The troubled genius of Terry Sawchuk

During his Hall of Fame career, Terry Sawchuk was the most heralded goalie in the National Hockey League.

For storied performers like Terry Sawchuk, careers are not defined by numbers or awards as much as by moments. One in particular stands out in the mind of Gary Bergman, who joined the Detroit Red Wings in 1964.

“At the end of the season we were playing a big Saturday night game against Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens,” Bergman recalled. As the rookie defenseman sat nervously waiting for the game to begin, he overheard a pair of veterans discussing their chances facing off against a powerful foe inside a hostile arena.

“Ukey, how do you feel?” Gordie Howe asked his goalie.

“Big Guy, get me a couple tonight,” responded Sawchuk. “I think that’s all we’re going to need.”

The two men who personified the Red Wings for much of the 1950s and ‘60s then proceeded to act out the script they had just written. Howe scored two goals, Sawchuk allowed one, and the Wings prevailed, 2-1. “That just shows what The Uke could do when he set his mind to it,” Bergman said. “I still get goose bumps when I think about it.”

Thinking of Terry Sawchuk—known to his friends and teammates as “The Uke” or “Ukey” because of his Ukrainian ancestry—produced a good share of goose bumps on March 6, 1994. That Sunday afternoon, in ceremonies preceding Detroit’s game with Buffalo, the man many consider the greatest goaltender in history had his jersey retired. A banner bearing his famous No. 1 was hoisted to the rafters of Joe Louis Arena, where today it hangs alongside those of five other Detroit greats: Howe (No. 9), Ted Lindsay (7), Alec Delvecchio (10), Sid Abel (12), and Steve Yzerman (19).

The Hall-of-Fame netminder, who died under cloudy circumstances in 1970, wasn’t around for the ceremonies, which is just as well since The Uke never cared much for the limelight. But a passel of family members and former teammates attended. There was little talk among them about such familiar media guide highlights as his four shutouts in the ’52 Stanley Cup playoffs, his three 1-0 victories in a single week in 1954, and the stash of NHL records he held—21 seasons, 971 games, 103 shutouts—at the time of his death. Instead, conversation revolved around The Uke’s complicated personality, a tapestry woven of talent and courage crosshatched with more than a few strands of moodiness and obstinance. “It’s almost a cliché to say that goaltenders are different,” said Jack Berry, longtime beat writer for United Press International and the Detroit Free Press and News. “But Sawchuk was. The Uke was tough. He went his own way. He was not really a happy guy most of the time. But you can chalk that up to the conditions under which he played. They really were iron men back then.”

The Uke’s iron constitution often was betrayed by a cardboard body. As fabled as his career was, it would have been even greater had he not been beset by a nearly continuous string of ailments and injuries. “Dad was a medical freak,” said his son, Jerry. “He had more operations than I can remember. Doctors could never figure out how he walked, much less played. He had a bad back from goaltending, so he walked hunched over all the time.” A shriveled right arm, the result of a childhood injury that didn’t mend properly, handicapped him to the end of his days. “He couldn’t knot his tie. Mom had to knot all of his ties for him when he went on road trips.”

Compounding the physical trauma was the psychological angst all goalies of the era battled. The war of nerves is bad today, but the pressure to perform was considerably worse in Sawchuk’s time. Netminders were expected to play every minute of every game, come hell or high water. In the 1950s that meant 70 regular-season games plus as many as 14 more games in the playoffs, all squeezed into a seven-month campaign that ran from October to April. “In those days clubs only carried one goalie,” said longtime broadcaster Budd Lynch. “If he got cut, the team had 10 minutes to get him sewn up and back on the ice. If he was hurt too bad to continue, usually the trainer would put on the pads and finish the game.”

“If you weren’t up to it,” said Jerry Sawchuk, “there were all sorts of guys in the minor leagues waiting for a shot. You always had to be looking over your shoulder for someone to replace you. Remember, there were only six goalies in the entire league when my dad played. It tells you something about the quality of the goalies then that the only way Lefty Wilson, who was a pretty good goalie in the American Hockey League, could make it to the NHL was by becoming the Wings’ trainer.”

But Sawchuk not only persevered, he excelled. He won or shared four Vezina Trophies as the league’s stingiest goalie (1952, 1953, 1955, 1965) and was a member of four Stanley Cup championship teams (1952, 1954, 1955, 1967). He was a first-team All-Star selection three consecutive seasons (1951-53) and a second-team pick four other times between 1954 and 1963. He remains the only goalie to be named Rookie of the Year in three different leagues.

“He could be a tough guy to get to know,” admitted Lynch. “But he was number one back in the era when the Wings were kings.”

Terrance Gordon Sawchuk was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on December 28, 1929. His father had fled the impoverished Ukraine as a child and eked out a living as a tinsmith in a factory. Louis Sawchuk is remembered today as “a tough old goat” who once settled an argument with a former Canadian boxing champion by knocking him out with a single punch.

The Sawchuk home reflected the same kind of frontier hardiness. It was cramped and unimposing, its drafty rooms heavy with the clinging smells of cabbage rolls and woodsmoke. As much to generate heat as to conserve space, Terry shared a bed with his older brother, Mike.

By the time Terry was four years old, he was pushing a puck across his own little corner of western Canada. This was classic river hockey: newspapers stuffed into trousers, a frozen horse apple for a puck, the low-slung winter sun melting like a ball of butter into the horizon. Mike, a high school goalie, enjoyed giving his kid brother some pointers. “You have to have good balance and keep your eyes on the puck,” he’d instruct. Terry would nod, trying to keep his balance in the mattress-like pads.

If Terry ever had an idol, it was his older brother. Relatives describe Mike as “the nicest kid” and “a big, strong guy”—which made his death when Terry was 10 a real tragedy. Today a heart murmur can be fixed as routinely as a flat tire; in 1939 Manitoba, the condition was fatal.

A second brother, Roger, also died young, succumbing to pneumonia. Whether his brothers’ early passing turned Terry introspective or merely reinforced an already fatalistic view of the world can only be guessed at. Surely Mike’s death affected him. “He’d talk about Mike,” a family member said. “He’d say how much he missed him.”

Terry moved through the local amateur ranks—Pee Wees, Bantams, Midgets—wearing Mike’s pads. When he wasn’t playing hockey during the long Canadian winters he was hitting a baseball or kicking a football. The latter was responsible for a bizarre accident that crippled his right arm when he was 12.

“Dad was on his way to church one Sunday when he ran across some boys playing rugby,” said Jerry Sawchuk. “They were teasing him, so he decided to join in.”

Terry emerged from a pileup with a throbbing pain in his right elbow. Too scared to tell his parents, he kept the pain to himself. Two years later, doctors discovered he had broken his arm. It had mended horribly, to the extent that it was two inches shorter than the left and had the range of motion of a rusty gate.

The goal for many Depression-era kids was simply to reach 14. That was the magic number, the age when one could chuck the schoolbooks, acquire working papers, and start contributing to the family welfare. Terry dropped out of school and found work in a sheet-metal plant. His mother gave him an allowance out of what he brought home.

He continued to play hockey in his free time. Soon he caught the eye of the Detroit organization. The Red Wings placed him on a Junior team, the Winnipeg Flyers, then promoted him to its Junior “A” team in Galt, Ontario. This meant moving away from home. The Wings agreed to pay Terry $80 a month, which didn’t go far even in 1946. Upon leaving, his mother pressed a $10 bill into his hand. “It was one of the few $10 bills she ever had,” he later remembered.

The following year the promising goalie was sent to an even stronger Junior team, the Windsor Spitfires, where he could develop under the watchful eye of Wings general manager and coach Jack Adams. In November 1947, Adams sent his budding star to Omaha of the U. S. Hockey League. Despite suffering a badly cut right eyeball during a game on his 18th birthday, the acrobatic youngster turned the league on its ear. He won Rookie-of-the-Year accolades, an honor repeated the next season when he played for the Wings’ top farm club, Indianapolis of the American Hockey League.

In early 1950, Sawchuk was enjoying a second productive AHL campaign when he was called up to Detroit to replace injured star goalie, Harry Lumley. His first NHL start was on January 8, 1950, against Boston. He managed to overcome a severe case of the jitters and played a steady game, but bad luck was with him. His defensemen kicked two pucks past him into the net and the Bruins won, 4-3. He played six more games as a fill-in, surrendering an average of just two goals a game and posting his first NHL shutout. He was sent back to Indianapolis as the Wings, behind the recuperated Lumley, won their first Stanley Cup in nearly a decade.

In the wake of the Cop win, Adams had a decision to make. With a core group of young stars in place—future Hall of Famers like Howe, Lindsay, Delvecchio, and defensemen Marcel Pronovost and Red Kelly—the Wings had the makings of a dynasty. But who should mind the net for the next several years—the veteran Lumley or the kid in Indianapolis? In a terrific gamble, Adams sent Lumley to Chicago and promoted Terry.

Affable and eager to confirm Adams’ faith in him, Sawchuk became the talk of the hockey world in the early 1950s. “In action, he was the most acrobatic goaltender of his time,” observed Toronto sportswriter Trent Frayne. “He didn’t move so much as he exploded into a desperate release of energy—down the glove, up the arm, over the stick, up the leg pad; he sometimes seemed a human pinwheel. He played the whole game in pent-up tension, shouting at his teammates, crouching, straightening, diving, scrambling, his pale face drawn and tense….”

Adams initially frowned on Sawchuk’s unique gorilla-like crouch, which allowed him to follow the puck amid a forest of sticks and skates. But when other goalies started to abandon their traditional upright style and adopt similar stances, the Wings’ boss quit complaining.

With the “Production Line” of Howe, Lindsay, and Abel taking care of business on the far end of the rink and The Uke stopping nearly everything shot his way, the Red Wings racked up back-to-back hundred-point seasons in Sawchuk’s first two years at Olympia Stadium, the first times any team had passed the century mark. Sawchuk missed winning the Vezina his freshman season of 1950-51 by a single goal, but with 11 shutouts and a 1.98 goals-against average he was the easy choice for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie.

The following season he earned his first Vezina, blanking 12 opponents and posting a sparkling 1.94 average. In fact, in each of his first five NHL seasons Terry’s goals-against average stayed below two goals a game. He also turned in a shutout about every six games during this period. His 44 wins in each of his first two campaigns remained a record until Bernie Parent, benefiting from an expanded schedule, recorded 47 victories for Philadelphia in 1973-74.

Although Detroit was upset in the 1951 semifinals, in 1952 the Wings did something no team had ever done before. They swept through the playoffs with eight consecutive wins over Toronto and Montreal. Four of them were shutouts by The Uke, who allowed but five goals overall for a miserly 0.62 average. He was all smiles as the Stanley Cup was presented to the Wings. “Life can be beautiful,” he said.

It got even better. That summer he met Patricia Morey, a vivacious 17-year-old who was getting ready to start her senior year of high school. Pat was the adopted daughter of Ed Morey, the well-known proprietor of Morey’s Golf Course in Union Lake. Like Terry, she understood hard times. Her mother had died in childbirth and her father had gone to sea. Pat and her siblings were scattered among various families. She was 11 years old and staying at the Guardian Angels Home in Detroit when the Moreys adopted her.

“My nephew Art played matchmaker,” recalled Pat Milford, now remarried and living in Florida. “He brought Terry out to golf. We talked for three hours that first day.”

The 22-year-old star had just completed one of the greatest goaltending feats in Stanley Cup history, but Pat “knew nothing, absolutely nothing about hockey,” she admitted. “I didn’t know who Terry Sawchuk was and I didn’t care. I was more for going out and having fun with my friends.” The two didn’t date for some time following their initial meeting. What finally won Pat over was her suitor’s persistence. “I’d come home from being out with my friends and Dad would say, ‘That Terry Sawchuk called again,’” she recalled with a laugh.

On their first date they went to the Fox Theatre, where they put on 3-D glasses to see Vincent Price in The House of Wax. Not long afterward Terry proposed. Since the Moreys were a very old-fashioned family, he first had to ask Ed Morey for permission to marry his daughter. Then he dropped to his knee to ask Patricia to marry him.

The wonder is not that Pat accepted—she said yes and they were married August 5, 1953—but that The Uke could get back up from bended knee. Already he was suffering from an assortment of ailments. His back ached, the beginning of a lifetime of pain caused by his crouching style. In 1950 and 1951 he underwent operations to remove bone chips from his crippled elbow. In 1953 his appendix burst, and he later suffered severe chest injuries in a car accident.

Sawchuk was a fairly big man for his time: a shade under six feet tall and about 190 pounds, though his weight often fluctuated dramatically. In terms of dieting and training this was a decidedly less enlightened era. He smoked cigarettes, enjoyed his beer, and barely swatted at pucks during practice. “His philosophy was that he was paid to play games, not practice,” explained his first-born child, Jerry.

Jerry Sawchuk was born in 1954. He was followed by two brothers (Michael and Terry) and four sisters (Debbie, Carol, Kathy, and JoAnn). The family grew up on a ranch-style house built on Ed Morey’s golf course. During the offseason The Uke often worked for his father-in-law. Budd Lynch likes to tell of the time the two bullheaded men got into an argument.

“So Ukey took a job tending bar at his [Morey’s] competitor,” Lynch said. “Some of Uke’s pals, like Marcel Pronovost, would show up at Morey’s looking for him. Morey would just wave and tell ‘em, ‘He’s working across the street.’ He worked there all summer until training camp began.”

Lynch laughed. “A little bit obstinate? I guess you could say so.”

With his Velcro-strip haircut and hard-lined face, The Uke had the look of a Marine drill instructor and the temperament to go with it. As the years passed and the pressures of his job and providing for a growing family mounted, his early affability gave way to increased irritability. He quarreled with fans, referees, writers, and anyone else who didn’t see eye-to-eye with him. At times he shot off sparks like a downed power line. For a goalie he accumulated an unusually high number of penalty minutes.

Such intensity played havoc with his already over-wrought nerves. After one game, a sportswriter offered, “You never had a chance on the two shots that beat you, Terry.”

“You’re all wrong,” he snapped back. “I have a chance on every shot taken on my goal.”

A teammate tried to explain The Uke’s mood swings. “Nothing less than perfection satisfies Terry. He takes personal blame for every puck that slips by him.”

As Sawchuk’s performance in the 1953-54 and 1954-55 seasons proved, not too many did slip by him. Including the regular season and playoffs, he notched a collective 27 shutouts those two years and backstopped the Wings to two more Stanley Cups. By the spring of 1955 the hockey world was ready to canonize him.

But as somebody once said, drop a halo a foot and you have a noose. Jack Adams, convinced that nerves were getting the best of his all-world goalie, shocked everybody by including him in a nine-player trade with Boston. He announced that the club would go with Glenn Hall, a talented goalie sitting in the wings. Sawchuk and his family were flabbergasted. The Uke kept asking himself, “Am I washed up?”

The answer clearly was no. He had nine shutouts his first season with the lowly Bruins, but by his second year he hated the environment. He stayed in a boardinghouse while his family remained in Detroit. The isolation and capricious treatment from fans and writers caused him to become rude and uncooperative. He was booed, torn to pieces in the press, then expected to lead the Bruins to the promised land. The Uke brushed off autograph requests, bickered with the press, and said more than a few things that stoked the ongoing feud. “I get so wound up,” he explained, “I don’t even know what I’m saying.”

By early 1957 Sawchuk had had enough of Beantown. He announced his retirement. Although he had just turned 27, he felt like an old man. “My nerves are shot,” he said. “I can’t eat or sleep. I’m getting out of the game.”

Fans and sportswriters jeered his decision and questioned his fortitude, but a medical exam revealed that the worn-out goalie with the swollen neck glands was suffering from mononucleosis. After a hospital stay and convalescence back home, he felt like a new person. Jack Adams, disappointed with Glenn Hall’s performance in the 1957 playoffs, wanted him back. He sent Hall to Chicago and then swapped promising forward Johnny Bucyk to Boston for the rights to The Uke.

No. 1 was back with the Wings, though it wasn’t exactly like old times. The club was competitive, and he once again enjoyed playing one-on-ones for $100 a pop at practice, but the glory days of the early 1950s were impossible to recapture. Montreal, in the midst of winning five straight Cups, was the power in the league now, to be followed by Toronto in the early 1960s. Over the next seven seasons Sawchuk would help lead the Red Wings to the Cup finals three times. Each time they lost, though The Uke often played brilliantly, sometimes heroically.

Few knew the toll jitters were taking on him and his family, however. “The day of the game, Dad would lock himself in his bedroom, maybe make one or two appearances in the kitchen,” said Jerry Sawchuk. “But he didn’t want to be bothered. We knew not to approach him.”

Behind closed doors, The Uke tried to rest and mentally prepare for the game at hand. As he got older he increasingly fretted and brooded, images of booming slap shots and deflected pucks flickering like a horror film behind his closed lids. During his career Sawchuk took some 400 stitches in his face. That didn’t include the occasional black eye, broken nose, cracked rib, cut hand, chipped tooth, or shattered cheekbone. A national magazine once hired a make-up artist to reconstruct the many facial injuries The Uke had suffered. The resulting gargoyle-like look shocked readers.

Imagine a mule kicking you in the face. Now you have some idea of the impact a frozen piece of rubber flying unpredictably through the air has when it crashes into a barefaced goalie at 90 or more miles per hour. The nervous tension caused some netminders to get physically ill or turn to the bottle for relief. Glenn Hall, for one, was famous for throwing up before each game. Others, invariably nicknamed “Ulcers” or “Shaky,” downed Pepto-Bismol between periods and vowed to quit the game before they left one on a gurney.

By the early 1960s, artillerymen such as Bernie Geoffrion (known as “Boom-Boom” for his booming slapshots) and Bobby Hull had popularized the use of curved blades, which sent pucks whistling toward the net on nearly invisible trajectories. Deflections in front of the net, once an inadvertent and occasional hazard, now were an integral part of the offensive strategy. The trend toward rushing defensemen also left goalies vulnerable to more shots, increasing the chances for calamity.

“I remember a matinee game in Chicago, when Bobby Hull hit him in the face with a slap shot,” said Budd Lynch. “It carved The Uke up pretty good. Afterward on the train, Adams told him, ‘You’re gonna wear a mask.’ Uke said, ‘I hate ‘em.’”

Nonethless, Sawchuk started the 1962-63 season sporting a mask fashioned by trainer Lefty Wilson. Like the one Montreal’s Jacque Plante had introduced to the league three years earlier, it was made of molded fiberglass and fit close to the face. The fit was too close, said Jerry Sawchuk. “The mask had these squares and circles for eye and nose openings. The only thing absorbing the shock was this thin layer of felt, which would disappear once it got sweaty. So when a shot hit my dad in the mask, it would actually cut a square or circle in his face.”

Despite its primitive design and dubious protection, the mask boosted Sawchuk’s confidence. With the Phantom of Olympia between the pipes, Detroit roared to its best start ever, going undefeated in its first 10 games. Sawchuk allowed but 13 goals during this streak.

Then, on January 12, 1963, the snake-bit goaltender suffered yet another serious injury when Toronto’s Bob Pulford skated over his left hand. A two-hour operation repaired the lacerated fingers and muscles. “The doctor didn’t remember how many stitches he took,” the patient said, “but I counted 79.” The Uke missed 17 games, but he returned to ring up a sterling 2.58 average for the year, his best since coming back to Detroit. He steered the Wings to the Cup finals, where they fell to Toronto in five games.

The following season, in the 1964 semifinals against Chicago, he left the hospital where he was being treated for a pinched nerve in his shoulder to rally the Wings to sixth- and seventh-game wins. For the second straight April, the Wings’ silver dreams died in the finals against Toronto. The series went the distance, but the history books best remember the sixth game, when the Leafs’ Bobby Baun—playing on a broken ankle—fired a shot in overtime that deflected off a Detroit defenseman and past the startled Uke. It was one of the most disheartening losses of Sawchuk’s career.

The 1963-64 season was notable in another respect. It marked the very last time an NHL goalie (Boston’s Eddie Johnston) played every minute of every game. The two-goalie system, brought on by injuries, mental exhaustion, and a changing style of play, was now the norm. Sawchuk shared duties that season with Roger Crozier, a 20-year-old rookie whose hyperkinetic style reminded some of the young Terry Sawchuk.

Looking to protect their prized prospect, the Wings exposed the old Terry Sawchuk to the draft, assuming that nobody would want him because of his age. They were wrong. Toronto claimed The Uke.

On the Maple Leafs, Sawchuk shared the job with another old warhorse, veteran Johnny Bower. Together they allowed the fewest goals in the league in 1964-65. However, they refused to accept the Vezina Trophy unless both of their names were inscribed upon it. More important, at least as far as Sawchuk was concerned, was that both goalies received the cash award that accompanied the prize.

The Uke’s moodiness had long been an integral part of his persona. His best friend, Marcel Pronovost, played with him in Detroit and Toronto. “You had to understand him,” Pronovost said. “I roomed with Ukey for years. When we got up in the morning I would say hello. If he answered, we’d talk the rest of the day. If he didn’t answer, I just kept quiet.”

The Uke continued to go his own way, unaffected by how outsiders viewed him. He liked to drink, gamble, and chase women, and didn’t give a damn who knew it. He had no patience for those who were not part of his troubled inner world. “My father was Terry’s age and grew up in Winnipeg,” recounted Dan Diamond, a publishing consultant in Toronto. “Once, in 1961, when I was seven years old, the Leafs and Wings were playing an exhibition in Winnipeg and he took me to the game. We went down to the locker room to catch a glimpse of the players. There probably were about 30 people milling around. All of a sudden the door bursts open and the first one out is Sawchuk. He pushes me in the chest and I hear the first words I ever heard an NHLer utter. ‘Where’s the broads?’ he roars. And then he just blew past all of us.”

Diamond’s experience was far from an isolated one. Reporter Jack Berry remembered covering the Wings after a playoff loss in Toronto. “These parents sent their son up to Terry after the game. Sawchuk wasn’t interested. He told the kid, ‘Fuck off, you little bastard.’”

“Some summers my dad sold cars,” said Jerry Sawchuk. “Needless to say, he didn’t have the temperament for it.”

The Uke played three years with the Leafs. His last season in Toronto, 1966-67, may have been his finest as a pro. Certainly it ranked as one of his most satisfying. In addition to recording his 100th regular-season shutout, he was brilliant in the playoffs. Despite suffering from an injured shoulder, he relieved Bower in the fourth game of the semifinals against Chicago. He stopped all 37 shots sent his way, including a slap shot from Bobby Hull that ripped like a bullet into his sore shoulder and floored him.

“Are you all right?” Toronto’s trainer anxiously asked.

The 37-year-old goalie glared back at him. “I stopped the puck, didn’t I?” he snapped.

The Leafs, who had been criticized as being too old and too slow, beat Chicago, then went on to topple Montreal to become the last Stanley Cup champions of the “Original Six” (pre-expansion) era. In the Cup clincher, Sawchuk had 41 saves in a suffocating win that wasn’t decided until the final minute. Afterward, the Leafs’ locker room was alive with jubilant players and club personnel slapping each other on the back and guzzling champagne. Throughout the celebration, observed one reporter, the two battered goalies, Sawchuk and Bower, “sat in a corner by themselves, dragging deeply on cigarettes and grappling silently with the frayed nerves and many physical ailments that are an inescapable part of life for aging men.”

After the crowd had thinned out, Sawchuk finally lifted his aching body off the bench. On the way to the shower he paused to tell a reporter, “That’s the way I’d like to go out. In style.”

It wasn’t to be. Although Sawchuk was past his prime and would have loved to retire, he felt trapped. He had a wife and seven children to provide for and no other marketable skills. “I remember we were so scared one year when he had a back operation,” said Pat Milford. “What would he do? What could he do? All he had was hockey.”

The Leafs exposed their Cup-winning goalie to the expansion draft, as the Original Six doubled in size to 12 teams for the 1967-68 season. The Los Angeles Kings paid Sawchuk $40,000 to tend goal, which was 40,000 good reasons to keep tugging on the pads. The Kings finished second, thanks in part to his 3.07 average in 36 games.

After the season he was traded to Detroit for Jimmy Peters, Jr., a rangy center whose father had played with Sawchuk 20 years earlier. Now in his third tour of duty with the Red Wings, he compiled a commendable 2.62 average in 13 games as a back-up to Roy Edwards and Roger Crozier.

The pressures of Sawchuk’s chosen profession put a strain on his marriage. He and Pat were divorced in 1969, the year he was traded to the New York Rangers. This was a final, lost season, in more ways than one. Now 40 years old, he played only sparingly in New York, though in eight games he did manage to post one more shutout. Counting playoffs, it was the 115th of his career, a staggering number.

He shared a rented house on Long Island with Ron Stewart. Like Sawchuk, Stewart was divorced and considered a loner. On the evening of April 29, 1970, the two teammates argued outdoors over who was going to clean the place before both left for the summer. It was a silly argument, one fueled by several hours of drinking inside a local bar. A shoving match ensued, during which Sawchuk supposedly stumbled over an overturned barbecue grill and fell awkwardly onto Stewart’s knee.

The Uke suffered internal injuries—some of which, his oldest son suggests, may have been undetected from previous accidents. His injured gall bladder was removed in an operation the following day. His condition turned critical, however, and he underwent a second operation to remove blood from his liver. On May 31, 1970, he died unexpectedly of a blood clot inside a Manhattan hospital. There was considerable speculation that there was more to the story. But after a grand jury investigation, the local attorney general’s office finally decided not to file any criminal charges.

“He fell on me,” maintained the remorseful Stewart. “But through his career, Terry took much worse falls on the ice and he always bounced back. It doesn’t make sense. It’s all like a bad dream when I look back now.” Whatever happened, the entire episode was tragic and senseless, one that seemed of a piece with all the other grief and hard luck the moody and depressive goaltended had suffered during his life.

Sawchuk was buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Pontiac. The Hockey Hall of Fame waived its usual five-year wait for candidates and inducted him the following year. His exhibit, filled with pads, masks, and other memorabilia of his hard and dangerous craft, immediately became one of the museum’s most popular.

The Uke was not a sentimental man and he didn’t care to be fussed over, so it’s hard to say what he would have made of all the commotion surrounding the retirement of his jersey. It’s mawkish but harmless to imagine that maybe in some frozen far-off stretch of the hereafter, he and his brother Mike took a break from a game of river hockey and smiled down on the proceedings. What is certain is that the moment the red-and-white banner bearing The Uke’s single digit was hoisted at The Joe, it made official what many hockey people had thought all along. For all of his demons, Terry Sawchuk was, and always will be, number one.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.