Welcome to the fourth edition of “Once Upon A Time in Rangerstown.” Today we are going to be looking at one of greatest goalies in NHL history, and an individual with personal demons who tragically passed away at the age of 40, 50 years ago today.
The Player: Terry Sawchuk | Age 40 | Goalie
Sawchuk had a storied career — much of which was spent with the Detroit Red Wings — that started in 1949. In his first season he got a small taste of NHL action appearing in seven games as a 20-year-old. The following season Sawchuk captured the Calder Trophy with a record of 44-13-13 and a 1.97 goals against average. Shots on goal were not recorded at this time, so therefore we can’t calculate his save percentage.
The next few seasons were productive ones which saw Sawchuk win three Vezina trophies (at that time awarded to goalie who surrendered fewest amount of goals) in a span of four years, and a fourth-place finish for the Hart Trophy. He also won three Stanley Cups with the Wings during this period, including a perfect 8-0 record and a 0.62 goals against average en route to the 1951-52 Stanley Cup.
Sawchuk was traded from the Red Wings to the Boston Bruins in a nine-player trade after the 1954-55 season, partially because future Hall of Famer Glenn Hall was a member of the Wings farm system ready to prove himself. Hall captured the Calder Trophy in 1955-56, and later went on to win a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1961.
Sawchuk’s time in Boston was limited to 102 games over two seasons, and Sawchuk returned to the Wings via trade in 1957 after contemplating retirement from the Bruins. He was labelled a quitter by the media after talking about retiring from hockey after a battle with mono which hospitalized him for two weeks, and was on the breaking point of a full nervous breakdown. Detroit ultimately sent John Bucyk to Boston in order to reacquire Sawchuk, a player who went on to finish his career with 1,369 points in 1,540 games played.
Sawchuk’s second stint in Detroit wasn’t as fruitful as his early years, and he went 147-159-64 across seven seasons while posting a .904 save percentage and a 2.89 goals against average. He was a second-team All-Star twice, and finished third, fourth, and seventh for the Hart Trophy.
On June 10, 1964 Sawchuk joined the Toronto Maple Leafs after being selected in the intra-league waiver draft. For the next three seasons he worked in tandem with future Hall of Famer Johnny Bower, and won his fourth and final Vezina trophy during the 1964-65 season. In his last season with the Leafs, Sawchuk backstopped the Maple Leafs to a Stanley Cup victory, and it remains the franchise’s last championship to date.
Sawchuk then spent a season in Los Angeles after being selected in the expansion draft, and returned to the Red Wings for a final stint of play which lasted just 13 games.
The Deal: June 17, 1969 | Traded to New York with Sandy Snow for Larry Jeffrey
Sawchuk and Sandy Snow, a player who skated just three games with the Red Wings, were sent to New York in exchange for Larry Jeffrey, a forward who had career line of 39-62-101 in 368 games played. It was a trade in name only, as Sawchuk was the only player in the deal to actual suit up for his new team.
The Why: Rangers needed a backup goalie
The 1969-70 Rangers had a very capable starter in Ed Giacomin, but his backup from the prior season Don Simmons retired. The team could have looked within to fill the role, but ultimately decided to make a trade.
The best goalkeeper I ever saw in the National Hockey League was Terry Sawchuk. He’s my number one guy, (Emile) Francis told me recently. I picked him up at the end because I was developing (Gilles) Villemure. I knew I was going to use Giacomin about 60 games and I didn’t want Villemure sitting around playing 10 or 12 games, we were playing 72 games back then. So I left Villemure in Buffalo to develop and I brought in Sawchuk, because I knew it would probably only be for a year.
The Season: 38-22-16, 92 points | 4th place in East Division
The Rangers finished fourth in East during the 1969-70 season, but scored the third-most goals in the league, while allowing the third fewest goals against. They had a very good roster with players upfront such as Walt Tkaczuk, the famous GAG line of Vic Hadfield, Jean Ratelle, and Rod Gilbert, and a decent D corps including Brad Park, Arnie Brown, and Rod Seiling among others. The goaltending tandem of Giacomin and Sawchuk worked perfectly too, but the team was eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the quarterfinal round.
The Play: 8 games | 3-1-2 record | 2.91 G.A.A. & .893 SV%
Sawchuk’s season was a generally uneventful one, with his crowning moment coming on February 1, 1970 vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins. During this game the Rangers won 6-0, and Sawchuk picked up his 103rd, and final shutout of his career.
I’m old and tired but I try my best Sawchuk told reporters after the game. Some of his teammates good-naturedly kidded that the shutout might have been Sawchuk’s last. Unfortunately, they were right. Ironically, Sawchuk’s very first shutout also came in New York at the “old” Garden, in a 1-0 defeat of the Rangers by Detroit on January 15, 1950, Terry’s rookie year.
Sawchuk also appeared in three playoff games for the Blueshirts, but he posted very poor results. In 80 minutes of play he surrendered six goals on 47 shots, posting a 4.51 goals against average and a .872 save percentage.
The End: May 31, 1970 Sawchuk dies at age 40
During his career Sawchuk battled with alcoholism and untreated depression which was worsened by his drinking. This problem, and physical abuse toward his wife resulted in the end of his marriage.
During his time in New York he shared a house with his friend and teammate Ron Stewart, and after a night of drinking the two got into a verbal argument which led to pushing and shoving.
On the evening of April 29, 1970, after the Rangers’ regular season had ended, Stewart and Sawchuk were preparing to close up a house they rented in East Atlantic Beach on Long Island. Before they did, they went to a bar, where they got into an argument. Shouting soon turned to shoving.
After they returned to the house, the dispute resumed, and they pushed each other on the lawn, witnesses said. Sawchuk fell and injured his gallbladder and liver.
Also from the New York Times:
Sawchuk underwent two operations at the Long Beach hospital. In the first, his gall bladder was removed. A second operation was performed to correct a bleeding liver condition.
The preliminary findings of an autopsy, which determined that he died of a pulmonary embolism—a clot on one of the arterial branches—have been forwarded to the Nassau County District Attorney, according to Dr. Elliott Gross, Deputy Chief Medical Examiner of New York City.
A year later Sawchuk was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame with a career line that included 447 regular season wins (a record that stood for 30 years), 103 shutouts (a record that stood for 46 years), the 1950-51 Calder Trophy, four Stanley Cups, four Vezina Trophies and seven All-Star team appearances. His number 1 was retired by the Red Wings on March 6, 1994.
Stats via Hockey-Reference unless otherwise noted.