Terry Sawchuk played 53 of Detroit’s 70 regular-season games over the course of the 1963-64 season, and the 34-year-old goaltender was voted the Red Wings’ MVP when it was all over. He tended the team’s net for another 13 playoff game, a career-high for him, as he steered the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup Final before falling to the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games.
Still, Sawchuk, who was born in Winnipeg on a Saturday of this date in 1929, needed help along the way that year. He got it from a succession of back-ups and fill-ins: the Red Wings called on five other goaltenders that year to supplement their #1-wearing number one.
A 22-year-old Roger Crozier stepped in for 15 games during the regular-season, but he also had the starting gig for the AHL Pittsburgh Hornets. So in November of ’63, when Sawchuk wrenched a shoulder at the Olympia one night trying to foil a shot from Montreal’s Jean-Guy Talbot, 22-year-old standby by the name of Harrison Gray came in to play the only 40 minutes of his NHL career and take the loss.
Crozier took over the net while Sawchuk recovered, but not for long: in Detroit’s next game, a shot from Toronto’s Frank Mahovlich broke Crozier’s cheekbone. The veteran Hank Bassen, 30, was the next man to step into the breach, for one game.
Sawchuk was fine for a while after that. In March, as the playoffs approached, Detroit coach and GM Sid Abel elected rest him, putting in 21-year-old U.S. Olympic goalie Pat Rupp for what turned out to be the only game of his NHL career, a loss to Toronto.
Sawchuk was due back in net when Detroit started its playoff campaign against the Chicago Black Hawks. But the day before the opening game of the series, Sawchuk’s wife, Patricia, was rushed to Pontiac Osteopathic Hospital where she underwent an emergency appendectomy.
The surgery went well, the Detroit sports pages reported, and Sawchuk joined his teammates on the train heading west. Coach Abel was a bit worried, though: with this hospital detour of his, Sawchuk hadn’t been on skates in five days.
Detroit lost that opening game on the Thursday, but they came back to win the second game in Chicago the following Sunday — mostly without Sawchuk, as it transpired. Just five minutes into the game, he as forced to leave the game with a pinched nerve in his left shoulder. Drafted in to replace him this time was 21-year-old Bob Champoux, who got credit the 5-4 win in his NHL debut. It would be nine years before Champoux made it back to NHL ice: in 1973-74, he went 2-11-3 for the California Golden Seals.
Back home the next day, Sawchuk checked into Detroit Osteopathic Hospital, which is where the photograph here, above, was taken. It’s one of several, it might be noted, in which Sawchuk was seen over the course of his caeer in hospital in pyjamas; he was also, occasionally, photographed on gurneys and in surgery.
But back to 1964. While Sawchuk rested in hospital, Sid Abel had a new worry: in the wake of Sunday’s game, NHL president Clarence Campbell declared that Detroit wouldn’t be permitted to call up Roger Crozier; Champoux, he felt, would do fine.
Abel eventually convinced Campbell to change his mind, arguing that Champoux had been playing Junior B just a year before. But with Crozier standing by, Sawchuk, who’d been in traction for two days. He was released from hospital just three hours before puck-drop. He started the game and finished it, posting a 3-0 shutout.
“I thought I played well,” he said afterwards, “but then I started to get tired in the last period. I guess that’s what comes from being laid up.”
He was back in hospital getting treatment until just before the fourth game two nights later. “I sure hope he comes up with a repeat of Tuesday night’s performance,” Abel said.
Sawchuk tried, but late in the first period, he aggravated his shoulder yet again, and Crozier took over. He was on the hook for Detroit’s 3-2 overtime loss.
While Sawchuk and his nervy shoulder were released from hospital on the Saturday, Crozier started the next game, too, which the Black Hawks ended up winning, also by a score of 3-2. Crozier was busy that week: as well as doing his duty for the Red Wings, he was goaling for Pittsburgh in their AHL playoff with the Quebec Aces.
With Detroit down 3-2 in the series, Sawchuk returned to the ice for the final two games of the series, winning both, and sending his team to the Final. He played all seven games against Toronto that April as Detroit fell short.
It was Sawchuk’s last hurrah as a Red Wing: that June, when the team left him unprotected in the NHL draft, he was claimed by the Maple Leafs.