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Can Giguere be our modern-day Terry Sawchuk?

Brian Burke brought in J.S. Giguere last season for a number of reasons:  The Leafs’ goaltending was not where it needed to be; Giguere and Burke have a history together and Giguerre has championship pedigree, having backstopped the Ducks to a Stanley Cup a few years back.

The truth is, most of us, at least many of us, felt Giguere was at best a stop-gap measure to get the Leafs through a rough patch until Gustavsson was ready to run with the number-one job.  And that may turn out to be the case.  But at this point, while there are indications “The Monster” may well earn that number-one status in time (and Giguere’s contract is up at the end of the season), my guess is the Leafs would like to keep Giguere in the fold.  Burke likes his work ethic, his leadership and his winning history.

He may also still be the best goaltender the Leafs have.

Now, whether he can maintain his game to the point that he will still be an elite-level NHL goalie when the Leafs are prepared to compete for the Cup, who knows?

But his situation does bring to mind another fine goalie who came to the Leafs at a time when many observers thought his career was winding down, if not close to over—Hall-of-Famer Terry Sawchuk.

By all accounts, Sawchuk was a very different kind of guy.  On a personal level he was evidently a loner, a bit of a brooding individual. I’m sure others have written in great detail about Terry, but virtually everyone agrees that, when he came to the rink to play a game (he was not in love with practices), he was all business.

I was too young to appreciate Sawchuk when he first broke in with the Detroit Red Wings in the early 1950s.  But since I was born in ’53, and we lived near Windsor, Ontario, right across from Detroit, I heard a lot about Sawchuk from the time I could follow hockey, which was about 1957-’58.  (Sawchuk had played some junior hockey in Windsor.)  My Dad, as those of you who have followed this site will know, admired “Rocket” Richard and the Habs, and loathed Gordie Howe and the Red Wings.  But we listened to Red Wing games on the radio religiously, mostly so Dad could cheer against Gordie and the Wings.

It would drive Dad crazy, for example, that when the pressure would build against Sawchuk (pictured above in late '50s action with the Red Wings) and the Wings in a tight game, Terry would regularly find (or create) an equipment problem to give the team, especially Gordie, a breather.  He would let the ref know there was a malfunction, he would then wander slowly over to the bench and have trainer Lefty Wilson fiddle his goalie or shoulder pads. He would then saunter slowly back to his cage and wriggle around for a bit until it was clear he was ready and the ref could drop the puck for a face-off. (Referees dropped the pucks for face-offs in those days.)

By then Gordie would have caught a breather and would be ready for another two shifts back-to-back, on his way to playing 35-40 minutes a night in his ‘50s and early ‘60s hey-day with the Red Wings.

Sawchuk earned his reputation in the early ‘50s as a “money” goalie.  The Red Wings were a mini-dynasty during that era, winning four Cups and finishing in first place in the NHL regular-season standings seven years in succession.  Sawchuk was young, in his prime, and a huge part of their greatness. He backstopped the team to three of those Cups and most of those regular-season championships.

It didn’t hurt that they had future Maple Leafs Leonard “Red” Kelly and Marcel Pronovost anchoring an outstanding defense (along with former Leaf stalwart Bob Goldham for some of these championships).  Up front they were strong and pretty deep, but did rely on a big line of Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe and Sid Abel.

And Sawchuk was the man in goal.  He surely would have won some Conn Smythe trophies if such an award existed back in those days.  (I think he earned something like four shutouts in 8 playoffs games, all wins, one spring.)

I don’t know the story behind his “troubles” which seemed to emerge in Detroit, but along the way he was shuttled off to the Boston Bruins in a blockbuster 8-player deal before the 1955-’56 season.  Part-way through his second season in Boston, anxiety issues cropped up and he missed a big chunk of the season.  He was then traded back to Detroit for Johnny Bucyk, who himself went on to a Hall-of-Fame career with the Bruins. 

That transaction worked out pretty well for both teams.

The Wings were re-loading a bit in the late ‘50s, but Sawchuk found his game again and helped lead them to the Stanley Cup finals in 1961, 1963 and 1964.  By that point, he had been playing through some serious injuries, and while still a very good NHL goaltender, wasn’t the player he had been in his youthful prime in the early 1950s.

In the spring of ’64, Toronto beat Detroit in a tense seven-game Stanley Cup final series.  It was a series Detroit, in my view, should probably have won.  That was the famous year Bobby Baun scored a dramatic Game 6 overtime winner on a broken ankle.  Detroit had chances to win that game and wrap up the Cup in the third period, but couldn’t beat Johnny Bower in the Toronto goal.

The Leafs finished off the Wings in Game 7, and that summer, Detroit left Terry unprotected in the intra-league draft, because they wanted to develop an emerging young goalie in Roger Crozier.  Toronto GM and Coach Punch Imlach grabbed Sawchuk, and presented himself with a potentially awkward situation:  bringing a long-time foe, Sawchuk, into the fold to vie for playing time with local hero Bower.

Interestingly, what on paper might have seemed like an explosive situation between clashing “number one’s”, or big egos, was anything but.

In fact, so good were they together, that in their first year as teammates, they shared goaltending duties almost dead evenly.  Sawchuk played 36 games, Bower 34. I remember, like it was yesterday, that on the last night of the regular season (it was a Sunday night) the Leafs played in Detroit at the old Olympia and were nip and tuck with the Wings in terms of goals against.  But they shut out the Wings that night 4-0, I think it was.  So, they ended up leading the old six-team NHL in goals against, which meant that Sawchuk was to be the Vezina Trophy winner. (They gave the Vezina in those days to the goalie, not the team, with the best goals-against average in the league, as I recall.)

It’s important to mention that the league rule at the time was that only one goalie would be named to win the trophy.  Sawchuk made it clear he would not even accept the award unless Bower was also acknowledged, so the league modified its rules to ensure both names appeared on the Trophy— the first, but obviously not the last time that happened.  (It was the informal beginning of the modern two-goalie system, a credit to Imlach in many ways, though Montreal, as I recall, was also playing both Charlie Hodge and Gump Worsley that season.)

By the end of the 1965-’66 season, however, the Leafs were in decline, and Sawchuk was thought to be, along with Bower, on his/their last legs.  The lost in four straight to Montreal in the semi-finals.  During the ensuing 1966-’67 season, (I think it was that season, maybe it was the year before, I’m not quite sure) star winger Frank Mahovlich suffered an emotional/psychological setback and spent time in hospital.  GM/Coach Punch Imlach himself was hospitalized in the midst of a 10-game winless streak.

Amazingly, the team rebounded late in the season, and somehow pulled itself together to upset the first-place Black Hawks in the semi-finals.  Sawchuk had been torched in the first game of the series but bounced back to team with Bower to get Toronto to the finals.

Facing the Habs in the finals, the Leafs were heavy underdogs.  Montreal was a two-time defending Cup champion and were an offensive  powerhouse.  Sawchuk struggled in the opener, giving up six goals, as he had in Game 1 against Chicago.  He also stumbled in Game 4 at the Gardens.  But he was miraculous the rest of the time, as Bower was hurt after winning Game 3 in overtime and not able to play anymore in the series.

Sawchuk was particularly brilliant in Game 6 in Toronto, and allowed just one goal (to ex-Leaf Dickie Duff on a tremendous solo rush).  Dave Keon won MVP honors, but Toronto would not have won that Cup without Bower and Sawchuk taking turns being brilliant in the games they did win against Chicago and Montreal.

Despite Sawchuk’s heroics, Punch was loyal to Bower and protected Johnny that summer during the expansion draft.  (Bower was 42, Sawchuk 37.)  Terry went off to the LA Kings, were his career began to wind down.  Sadly, he died in the early ‘70s after complications arose from injuries he suffered during a team-party altercation with a New York Ranger teammate.

Sawchuk, to this day, is recognized as one of the great goaltenders of all-time.  It was his all-time shutout record that Martin Brodeur passed just last season.  He was quick, played angles so well, and when the games were big, he was very, very focused.  He was also tough, playing much of his career through significant injuries. Leaf fans will remember him getting nailed on the collarbone with a Bobby Hull slap shot during the ’67 playoffs—a shot which Hull took from only about 25 feet away.  There wasn’t much protective equipment for goalies back then.  Sawchuk went down, but stayed in the game, in part because there was no one else to turn to.

Giguere would have to go some to match Sawchuk’s lifetime record.  But he has his own history as a high-end NHL goalie.  His performance in the 2003 playoffs for Anaheim was certainly one of the best I’ve seen over a long playoff spring.  He followed that up with a Stanley Cup a few years later.

But if Giguere, now 33, can ever lead the Leafs to a Cup before he’s done, someone, forty years from now, will no doubt write about this old-time goalie who led the Leafs to an unexpected Stanley Cup— long after many people thought his career was winding down.


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