Remembering the Red Wings’ Legendary Goalie Terry Sawchuk

Forty-one years ago this year the Hockey Hall of Fame waived its mandatory five year waiting period to induct former Red Wing goalie Terry Sawchuk who had tragically died the year before at age 41.

Sawchuk would battle demons throughout his life, including depression and alcoholism, and despite major and minor injuries that would nag him throughout his playing days, over a remarkable 21-year career that spanned four decades (1949 to 1970), he became arguably hockey’s greatest goalie.

Today he is ranked second in career shutouts with 103 behind Martin Brodeur (114) and is ranked fifth with 447 regular season wins but Sawchuk toiled virtually his whole career during the Original Six Era. (His 447 career wins record stood for 30 years and his career shutout record was not eclipsed until 2009.)

Nicknamed “Ukey” because of his Ukrainian heritage, the Winnipeg native won three rookie of the year awards in three different leagues and took the Motor City by storm.
As the NHL rookie of the year for Detroit in the 1950-51 season, Sawchuk played all 70 games, won 44 to lead the league, recorded 11 shutouts and had a GAA average of 1.99. However the following season he performed like no other goalie in hockey history when he won all 8 games in the ’52 Stanley Cup with four shutouts while allowing only five goals. In the first five years of his career he led the NHL in wins, never had a GAA over 1.99 and won three Stanley Cups.

Despite his play Wings GM Jack Adams pedaled him to Boston after winning the ’55 Cup but reacquired him two years later where he would remain a Red Wing through the ’63 season.
Sawchuk, received approximately 400 stitches to his face that was later documented in a 1966 Life magazine feature. In 1962 Red Wing trainer Lefty Wilson invented a crude, customized facemask for Sawchuk, one of the first goalie masks in history. Sawchuk look like a monster between the pipes.

Following the ’63-64 campaign, he was picked up in waivers by Toronto. Along with fellow goalie Johnny Bower, Sawchuk would help lead the “Over the Hill Gang” to a Stanley Cup championship in 1967, the last time Toronto won the Cup. He then finished his career with brief stints in Los Angeles, Detroit, and finally the New York Rangers.

The four-time Vezina Trophy winner played his last game on April 14, 1970.  After the season ended Sawchuk and Ranger teammate Ron Stewart, during a drinking binge, got into an argument over expenses for a house they rented. During a scuffle Sawchuk suffered severe internal injuries but he did not blame Stewart. After a couple of operations, he never recovered and died shortly thereafter from a pulmonary embolism on May 31, 1970 at age 41.

Sawchuk is buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Pontiac. In 1994 his number (1) was retired by the Red Wings and now his banner is displayed next to fellow Red Wings greats Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Alex Delvecchio, and Steve Yzerman.

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About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.