Terry Sawchuk

Daniel Collins

Written by: Daniel Collins


Read Time: 3 minutes

Terry Sawchuk was a professional ice hockey player, regarded as one of the greatest goalies in NHL history. The Canadian played nearly one thousand games throughout his 21-year career and won almost every individual and team award available in the NHL.

Despite Sawchuk’s success in the rink, tragic events in his personal life overshadowed his achievements. Both his older and younger brothers died at a young age, which affected Sawchuk’s mental health in later years. Sawchuk then died prematurely at the age of 40, almost immediately after his retirement.

Career overview

Terry Sawchuk grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, and played ice hockey and rugby from a young age. Detroit Red Wings scout, Bob Kinnear, first noticed Sawchuk’s talent whilst he played youth hockey in Winnipeg. Kinnear was eager to sign both Terry and his older brother Mike, also a promising goaltender. But, in tragic circumstances, Mike Sawchuk died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 17. Mike’s passing impacted Terry greatly and would later lead to personal struggles with depression and alcoholism.

This traumatic event shaped Terry Sawchuk’s hockey career as Kinnear encouraged him to take up the goalie position. Sawchuk inherited his brother’s pads and immediately flourished in his new role.

Sawchuk played for the Red Wings junior team, Windsor of the Ontario Hockey Association, from the age of 14. But, due to his excellent potential, he was fast-tracked to play as a rookie in the United States Hockey League. Sawchuk played for the Omaha Knights in 1947/48 and Indianapolis in the following season. He was extremely successful in the US, winning both the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award and USHL Rookie of the Year between 1947 and 1949.

Sawchuk returned to Detroit for the 1949/50 season and quickly made an impact for the Red Wings. He was instrumental in Detroit’s Stanley Cup success and kept a goal against average of 2.29 per game, despite only playing seven games. His performances impressed coach Jack Adams, who made Sawchuk the first-choice goaltender in the following season.

Sawchuk spent the next five seasons in Detroit and was hugely successful; he had a close affinity with the Red Wings and played 14 of his 21 career seasons here. Sawchuk also played for the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leaves for three seasons, where he achieved further success in NHL. The Canadian also spent a short spell at the Los Angeles Kings and finally retired with the New York Rangers in 1970.

Major achievements; including records, awards, etc.

Sawchuk left behind an exceptional NHL record. To date, no other player has beaten or matched the Canadians two goals-against average, which he set in his first five seasons for Detroit. Overall, Sawchuk played 971 NHL games, won 447 matches, and had 103 shootouts – more than any other goalie in NHL history.

During his first six seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, Sawchuk played a central role in their three Stanley Cup wins between 1951 and 1955. He then lifted the Stanley Cup again 12 years later, but with the Toronto Maple Leaves in the 1966/67 season.

Sawchuk’s unrivaled goaltending ability saw him win many individual accolades throughout his career. In the space of four seasons, between 1951 and 1955, Sawchuk won the Vezina Trophy three times – a testament to his outstanding goaltending performances for the Red Wings. He received the award again in the 1964-65 season whilst playing for the Maple Leaves, but shared the honor with Toronto team-mate, Johnny Bower.

After making just eight appearances in the 1969/70 season with the New York Rangers, Sawchuk retired from professional hockey.

Unfortunately, Sawchuk’s retirement was short-lived. He tragically died weeks later following a fight with former Rangers teammate, Ron Stewart. After falling awkwardly during the scuffle, Sawchuk was taken to hospital and required two operations on his gall bladder and liver. He did not recover and died in hospital on May 30, 1970, aged 40.

Just one year after his death, Sawchuk won the Lester Patrick Trophy for his contributions to ice hockey and, in 2017, the NHL named him as one of the top-100 players to feature in the league. The Detroit Red Wings retired Sawchuk’s number one jersey in 1994 to honor his iconic status for the team.