Prior to the era of Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy, Terry Sawchuk held many of the major goaltending records in NHL history. Breaking into the league thanks to an injury to Harry Lumley in 1950, Sawchuk played 7 games in the 1949-50 season and performed remarkably well for a young 20-year old goalie. General Manager Jack Adams was so confident in Sawchuk, that he traded away Lumley that summer to go with Sawchuk as the starting goaltender for the Wings. Sawchuk would make sure that Adams was proven right.
Sawchuk played in every single game for the Red Wings in the 1950-51 season, leading the NHL with 44 wins and 11 shutouts. Unsurprisingly, he took home the Calder trophy as the league’s top rookie. He had a similar year in 1951-52 and took home the Vezina, this time also leading the league in GAA with 1.90. Sawchuk led the NHL in GAA again the following year with another 1.90 and also led in wins. For the two years after that, Sawchuk led the NHL in wins, with the latter year, 1954-55, being a year he led in shutouts as well. Sawchuk transitioned to a significantly worse Boston team in 1955 and struggled more than usual. Despite a better start to the 1956-57 season, Sawchuk decided to retire at the remarkably young age of 27 midway through the year.
Deciding he wasn’t actually ready to quit on hockey just yet, Sawchuk returned to the Red Wings in the 1957-58 season, but no longer were the Red Wings the king of the hill. The Montreal Canadiens had taken over the coop and Sawchuk struggled to keep up with the other netminders like Gump Worsley and Jacques Plante. Sawchuk struggled again in the 1958-59 season, but was acknowledged his efforts on a struggling team by finishing 4th in Hart voting and being named to the Second All-Star Team. In 1959-60, Sawchuk’s numbers saw a slight revival with a save percentage that placed him 4th of the 7 main NHL goalies.
Unfortunately, Sawchuk struggled again for the next two seasons as he entered his 30s and had to face the likes of several new stars in Bobby Hull and Frank Mahovlich. Still, Sawchuk’s longevity was being noticed. Just two years after all-time wins leader Harry Lumley retired, Sawchuk surpassed him in 1962. In 1962-63, Sawchuk, now 33 years old, saw another small bump in his numbers. This carried forward to another decent 1963-64 season, though it was clear that Sawchuk wasn’t quite the player of his dominant early years. He was left exposed in the intra-league draft and pick up by the Maple Leafs.
The Maple Leafs, who were in their best years, split the season’s games evenly between Sawchuk and regular starter, Johnny Bower. The aging duo led the Maple Leafs with surprisingly strong numbers and won the Vezina together, but weren’t able to win Toronto a fourth straight Cup. Bower outplayed Sawchuk significantly in the 1965-66 season, so Sawchuk’s game time began to dwindle. In 1966-67, the Leafs rotated three goaltenders, introducing Bruce Gamble into the rotation, with all three netminders playing between 23 and 28 games. Despite brilliant play by Bower, the team seemed to play better in front of Sawchuk, giving him more wins than either of his goaltending teammates. Contrary to previous years, the Leafs decided to go with Sawchuk as their starter for the 1967 playoffs, and the decision paid off. The Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1967, the final year of the Original Six era.
Sawchuk was picked up by the Los Angeles Kings in the 1967 Expansion draft and struggled as the 1B goaltender on the team. Sawchuk was picked by his old team, the Red Wings, for the 1968-69 season, and despite being used as the third goaltender and only playing in 13 games, performed quite well. Sawchuk again moved for the 1969-70 season, this time to the New York Rangers. At 40 years old, his age was showing and he was used only sparingly, but did play in three playoff games for the Rangers. After being eliminated, Sawchuk tragically died from internal injuries acquired while fooling around at a party at his house. The waiting period for the Hockey Hall of Fame was waived and Sawchuk was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1970.
Sawchuk would retire as the all-time games, wins, and shutout leader and would hold all three titles for a very long time before being passed. Patrick Roy passed his 447 wins in 2000 and later pass his game total of 971 in 2002. Fans would have to wait until the 2009-10 season before his 103 shutouts were finally surpassed by Martin Brodeur. Rarely have goaltenders played careers as long as Sawchuk’s, and his numbers speak for themselves.