terry sawchuk: big hands, fast reflexes, an already much-stitched face

Wheelmen: Detroit’s powerful 1959 line-up included (from left) Marcel Pronovost, Terry Sawchuk, Red Kelly, coach Sid Abel, Alex Delvecchio, and Gordie Howe.

“He has big hands, fast reflexes, and an unorthodox, gorillalike crouch — ‘I feel more comfortable down there.’” So chronicled Life magazine’s unnamed writer in a February, 1952 feature profiling Detroit Red Wing goaltender Terry Sawchuk. Winnipeg-born on this date when it was a Saturday in 1929, Sawchuk was a mere 22 in ’52, and just halfway through his second season in the NHL, but already Life was prepared to proclaim him the greatest goalie ever. In 50 games up to that point in the season, he’d accumulated ten shutouts and a miserly average of 1.86 goals a game. He’d play all of the Red Wings’ 70 games that year, and be named to the NHL’s First All-Star while winning the first of his four career Vézina trophies. That same spring, Sawchuk would backstop the Red Wings to the first of the four Stanley Cups he’d get his name on before he died, aged 40, in 1970. Already in ’52, Life was registering the damage he’d sustained doing his duty, noting that it wasn’t so healthy for a man in his position to be guessing where the puck was going and getting it wrong: “Sawchuk has 40 stitches on his face to prove it.”

Sawchuk’s eventful story is the subject of a Canadian biopic due for release in 2019. It’s a narrative (as some early production notes explain) that explores Sawchuk’s youth as well as his 20-year, five-team NHL career — “during which he recorded 103 shutouts and 400 stitches to his face.”

Filmed mostly in Sudbury, Ontario, earlier this year, Goalie (Blue Ice Pictures) stars Mark O’Brien as the man himself. It also features Kevin Pollak in the role of Detroit GM Jack Adams. Adriana Maggs is directing; with her sister Jane Maggs, she also co-wrote the screenplay that draws on both the poems in Night Work (2008) by their father, Randall Maggs, and David Dupuis’ 1998 biography Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World’s Greatest Goalie.

plante kingdom

Out In Front: A Bruin, with intent to backhand, makes his move in front of Jacques Plante’s net. Snapped at the Montreal Forum, this photograph by Hy Peskin has the luminous quality of a painting by Tex Coulter or Tony Harris. It dates, probably, to late 1955. Studying the schedule from that fall, I see that the Bruins were in Montreal towards the end of November. Boston was languishing fifth in the standings at that time, while Montreal cruised at a first-place altitude. When Doug Mohns opened the scoring for the visitors that night, press reports tell that it was with a 20-foot backhander — could this be the moment just before that? Canadiens roared back via Jean Béliveau, who added two goals to his league-leading statistics, and Maurice Richard. Terry Sawchuk was the Boston goaltender who tried to foil them, in vain.

danny lewicki, 1931—2018

Head Leaf honcho Conn Smythe liked the look of the young left winger he was watching at Toronto’s training camp in September of 1949. Eighteen-year-old Danny Lewicki was fast, impossible to hit, a great stickhandler. “He looks to me,” the Leafs’ managing director said, “more like Aurèle Joliat than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Born in what was then Fort William, Lewicki died in Toronto on Monday. He was 87. His NHL career, which spanned nine seasons, included stints with the Leafs, the New York Rangers, and Chicago’s Black Hawks. There’s memorial news of that here and here, though not all of it entirely accurate. The assertion that Lewicki was the last surviving member of the Toronto team that won the 1951 Stanley Cup will be news to 95-year-old Howie Meeker. (Update, September 26: CBC.ca has amended its story to acknowledge Meeker’s survival.)

Working on a training-camp line, in 1949, with another young junior star, George Armstrong, Lewicki had Smythe thinking of some great old Leafs, too. “They’re the best pair I’ve seen together since Charlie Conacher and Harvey Jackson,” he said.

All of which boded well for the here-and-now Leafs, but for one small catch: Lewicki had no interest in playing for the Leafs. He had, it’s true, signed a contract as a 16-year-old indenturing himself to the team, but as he wrote in his 2006 autobiography, From The Coal Docks To The NHL, Lewicki felt he’d been duped. Rather than report to the Toronto’s Junior-A Marlboros as the Leafs wanted, Lewicki preferred to return to the team in Stratford where he’d played previously. “I don’t like Toronto,” he told reporters. “It’s too big.”

Smythe stood fast: Lewicki could either play in Toronto or he could play nowhere at all. He eventually did join the Marlboros in time to help them win the 1950 Allan Cup.

Graduating to the Leafs the following year, he skated on a line with Joe Klukay and centre Max Bentley. Bentley told him that it was the second-best line he ever played on, next to the so-called Pony Line on which Bentley had previously prospered in Chicago alongside brother Doug and Bill Mosienko. Lewicki finished third in the voting that year for the Calder Trophy for best newcomer, behind Detroit’s Terry Sawchuk and teammate Al Rollins. And then there was, too, of that Stanley Cup the Leafs won in the spring of ’51, beating Montreal in five games. Not a bad way to start an NHL career in the city he’d done his best to shun.

No Go: As this (slightly gleeful?) headline from Winnipeg recalls, Lewicki’s dispute with the Leafs was national news in September of 1949.

 

make you a mask, tend your goal, yell at the ref: hockey trainers used to do it all

During his 38-year career with the Detroit Red Wings, Lefty Wilson did all the regular jobs hockey trainers do: stitched the cuts, wrangled the sticks, sharpened the skates. That’s him honing here, in 1959, at Maple Leaf Gardens, working the edges of 17 pairs for 17 Red Wings hitting the ice that night. “I do it before every game we play,” he said then; 45 minutes or so and he’d be all done.

Beyond taking care of everyday hockey chores, Wilson was also known for expanding his job description to include manufacturing masks and abusing referees. And he occasionally stepped in to tend NHL nets on an emergency basis — three times, in fact, wearing the sweaters of three different teams.

Wilson was born in Toronto, under the name Ross, but he was already Lefty by the time he took a job in 1945 as trainer and spare goaltender with the Omaha Knights of the old USHL. Gordie Howe was stopping in Omaha that year, on his way to the NHL, where he’d debut with Detroit the following season. Wilson served a stint with the USHL’s Indianapolis Capitals before following Howe to the Red Wings. He was an assistant trainer at first before eventually succeeding Carl Mattson as the main man. He was still on the job at 62 when, in 1982, a new Detroit GM dismissed him. Jimmy Devellano told him the team was looking for someone with more experience. “A medical-type person,” is what Devellano said he was after. “The Red Wings have not kept pace with the times in the dressing room.”

Wilson’s debut as a big-league goaltender came in Montreal in October of 1953 when he was 33. With Canadiens leading 4-1 in he third period, Red Wings’ starter Terry Sawchuk was cut on the kneecap in an unfortunate encounter with Rocket Richard’s skate. Wilson suited up for the game’s final 16 minutes, permitting no further Montreal goals.

In 1956, Detroit was home to Toronto when Leafs’ goaltender Harry Lumley twisted a knee. Wilson played 13 minutes this time, blanking the team that employed him, who won anyway, also by a score of 4-1.

Wilson’s final turn as an NHL goaltender came in 1957 in Boston when the Bruins’ Don Simmons went down mid-game with a dislocated shoulder. Bruins’ trainer Hammy Moore had played some goal, but it was nine years since he hadn’t had the pads on, so in went Wilson. This was his longest stint in the nets (he played 52 minutes) and, for the first time, he gave up a goal (Jack McIntyre was the scorer).

Wilson’s style reminded Boston broadcaster Fred Cusick of erstwhile Bruins’ goaltender Sugar Jim Henry: “the way he flopped around.” The game ended 2-2. The Bruins were grateful; GM Walter Brown gave him $150 and a wristwatch for his efforts.

Refereeing that night was Red Storey, with whom Wilson had a bit of a history. Back in 1954, during a game at Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto president and all-round roustabout Conn Smythe accused Wilson of insulting Storey from the Red Wing bench. “Storey, you’re yellow,” is what he said he heard, and the NHL’s referee-in-chief, Carl Voss, agreed that he’d heard it too.

“We’re not putting up with exhibitions of that nature,” Smythe fumed. “It calls for a $1,000 fine and I’m going to demand that he gets it.” Smythe also wanted Detroit’s Ted Lindsay sanctioned, for shoving Storey — “at least $50” would do for that, he said.

NHL President Clarence Campbell said he’d investigate and duly did, finding that Wilson had used Storey’s name in a disparaging manner nine times during the game. While Campbell didn’t agree to Smythe’s demand for a fine, Wilson was sort of suspended — “for conduct prejudicial to hockey.” This was the third time, apparently, that he’d reprimanded for yelling at referees, and Campbell said he had to stay away from the Wings’ bench during games for three weeks. (Lindsay went unpunished.)

It was in 1959 that Wilson started making masks, right around the time that Montreal’s Jacques Plante famously donned his face-saver for the first time in an NHL game. He felt that his were stronger than the ones that Plante was making. Wilson’s were cheaper, too: in 1960, when Plante charging $300 for his, Wilson sold his for $25. Most of his clients were Red Wings’ goaltenders, including Sawchuk and Roger Crozier.

 

 

fall fashion

Detroit Red Wings coach Jimmy Skinner (right) gears up in the fall of 1957 with his boss, manager Jack Adams. A son of Selkirk, Manitoba, Skinner succeeded Tommy Ivan on the Wings’ bench in 1954, guiding the team to a second consecutive Stanley Cup championship in the spring of ’55. The summer of 1957 was a tumultuous one in Detroit. In July, Ted Lindsay departed the team, traded to Chicago after 13 seasons and 700 points for the crime of heading up the NHL’s incipient player’s association. Lindsay had said he’d rather retire than leave Detroit, but he’d finally agreed to the trade. At a press conference, Lindsay described “the personal resentment of the Detroit general manager toward me.” Adams denied that there was any feud: he said that shipping out 31-year-old Lindsay, the fourth highest goalscorer in NHL history, and All-Star goaltender Glenn Hall, 25, for four players and cash was all about renewing the Red Wings. With Terry Sawchuk back in the net that year, Detroit did end up in third place in the final NHL standings, though they fell to the unstoppable Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of the playoffs. Skinner was gone by then, having resigned as coach in January on a doctor’s advice about the migraines he couldn’t quell. Sid Abel was the man who replaced him, and he kept the job for the next ten years. His old linemate Ted Lindsay would return to Detroit for a final season in 1964-65 during that time. As for Stanley Cups, Abel’s Wings came close, losing in the Finals four times during his tenure. The team would go without a championship until 1997, with Scotty Bowman in command.

sawchuk’s reward, this night in 1952? a smoke and a stanley cup

On this night in 1952, Terry Sawchuk deterred 26 Montreal shots to see his Detroit Red Wings to a 3-0 win over Canadiens and, thereby, a sweep of the Stanley Cup finals. It was the first of four Cups for Sawchuk, who also collected a Vézina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender. With his fourth shutout in eight playoff games, Sawchuk tied an NHL record that night at Detroit’s Olympia. As time ticked away to end the game, his teammates mobbed the 22-year-old in his crease as the organist played “Auld Lang Syne.” Later, Marshall Dann of the hometown Free Press found him in the dressing room, puffing on a cigarette and posing with the Cup. “This last game was the toughest of the entire series,” Sawchuk said, “and I believe it was my best game. The Canadiens were trying to rough me up in the goalmouth and knock me off my feet every time they skated by.”

(Image: Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / PA-209513)

howe and fontinato, 1959: just like someone chopping wood

Alternate History: A comical telling of the night Gordie Howe punched Lou Fontinato in February of 1959, as re-imagined for a 1992 Howe-inspired graphic biography edition of Sports Legends Comics, drawn by Dick Ayers.

Officials at the game charged with breaking up such fights let this one run its course. Showing instincts toward self-preservation, neither linesman chose to step between the pair of 200-pounders as they flailed freely with their fists.

“I never saw one like it,” says goalie Terry Sawchuk, who had a ringside seat when the action exploded behind his net.

• Marshall Dann, The Detroit Free Press, February 2, 1959

Today in concussion history: it was on this day in 1959 that Gordie Howe put his fist into Lou Fontinato’s face, and hard. “The most famous single punch in NHL history,” Peter Gzowksi called it. If that’s true, the fame might not have been spread so far and so wide if Life magazine hadn’t broadcast the news so graphically across the United States and beyond two weeks later.

It’s certainly a tale much (if not always consistently) told. The Detroit Red Wings were in New York to play the Rangers. With the home team out to a 4-1 win near the end of the first period, Fontinato, 27 at the time, skated over to talk to Howe, 30, at a face-off — “warned him about something or the other,” Marshall Dann reported. When the puck dropped, Howe soon ran into his shadow for the evening, Eddie Shack. Howe cross-checked him or just “whacked” him; descriptions differ. (“Shack got his hair parted … from Howe’s stick,” is yet another view.) They, in the hockey parlance, tussled, but didn’t fight. As Howe wrote in several of his memoirs, his history with Fontinato included the high stick with which he’d cut Fontinato’s ear earlier that season, so he wasn’t surprised when Fontinato dropped his stick and came skating at him from 20 feet away.

Howe saw him coming and ducked Fontinato’s first fist. Gzowski didn’t quite get it right: Howe pluralized his punch. Howe: “I hit him with everything I had as hard and as often as possible.” Dann: he “loaded up and started with a steady stream of right uppercuts. He got Fontinato’s uniform by the left hand and pulled it half off, cutting down Lou’s return punches.”

Howe said he changed hands, and then dislocated a finger. That hurt “like a son of a gun,” according to the account in 2014’s My Story, wherein ghostwriter Paul Haavardsrud streamlined and gently updated an earlier effort at autobiography, and … Howe! (1995). Of regrets, the latter admits none: “Did I feel sorry for him? No. We’d gone at one another for years.” Nineteen years later, the official Howe line was slightly softened: “It didn’t make me happy to see Louie in such bad shape, but I can’t say I feel sorry for him. That might make me sound cold-hearted, but to my way of thinking he was just doing his job and I was doing mine.”

Fontinato didn’t leave any memoirs, but he did talk to reporters in the days after the damaging. He shared his opening statement to Howe with the Associated Press: “ ‘Keep your stick to yourself,’ I tells him.” As for his nose: “It’s been broken four times before and there’s hardly any bone there. It’s very easy to push out of place.”

Fontinato also made his case to Tony Saxon of The Guelph Mercury in 2006. “I know one thing,” he said then. “A lot of people thought I lost that fight, but I didn’t. I probably threw ten punches to his one. Then I look up to see what damage I’ve done because I’ve been hammering away for a couple of minutes. I look up and he gets me with one right on the nose.”

The whole affair got a sustained revival in 2016, when Fontinato’s death followed Howe’s by just three weeks. Mentioned in passing in most of the Howe coverage, it was defining anecdote featured in Fontinato’s obituaries. The New York Times included one of Howe’s more uncharitable lines: “That honker of his was right there, and I drilled it.”

“Gordie Howe performed rhinoplasty on Mr. Fontinato’s prominent proboscis with his knuckles,” Tom Hawthorn epitaphed in The Globe and Mail.

Back in 1959, mostly everybody had a go Fontinato’s nose-job. “The bugle was detoured by Gordie Howe” was one of Milt Dunnell’s efforts; “bombed out of commission” was Jimmy Breslin’s contribution on the news-wire.

It’s worth noting just how audible the written record is. Under the headline “Don’t Mess Around With Gordie,” Life’s write-up had an unnamed Red Wing recalling that “Howe’s punches went whop-whop-whop, just like someone chopping wood.”

Frank Udvari was the referee that night, and he either read that and absorbed it into his own experience or thought kindling at the time, too. “Never in my life have I heard anything like it,” he said in 1979, “except maybe the sound of someone chopping wood. Thwack! And all of a sudden Louie’s breathing out of his cheekbone.”

One of the witnesses that Roy MacSkimming canvassed for his 1994 biography Gordie: A Hockey Legend was Red Wings’ trainer Lefty Wilson, who reported what reached him at the bench: “With every blow, you could hear something break — squish, squish.”

Stan Fischler was watching from the Garden press box that night. He’d later describe Howe’s fists moving “like locomotive pistons,” though the sound they made was decidedly equestrian: “Clop! Clop! Clop!

MacSkimming writes that that the portraits Charles Hoff took for Life juxtaposing Fontinato’s face and Howe’s flex may have shocked “gentle American readers by portraying the vicious side of hockey.” Maybe so, but in Canada and the hockey-knowing northeast United States, it mostly went into the books as just another hockey fight.

A brutal one, to be sure — Detroit coach Sid Abel called it “the fiercest I’ve seen since Jack Stewart battled John Mariucci 15 years ago” — but nothing but nothing so especially out of the run of the league’s ordinary brutality. The headlines were almost cheery, even if the photographs weren’t: “Gordie Convinces Lou With Well-Placed Right” readers in Nanaimo learned a few days after the fact; “Gord Howe’s Fists Too Much For Lou,” advised Toronto’s Daily Star. If Fontinato had been (as the AP put it) the NHL’s reigning “bare-knuckle champion,” it was no longer so, according to much of the coverage. “Howe is champ,” declared the AP. “Another smudge on Lou’s escutcheon,” the Star’s Milt Dunnell wrote, while in The Globe and Mail Jim Coleman warned that “even such peace-loving players” as Alex Delvecchio and Ralph Backstrom would now be emboldened to toss “tentative punches at Fontinato’s sore schnozzle.”

Rangers coach Phil Watson had his own historical benchmark. For him, it was “the best fight I’ve seen since Art Coulter and Dit Clapper tried to cripple each other 20 years ago.” He wasn’t what you’d call entirely pleased, however. “Howe gets away with murder,” he railed after the game. “He cross-checked Shack in the head for three stitches. He’s been doing things like this for years, but the referees won’t give penalties to Howe.”

Watson would have more cause for complaint. Holding steady in playoff contention at the start of February, the Rangers would go 6-13-2 post-clout, ceding the last spot for the post-season to the Toronto Maple Leafs. “We never got over Louie’s pasting,” Watson said. “His nose looked like a subway hit it.” Detroit missed out, too, though it’s unclear if that was any solace.

Back on the night itself, 59 years ago, Udvari sent Howe and Fontinato to the penalty to serve out their five-minute majors. Because, well, hockey, both men returned to the ice to play out what ended as a 5-4 Rangers win. “Although he suffered a broken nose and had several heavy bruises on his face,” Marshall Dann reported, “Fontinato finished the game.”

Only afterwards did he check into St. Clare Hospital. “The doctors had to wait until the hemorrhaging stopped before they could operate,” he’d recall. He stayed for two days. Two days after his release, he went with his teammates to Detroit. With the newspapers touting a “rematch,” Fontinato skated in the warm-up but didn’t play. He was back in action a week after that when the teams played again. Wearing a protective mask, he seems to have steered clear of Howe, and Howe of him.

The two men did meet again, in a civilian setting, in April of ’59, when their teams were watching the rest of the NHL partake in the playoffs. Scott Young was there to see Howe offer his hand to Fontinato for shaking. “When Fontinato saw who it was,” Young reported, “he grinned and pulled his own hand back and said, ‘It wasn’t like this the last time!’ and then shook hands with the man who had broken his nose in New York.”