shirley fischler, 1940—2014

With the sad news, from Monday, of Shirley Fischler’s death at the age of 74, a salute to her work as a hockey journalist and broadcaster is in order. At 82, her husband Stan remains the game’s most productive commentator, in print and out on the web, via the Tweetosphere and through the broadcast air. In her own long and varied career, Shirley co-authored several of his 90-odd books. She also blazed a trail for women into hockey’s press boxes and, in the early 1970s, became the first female hockey analyst when she covered the New England Whalers of the WHA with her husband.

She’ll also be remembered as the last journalist to talk to Terry Sawchuk, a week before his death at the age of 40 in May of 1970. The story is part of the goaltender’s tragic legend by now. Hockey season had ended. After what seems to have been an alcoholic scuffle at home with New York Rangers teammate Ron Stewart, an injured Sawchuk was hospitalized in Long Beach, New York. He had his gallbladder removed and underwent another operation on his damaged liver.

Brian Kendall tells the story in his fine Sawchuk biography, Shutout (1996). Introducing herself with her maiden name, Walton, Shirley Fischler walked into Sawchuk’s room bearing flowers. She said she was a big Ranger fan; no mention of any reporting or newspapers. Her story was in The Toronto Star next day:

Terry Sawchuk: ‘can never come back from this’

He was battered, she wrote, weak. “I’m retired, man,” he told her. Stewart had been testily denying any involvement to reporters. Sawchuk wasn’t much more forthcoming about what had happened. An accident, he said.

His face was pale, sunken, “so much so that the map of scars had almost disappeared.”

Often abrasive and harsh, he now commands nought but pity. He lies in a semi-private hospital room which is bare except for a single vase of flowers and some soft drink bottles his two oldest sons had brought.

His roommate’s coughing bothered him. There was a shipping channel out his window and he spent the hours watching ships go by. The Rangers were saying he was going to be fine, but Sawchuk wasn’t so sure. He’d been in a bad way. “They still don’t know if I’ll be okay. I’m full of tubes and my back bothers me.”

“Seeing him,” Shirley Walton wrote, “is believing he’ll never play again.” She asked him all the same about a rumoured three-cornered deal that would get Jacques Plante to Toronto and send Sawchuk to St. Louis. “I’m through,” he said.

Sawchuk died on May 31 of pulmonary embolism. “His life was a ceaseless procession of tragedies,” Jim Proudfoot wrote in The Star. “For each of his achievements, and there were many, there were half a dozen sad reversals — sickness, injury, personal heartbreak.”

The Daily Freeman in Kingston, New York, has a tribute to Shirley Fischler’s career, this way, along with an archive of some of her work, sporting and otherwise.