hockey players in hospital beds: terry sawchuk’s right elbow

sawchuk surgery

You can’t see Terry Sawchuk’s right elbow in the famous photograph that Ralph doctored up for Life Magazine in 1966 to show the grievous damage that hockey can do to goaltenders, just facial stitchings and scars. Take a look at the outtakes from that session, though, and the elbow’s surgical history is obvious. “Most of the trouble was the result of an injury that happened before my hockey playing days,” Sawchuk told another magazine, Blueline, in 1956. He was 12 years old, in Winnipeg, already enough of a hockey star that his mother didn’t want him playing football for fear of endangering his future on ice. Butch, his friends called him, according to biographer David Dupuis in Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World’s Greatest Goalie (1998), and one Sunday he was on his way to Mass when these friends lured him to the forbidden field: Hey, Butch, they said, whadarya, scared? No, he wasn’t, and of course instead of to prayers he took to tackling, ending up in “a thunderous pile-up.” He didn’t tell his mother: how could he? The elbow healed badly. He had trouble straightening his arm. That didn’t stop him, of course, from making his way to the NHL, where he was soon winning All-Star honours and trophies called Calder and Vézina and Stanley. But in each of his first two summers as a Detroit Red Wing, 1950 and ’51, he did end up submitting to elbow surgeries to extract bone chips from the joint. “Neither of these operations cleared up the condition,” Sawchuk said, “and I still had some pain and couldn’t fully extend my arm.” In 1952 he was back at the hospital, with (above) Dr. Donald J. Sheets taking charge this time. “He really did a job,” his patient said later. “He removed over sixty pieces of bone, taking everything he thought might break off and cause trouble later on. I haven’t had any trouble with the elbow since and for the first time in over ten years I’m able to have complete movement of my arm.”