Terry Sawchuk

It is a common joke that to play goal in professional hockey, you have to be a little bit crazy. For Terry Sawchuk, this was no laughing matter.

Record books show that Terry Sawchuk was one of the greatest goaltenders ever to play in the NHL. He played in 21 seasons with five different teams. His 103 career shutouts set a record that might never be broken. Sawchuk did a tremendous amount for the game of hockey, but it's a shame to see what hockey ended up doing to him.

Mike Sawchuk, Terry's older brother, was the true goalie in this family, but at the tender age of 17, Mike died of a heart ailment. The loss of his older brother had a devastating impact on 10-year-old Terry, who also lost another brother at an early age.

"I couldn't believe when it happened," Terry told an interviewer many years ago. "I missed him for a long time afterwards."

The sudden death of his brother changed Terry's personality completely.

Terry eventually strapped on his brothers pads after the regular goalie on Terry's bantam team had left.

"The pads were there, where I could always look at them," Terry said in another past interview. "The day they put me in the net I had a good game. I've stayed there since."

It was also from that moment on that it seemed he had signed a pact with the devil:

Terry's traumatic youth wasn't over. When he was 17-years old his father wrecked his back in a bad fall off a scaffold. Young Terry was left as the family's sole breadwinner. Hockey proved to be his family's salvation. He immediately cashed in a $2,000 signing bonus check from the Detroit Red Wings.

On his 18th birthday, while playing pro minor league hockey in Omaha, Terry was hit in the eye by a hard slap shot. Luckily for him a surgeon who happened to be passing through town saved Terry's vision with a successful operation.

Sawchuk entered the National Hockey League in 1951 as a bright young prospect with the Detroit Red Wings. He played all 70 games for the Wings that season, compiling 11 shutouts and a puny goals against average of 1.98. He was awarded the Calder Trophy for his spectacular play. Things went well for Sawchuk over the next four years. He won three Vezinas and three Stanley Cups, including back-to-back wins in 1954 and 1955.

Seemingly on top of the world, Sawchuk then started running into trouble. After winning the Cup in 1955, Detroit shocked everyone by trading Sawchuk to the Boston Bruins. The trade stunned Sawchuk. He started to have doubts about his abilities to play the game. He kept wondering if he was good enough despite his impressive feats.

These games going on inside of his head helped Sawchuk falter in Boston, and his absence in Detroit caused the Red Wings to falter as well. Sawchuk would soon rejoin the Wings, and eventually regain the form that made him perhaps the greatest goalie of all time. However he remained mentally unstable. The mental stress of playing goalie in the NHL combined with an incredible amount of physical injuries took their toll on Sawchuk.

Considering the serious injuries that Terry sustained during his career it's simply amazing how he could put up such impressive numbers. As a child he fractured his right arm that later required three surgeries and still grew back two inches shorter than the left one, the bone chips in Terry’s elbow numbered almost 60. Some of his other injuries included:

- The eye injury in Omaha
- A punctured lung in a car accident
- Torn tendons in his hand
- An emergency appendectomy
- Ruptured spinal discs
- Mononucleosis
- A nervous breakdown
- More than 600 stitches
- Neuritis in the nerves of his legs
- A swayed back brought on by his style of playing goal
- Insomnia
- Migraine headaches

He was once known as a good natured, fun-loving kid, but the dramatic events of his life transformed him into a very angry, chain-smoking adult, full of hate. He lived, as one can readily imagine, in constant physical pain. He was often seen in public poking and scratching at his many bodily scars. One can only imagine the severe mental anguish and trauma that went hand-in-hand with the physical sufferings.

Hockey seemed to be Sawchuk's release from the stress and games going on inside his head. He is arguably the best the game has ever seen between the pipes. He played more games and seasons than anyone. He had more wins (since surpassed) and shutouts than anyone. His amazing 103 career shutouts was once thought to be untouchable.

Terry's tragic-laden, hurt-filled short life created a moody, complex and angry individual. "When we woke up in the morning, I would say good morning to him in both French and English," said one-time Red Wings' roommate Marcel Pronovost. "If he answered, I knew we would talk at least a little that day. But if he didn't reply, which was most days, we didn't speak the entire day."

But it was Terry's actions on the ice that spoke much more loudly than his words. He won tons of awards during his playing career. Terry adopted the style of a reflex goalie, placing scarcely any emphasis on covering/cutting down angles. He had a low crouching stance and was extremely tough to beat on the first shot and he had explosive movements.

"Sawchuk was the greatest goalie I’ve ever seen, no doubt about it," Bob Pulford later said. He and Sawchuk were teammates with Toronto from 1964 through 1967. "He was the quickest I’ve ever seen."

By 1970, Terry was 40 years old and wasn't as sharp as he was during his heyday, but he clung to the only thing he knew. He spent his last hockey days with the New York Rangers. After returning home from Detroit, quite affected by his inability to get a failed marriage back on track, Sawchuk picked a fight with his Ranger roommate, Ron Stewart. Stewart had no inkling of what or why. He was just a nice guy, sharing a Long Island home with, maybe, the wrong guy.

In the unnecessary skirmish, both fell over a barbecue pit and Sawchuk suffered severe internal injuries. He seemed like he was going to recover and even forgave roommate Stewart and said it was his own fault it happened. Stewart regularly visited him in the hospital, but soon it was revealed the Sawchuk had life-threatening liver damage. During surgery, a blood clot worked its way through an artery and finally stopped this long-hurting heart.

Terry Sawchuk's hockey career began with a broken heart and an abandoned unused set of goalie pads. Just as tragically, his career ended in much the same way.

One year later after Terry had passed away he was elected into Hockey's Hall of Fame.


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