Who was the greatest goalie in Detroit Red Wings history? Terry Sawchuk, right? Then there’s Mickey Vernon and Chris Osgood and several other great goalies who have worn the winged wheel.
But if it hadn’t been for his death in World War II, hockey fans in the Motor City might add the name of Joe Turner to that list. Turner was with the U.S. 78th division when he was reported as Missing In Action on December 13, 1943, shortly later he was declared dead. He’s one of only two men to have played in the NHL who died in either of the two world wars.
On Veterans Day especially, Turner deserves to be remembered, not only for the life and professional hockey career he never had, but the life he did have in his short 23 years.
Born in Windsor, Ontario, on March 28, 1919, Turner grew up playing ice hockey as much as he could and he was a natural. Very early in his life he was drawn to the position of goalie, and even though he couldn’t afford to purchase official pads, he bravely entered the crease and faced shots from the opponent. He was so good that at the ripe young age of 14 he was paid to play hockey by the Canoe Club in Toronto. Turner spent seven seasons playing club and minor league hockey in Canada and Detroit. In 1941 he recorded a league-best 34 victories for the Indianapolis Capitols of the American Hockey League (AHL).
His play caught the attention of the Red Wings and he was inked to a short-term contract in 1942. For more than a month, however, Turner found himself sitting on the bench watching the action as the understudy to Detroit starter Johnny Mowers. On February 5, 1942, Turner finally saw action after Mowers was injured in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Turner gleefully strapped on the pads and mask and battled the Maple Leafs to a 3-3 ties. A few days later Mowers was back in the goal however, and Turner was shipped back to Indianapolis.
Even though Turner was a Candian citizen, he volunteered for service in the U.S. Army, in part because of his great affinity for America, and was assigned a commission. Buoyed by great dedication, his physical abilities, and a knack for quiet leadership he displayed in his pro hockey career, Joe rose to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant in the Army. After training at Camp Buckner in North Carolina and completing officer training school in Virginia, Turner was assigned to a company and left New York Harbor on a transport ship for Europe in October of 1944.
In December of 1944, he and his platoon were in a murky area between the border of Belgium and Germany when Turner was killed in action while leading his platoon in battle. The fateful battle occured in the Hürtgen Forest as part of the larger Allied strike against the Siegfried Line. Turner was only 23 years old and had only played one game in the National Hockey League. He would never be able to pursue his dream of being a starting goalie in the NHL.
Turner’s bright career may have been extinguished far too early, but he had a very prominent legacy in one way. After his death, the International Hockey League named their championship trophy after him, and for more than 50 years the Turner Cup (shown here) was awarded to the champion of the IHL.
Today in the U.S. it is Veterans Day, while in Canada it is Remembrance Day. Chances are that there are people on both sides of the border who will be remembering Joe Turner, a promising goalie who made the ultimate sacrifice.