a near nervous breakdown in the 1950s, but excelled at the game’s most difficult position until he was 40 and the NHL had doubled in size from six teams to 12 scattered around North America.
The son of Ukrainians who had immigrated to the Canadian prairie city of Winnipeg, Sawchuk was an enigma wrapped in a mystery. He may never be understood, although David Dupuis’ 1998 book, “Sawchuk: The troubles and triumphs of the world’s greatest goalie,” written with Sawchuk’s family, explains his emotional swings and gives context to his foibles. And even though Colorado Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy broke Sawchuk’s record of 447 victories in a 4-3 overtime triumph over the Washington Capitals on Tuesday, Sawchuk should not be forgotten.
There is much about him to be horrified about--most notably his physical abuse of his wife and children--and much to be pitied, such as the drinking that never filled the bottomless pit of his insecurity.
“I guess Terry didn’t love himself enough, didn’t have enough faith in himself,” his former wife, Pat Sawchuk Milford, told Dupuis.
But there are aspects of his life worth remembering, such as his push to make something of himself and his knack for prevailing when the pressure was at its worst. His oldest son, Jerry, whom he once hit during a senseless argument in which Sawchuk claimed the boy had stolen a piece of cheese, defended him.
“My dad was good, he wasn’t a monster,” Jerry told the Detroit Free Press in 1999. “My dad was hard to get close to.”
He kept people away as fiercely as he kept pucks away from his net.
Think of playing game after game after game--there were no backup goalies in the 1950s and into the 1960s. Of playing for autocratic general managers such as Jack Adams, without hope of free agency. Of playing with an elbow that was deformed in childhood and was riddled with bone chips. Of gashes in his mouth and cuts on his forehead.
Above all, consider that he played despite overwhelming feelings of inadequacy. Early in 1955, Adams brought in a psychiatrist to talk to Sawchuk, who was struggling and had been benched. Sawchuk refused.
"[Adams] knew Terry had problems and he wanted to help him,” Pat Sawchuk Milford told Dupuis. “But Terry was not one who liked to be helped.”
Teammates said Sawchuk had mononucleosis, but Dupuis suggested he might have had hepatitis, brought on by years of heavy drinking. Yet, Sawchuk not only recovered and regained his job, he led the Red Wings to another Cup victory.
“The key for us was Sawchuk,” teammate Bob Goldham told Dupuis. “He was the greatest goaltender who ever lived. We could always count on him to come up with the big save.”
But his own family couldn’t count on him. Jeanne Flaman, the wife of Sawchuk’s Boston Bruin teammate Fern Flaman, told Dupuis she remembered Sawchuk going out of town and leaving Pat only a few dollars she was too scared to touch. Pat had to borrow grocery money from the Flamans.
“Terry always had to control ‘his’ money,” Pat said.
He quit during the 1956-57 season, wrecked by worry, illness and fatigue. His career was revived by rest and a trade back to Detroit, but his temper became more uncontrollable as his drinking increased. By 1962, teammate Marcel Pronovost said, Sawchuk was a lost soul.
“At this point in his career, in his life, Terry seemed like someone who was slowly committing suicide,” Pronovost said. “He didn’t give a damn. He drank if he wanted to, ran around and did what he wanted to do.”
He prolonged his career when he started wearing a mask in the 1962-63 season, but in a sense, that merely prolonged his agony. Jerry Sawchuk recalled hearing his father cry out in his sleep, yelling the name of his defensemen.
“The game that he loved was killing him mentally,” Jerry said.
That’s the real tragedy, that Sawchuk’s torment prevented him from enjoying himself and his gifts. Just as Roy broke Sawchuk’s record for victories Tuesday, someone will come along someday and break Roy’s record, whatever that ultimately will be. Here’s hoping Roy, unlike Sawchuk, will live to a happy and healthy old age to see it.
Roy Is No. 1 Star in Goalie Ranks
Patrick Roy, right, set an NHL record with his 448th victory when the Colorado Avalanche topped the Washington Capitals, 4-3, in overtime. Terry Sawchuk earned his 447th victory in his 968th game. Roy has played 847 games. D4
KINGS 1, NASHVILLE 1
Craig Johnson and the Predators’ Vitali Yachmenev matched second-period goals and Steve Passmore had 34 saves for the Kings. D3
MIGHTY DUCKS 4, N.Y. ISLANDERS 3
Mike Leclerc had a goal, an assist and set a key screen on a third goal as Anaheim made it two in a row on the road before an announced crowd of 6,336. D4
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Roy Is King
Patrick Roy not only eclipsed Terry Sawchuk’s NHL record of 447 wins, but he did it in 124 fewer games while suffering 66 fewer losses. Much as Hank Aaron set baseball’s record of 755 home runs without hitting more than 44 in a single season, Roy has been a model of consistency, averaging almost 28 wins a season, never coming close to challenging Bernie Parent’s record of 47 wins in 1973-74.
Goaltender G W L T GA GAA SO Patrick Roy 847 448 264 105 2,165 2.63 48 Terry Sawchuk 971 447 330 172 2,401 2.52 103
Bold indicates NHL record. GA-Goals against; GAA-Goals-against average.
Terry Sawchuk has not been completely banished from the record books; his 103 career shutouts remain virtually untouchable. Top active shutout leaders:
Ed Belfour 50
Patrick Roy 48
Dominik Hasek 45
Martin Brodeur 42
John Vanbiesbrouck 38
All time wins:
Patrick Roy* 448
Terry Sawchuk 447
Jacques Plante 434
Tony Esposito 423
Glenn Hall 407
Grant Fuhr 403
Andy Moog 372
Researched by Roy Jurgens