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Terry Sawchuk: ‘greatest goaltender ever’

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Goaltender Terry Sawchuk of the Detroit Red Wings.

Goaltender Terry Sawchuk of the Detroit Red Wings.

Terry Sawchuk was named one of the NHL’s 100 – the top-100 players in the history of the National Hockey League’s 100 years of existence. This is the fourth in a series featuring the six Ukrainian hockey stars selected to this elite group.

A few in the trade have exceeded Terry Sawchuk’s victory and shutout totals, but not one who puts on goalie equipment will ever exceed the Ukrainian’s ability to stop the puck. Fellow Uke Johnny Bower, who teamed with Sawchuk to backstop the Toronto Maple Leafs to their final Stanley Cup win in 1966-1967, proclaimed Sawchuk “the greatest goaltender ever.” It takes one to know one.

Back in the beginning of Sawchuk’s career there were a scant six NHL net-minding employment opportunities. Future Hall of Fame goalies like Bower, Jacques Plante, Gump Worsley and Glenn Hall toiled away in the minor leagues, biding their time for a shot in the show.

While playing juniors with the Windsor Spitfires, Hall would occasionally cross the border to observe Sawchuk in net for the Detroit Red Wings. He tried to copy Sawchuk’s style, down to the low-crouch position in which he played to cover the crease area.

Indeed, most goaltenders attempted to imitate Sawchuk. No goaltender could emulate Sawchuk, and he remains the only goalie in NHL history to record a goals-against average of less than 2.00 in each of his first five seasons. This bears repeating. Sawchuk is the only one. Vezina didn’t accomplish this feat. Durnan didn’t do it. Roy didn’t do it. Neither did Brodeur or Hasek.

Sawchuk recorded 56 shutouts and 195 wins over that period, leading the league in victories in each of those five seasons. During the 1951-1952 playoffs, Sawchuk went 8-0 in leading the Red Wings to the title. He posted four shutouts, a 0.63 GAA and an amazing .977 save percentage. He did not allow a single goal on home ice.

Granted, it is nearly impossible to compare eras, but it is paramount to remember that goalies of Sawchuk’s time were expected to play despite pain. Goalie equipment was modest and clubs did not yet carry back-ups to give the starter a break from injury or a night off.

Speaking of injury, here is a list of Sawchuk’s punishing legacy: punctured lungs, ruptured discs, a blocked intestine, infectious mononucleosis, severed hand tendons, a broken instep, twice broken nose and some 600 stitches. In those days, NHL goaltenders were trying to accomplish two things: stop the puck and not get killed doing it.

How tough and courageous was Sawchuk? In 1964 he checked himself out of a hospital bed to play a Stanley Cup playoff game against Chicago, only to go ahead and post a shutout.

The insecurity of the goaltending position – one spot on each of six NHL clubs – led him to play through as much pain as he could humanly endure. He got himself repaired when time permitted, leading to the assumption he spent his summers in the hospital.

The semifinal against the Blackhawks in 1967 was another example of his fortitude when Sawchuk’s physical well-being was tested by the howitzers of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. Some refer to it as the most courageous goaltending performance ever seen. The veteran stood up and challenged Hull, Mikita and the Hawks in an amazing show. Sawchuk wore his battered shoulder pads – the same ones he’d used since junior hockey – now in tatters. His old chest protector was nothing more than a piece of felt. He would still charge out to his position, totally fearless, just putting his body in the way of opposing shots.

One can only imagine the pain he endured.

Here’s still another component of what made Sawchuk a goaltender of unparalleled ability to stop the puck. He did not double his size simply by donning his equipment. He utilized his guile, his positioning and his instincts to occupy the space between the pipes. His wide-body frame allowed him to stand up, blocking most of the goal for an opponent coming in, trying to maneuver the puck past him. He had little difficulty covering the entire net.

The Ukrainian stalwart accomplished all this despite being born with a right arm two inches shorter than his left. While playing in a childhood rugby game he suffered an elbow injury, an ailment left untreated until his adult years. Sawchuk suffered through three surgeries and his teammates noted that their goalie could not lift his arm to comb his hair. He would hold out the comb and tilt his head down to drag the hair through the comb.

Subsequent goaltenders have bettered his numbers, but it is without a doubt incorrect to state that anyone who has tended goal in the history of the NHL tended to the position better than Sawchuk.

He was simply the best. The best that will ever be. That truly is Sawchuk’s legacy.

Sawchuk sayings

• In 1947, Ken Johnson of the Windsor Star: “In my opinion, the kid is the best goalie in junior hockey today. All predict a bright future for the Winnipeg-born goalie, who, at 17, stands five-foot 11 inches and weighs 193 pounds. He’s agile, too.”

• Windsor coach Jimmy Skinner: “Terry was always thinking, always quiet. He would shake hands with you and then not say a word. He was so serious about hockey that I never saw him clown around.”

• Famed broadcaster Dick Irvin, writing in 1995 about an October 22, 1951, game in Montreal: “I have watched a lot of goalies stop a lot of shots since then, but I have never forgotten the Detroit goalie’s performance that night. It was the first time I had seen him play and maybe that’s why I usually answer ‘Terry Sawchuk’ when asked to pick the all-time best goalie.”

• Teammate Marcel Pronovost: “Terry accepted full responsibility as a way of taking the onus off of the hockey club. Terry never blamed anyone for his shortcomings on the ice. Unlike others, he never pointed at a defenseman. It was always a battle between him and the puck, and he’d say, ‘I shoulda had it!”’

• Toronto coach-GM Punch Imlach: “Our goaltending is the reason we’re in first place. Sawchuk has been fantastic. I think he’s playing the best hockey in his career right now. Even better than he was playing with Detroit in the ‘50’s.”

Quotes courtesy of David Dupuis’ book, “Sawchuk.”

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