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.

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)

toronto cost me eight stitches  

brimsek

Frank Brimsek played ten seasons in the NHL and from the first he was one of the league’s best goaltenders, winning the Calder Trophy as outstanding rookie in 1939. Defending the Boston net, he won a Vézina Trophy that year while helping the Bruins to win the Stanley Cup. They added another in 1941, and the man they called Mr. Zero won a second Vézina in 1942. The year after that Brimsek went to war, serving the U.S. Coast Guard both on ice and at sea. He returned to the Bruins after the war and while he said himself that he wasn’t as sharp as he’d once been, he played another five seasons, the last one with the Chicago Black Hawks, before retiring in 1950. In 1966, he was the first American-born goaltender to be elevated to the Hall of Hockey Fame. He was one of the original inductees to the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in his hometown of Eveleth, Minnesota. He died in 1998.

In February of 1947, in a profile published in The Milwaukee Journal, Brimsek talked to sometime hockey novelist Philip Harkins about frantic fans, disputes with referees, and his preferred pre-game meal (steak and baked potato). And stitches:

Brimsek stops the puck with a variety of objects: his $60 leather leg pads, his $30 custom-made leather gauntlets; his $35 goalie skates or his less extravagant chest protector and goalie stick. All this equipment helps, but Brimsek is shot at with such nerve-racking speed and unpredictability that he is sometimes forced to stop the puck with his rugged, handsome face which is beginning to look as if he had dueled his way through the University of Heidelberg.

He associates these scars with shots fired in various cities of the U.S. and Canada: “This one over the eyelid? A deflected shot in Chicago — four stitches. This one over the lip? Toronto — four stitches. Matter of fact,” he smiles, “two recent games with Toronto cost me a total of eight stitches, a kind of record.”

The stitches were taken without the balm of anesthesia, for an injured is only allowed 10 minutes to be sewed back into one piece. Brimsek reports clinically that the numbing effect of these collisions at 90 miles an hour deadened the pain of all the operations except in the case of the sensitive lip.

Brimsek sorts shots into several harassing categories. A shot that struck his throat in New York and rendered him speechless for days was a “floater” — produced with the puck standing on edge. This take-off makes for a weird, weaving shot that even Brimsek’s 20-20 eyes find hard to follow. “Screen shots” are also hard to stop. The opposing team sends in one man to block Brimsek’s vision. This pest waits for the shot, then tries to deflect it into the cage with his stick or body. Brimsek likes to see his two defensemen flatten these human screens with jarring bodychecks.

Low, fast shots at the corner of the cage have to be handled by a quick thrust of Brimsek’s padded legs. An opponent who has succeeded in eluding all five of Brimsek’s teammates puts the goalie on a terrible spot and a dramatic split-second duel ensues between Brimsek and the onrushing opponent. Brimsek figures that he can win three out of five of these duels by outguessing the attacker and smothering his shot with “a split,” a quick graceful motion which leaves Brimsek with one padded knee resting on the ice in a prayerful attitude.

But if a goal is scored, the red light flashes atop the high wire screen placed behind the cage. This light is operated by an arch enemy of Brimsek’s called a goal judge. So far this season, Brimsek claims that goal judges suffering from optical illusions have twice flashed the light for pucks that were blocked with skill and daring.

hot spot on ice

(Top photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)