Indianapolis Capitals 1948-50
NHL career: Detroit Red Wings 1949-55, Boston Bruins 1955-57, Detroit Red Wings 1957-64, Toronto Maple Leafs 1964-67, Los Angeles Kings 1967-68, Detroit Red Wings 1968-69, New York Rangers 1969-70.
Terry Sawchuk was a different breed. As a goaltender in the days before masks, he crouched so low, he put his face in the line of fire on nearly every shot. He personified playing through pain – something he did almost nightly throughout his hockey career – starting with an injury suffered in his first season as a Capital. He left his mark everywhere he went, quickly becoming the greatest goaltender of his era – possibly the best in the history of professional hockey, setting records that would stand for decades.
His impact would be felt in his two years as a Capital – in which he locked horns with some of goaltending’s greats, and often came out ahead. In his two years in Indy, Sawchuk won the AHL’s Red Garrett Memorial Award as the league’s top rookie, and then followed it up with a first-team All-Star selection in 1950. He then led a Capital sweep through the Calder Cup Playoffs, bringing the city its second hockey championship.
He is one of the few players whose accomplishments would land him nomination as both a Hockey Legend and an Indy Legend in the Indianapolis Hockey Hall of Fame.
Born in Winnipeg in 1929, Sawchuk quickly found himself moving up the hockey ladder. A mere 16-year-old, he played a season with the Red Wings’ junior team in Galt, Ont. A year later, Sawchuk found himself in Omaha, playing with the Wings’ USHL team. Big shoes lied ahead, as future Hall of Famer Harry Lumley tended the Detroit nets.
After a stellar season in Omaha, Sawchuk was promoted to Indianapolis in 1948, as Red Almas was peddled to St. Louis to make room for the promising 18-year-old. He came with strong credentials, but his size quickly impressed local observers.
”Sawchuk, a sensation in the USHL last year with Omaha, is a big boy. He stands six feet and weighs 198 pounds, so he’ll give the opponents not much net to shoot at,” observed Indianapolis Star sports editor Bob Stranahan.
On Oct. 14, Sawchuk’s Indianapolis career began with a bang, as 6,360 fans saw him assume his famous “Gorilla Crouch” – a deep crouch where his knees and torso were severely bent, and his shoulders practically touched his knees -- and backstop a 5-1 win over the Buffalo Bisons at the Coliseum. Fellow rookie Gerry Reid shared the headlines, netting a hat trick against former Cap Connie Dion. Sawchuk stopped 25 shots, only allowing a late second-period goal by Murdo MacKay, which tied the game at 1-1.
Sawchuk’s first shutout came shortly thereafter, but he didn’t get the win. He stopped 36 shots and held the St. Louis Flyers scoreless. But so did the Flyers’ tandem of goaltenders, as the teams played to the only scoreless tie in Capitals history at the St. Louis Arena. That was one of a few blemishes on the Caps’ early record, as Sawchuk led them to an 8-3-3 start. But after a 5-5 tie against the Washington Lions, the Caps headed east for their annual three-week fall trek. The Caps went 0-4-2 in the first six games of the trip, and weren’t playing well in the next contest in Providence, when they tampered with hockey tradition to break the slump.
As the Caps were heading back to the ice, Al Dewsbury bumped into Sawchuk at the gate. Dewsbury said, “Lemme go, Terry. It may change our luck.”
The Caps went on to win the game 3-2, and Dewsbury kept leading the team onto the ice throughout an eight-game unbeaten streak that ran the record to 15-7-6. He got plenty of offense thereafter. In one January stretch, the Caps won 8-2 (@WSH), 11-1 (vs. SPR), 12-2 (vs. PRO), 7-1 (vs. PHI), 8-1 (vs. SPR), 7-4 (at PHI) and 7-1 (vs. NH). Only a 7-1 loss to Hershey early in the streak blemished the amazing scoring run.
The first of Sawchuk’s many debilitating injuries came quietly at mid-season, as he played several games with a painful groin injury. But, in a tight battle for West Division playoff spots, he played on. On March 10, he re-aggravated the groin and left the game when he was hit in the face with a puck after sprawling down into his gorilla crouch. He left the game, a 4-4 tie. He played two nights later in a 4-2 loss at St. Louis, but the injury was bothering him. The Caps asked league president Maruice Podoloff to let them borrow Lumley for a game or two, but Podoloff said no. On March 13, Lefty Wilson backstopped a 3-3 tie, as Sawchuk was rested to heal his groin.
But the Caps were locked in a tight race for playoff position and the West Division title. Headed into the season’s final weekend, the Caps were three points back of St. Louis for the lead, and one point ahead of Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Sawchuk resumed his place in net, and led a 3-1 win over Buffalo. They then split two games with Pittsburgh, losing 4-2 on Saturday and winning 2-1 on Sunday – the latter game determining whether the Caps or Hornets would miss the playoffs. Indy finished one point behind St. Louis for the division title.
They played Hershey in a best-of-three series, but Sawchuk was bested by Gordie Henry in 5-0 and 4-3 losses. Honors were heaped upon Sawchuk, as he was named the AHL’s top rookie, but a spot in Detroit wouldn’t be forthcoming, even after he went 38-17-2 and posted a 3.06 GAA. The teenager was still behind Lumley.
So he was back in Indy as the 1949-50 season opened. And he was even more stellar than in the first year.
Again, he led a hot start, as the Caps went 6-3-1 out of the gate, including shutouts of Cincinnati in the opener (3-0) and Pittsburgh on Oct. 23 (7-0). He stopped just 11 shots in the Oct. 11 opener. He also shut out St. Louis 3-0 on New Year’s Day.
In January, Lumley was hurt playing forward in a benefit game, so Sawchuk was called up to Detroit on Jan. 7. He quickly posted his first NHL shutout – blanking the New York Rangers 1-0 in the Olympia. After going 4-3-0 in seven games, he was sent back down Jan. 26, and backstopped a 4-3 win over Springfield. Then, as the season’s end drew closer, Sawchuk and the Caps caught fire, going 11-5-2 over the final month and a half of the season, but the team was a distant second to Cleveland in the AHL West.
After a 13-1 win over New Haven in the season finale, the Caps met St. Louis in the best-of-3 first-round series. Sawchuk was spectacular, backstopping 7-1 and 3-1 wins. Providence didn’t fare any better, as the Caps ousted the Reds 6-1 and 4-1.
But the Cleveland Barons – who had just become the first team in AHL history to break the 100-point barrier – awaited. The Barons had an All-Star lineup and goaltender Johnny Bower – who Sawchuk would be linked with 15 years later as the two led Toronto to a Stanley Cup in 1967. But as foes, Sawchuk stood tall against the fellow future Hall-of-Famer. In the first game, he backstopped a 4-1 win in Cleveland – stopping 47 shots for his fifth straight one-goal game.
The Barons were still boasting that they’d light Sawchuk up. Their captain, Danny Sproul, said, “We’ve poured plenty of pucks past Sawchuk this year, even had 10 in one game. He’s no better now than then, just having a hot streak.”
Sproul was only half-right. The 10-goal game came against Jim Shirley, who replaced Sawchuk when Terry was in Detroit.
Cleveland finally solved Sawchuk twice in the second game, but the Caps pushed six past Bower in a victory. Sawchuk made 37 saves in the game. Indy went up 3-0 when Nels Podolsky and Gordon Haidy scored in the third period of a 4-3 win. The Caps were on the verge of becoming the first team ever to go through the Calder Cup Playoffs unblemished. Sawchuk was up to the challenge, stopping 37 shots in a 3-2 win.
Stranahan described Sawchuk as the most valuable piece of property in the Red Wings’ system. Podoloff just said, “He was great. … Really great.”
Sawchuk was named a First-Team All-Star, going 31-20-10 and posting a 3.08 GAA. In the playoffs, he only allowed 12 goals in the eight games, and led a sweep of the highest-powered team in the league.
He went straight to Detroit, and watched the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup from the stands as an emergency goaltender. But with Sawchuk now ready, Lumley was shipped elsewhere and the 20-year-old assumed his position in the Olympia goal. He posted a 1.99 GAA his rookie year, and led the NHL in wins in each of his first five years, his GAA never going above 2.00. In 1952, 1954 and 1955, he hoisted the Stanley Cup, duplicating his 1950 eight-game playoff sweep in 1952. He was a first-team All-Star from 1951-53, a second-teamer in 1954 and 1955. He won the Vezina Trophy in 1952, 1953 and 1955.
But shortly after the 1954-55 season, while he was being lauded as the greatest goaltender ever, Sawchuk was dealt to Boston to make way for Glenn Hall. His career quickly declined, as being away from his wife and children sent Sawchuk into depression. His GAA ballooned to 2.60 in 1956, and he suffered a losing record – 22-33-13 – for the first time in his career. Halfway through the next season, exhausted and depressed, he asked to be excused, and headed back to Detroit, missing the rest of the season. After Hall was dealt to Chicago, Sawchuk re-joined the Red Wings in 1957, but the team was a shadow of its former self.
He did enjoy a renaissance in 1962-63, posting a 2.55 GAA and winning 21 games. The next season, the GAA was 2.64. He was a second-team All-Star in both 1959 and 1963. In 1964, he joined the Maple Leafs in the Intra-League Draft and was part of a two-man tandem with Johnny Bower. Splitting duties, he played less than half the season each year, winning the Vezina Trophy in 1965 and the Stanley Cup in 1967. He played three more seasons with Los Angeles, Detroit and the New York Rangers before being injured in a fight with teammate Ron Stewart as the two quarreled about cleaning up their rental house. In the brawl, Sawchuk suffered severe internal injuries, and died a few days later at the age of 40. Stewart was later cleared of any wrongdoing in the accident.
Sawchuk was posthumously awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy in 1971 for his service to hockey.
During his NHL career, Sawchuk played in 972 games, winning 446 – a record that stood until Patrick Roy broke it in 1999-2000. His 103 shutouts are also a league record. His career GAA was 2.51. He is arguably the greatest goaltender of all time. Anyone who saw his days in Indianapolis, and especially his first five seasons with Detroit – might join his contemporaries in calling him the greatest ever.
His mark on local hockey still stands. The Capitals’ all-time leader in wins, games played and shutouts, and is one of a select few Indy players to carry a championship trophy. He is one of three Capital goaltenders to be enshrined into the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining Harry Lumley and Glenn Hall.
(note: photo linked from the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame)
April 2011: Arthur Wirtz (Capitals owner 1939-52)