Retro Rangers: The Sawchuk Tragedy

Terry Sawchuk was one of the greatest goaltenders in NHL history. During hockey’s “Golden Era” of the six-team league, Terry’s records stood above those of his netminding brethren that included Glenn Hall, Jacques Plante, Johnny Bower and Gump Worsley.

Terry played for 21 seasons in the NHL. He started out in Detroit where he won the Calder trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year in 1951. He then went to Boston, returned to Detroit, moved to Toronto went to Los Angeles in the expansion draft, returned to Detroit for a third time and finished his career as a New York Ranger.

In the spring of 1969, Rangers GM Emile Francis was looking for a backup for Ed Giacomin to replace Don Simmons who had retired at the end of the previous season. Sawchuk seemed to be the perfect candidate. So on June 17, 1969 Francis swung a deal that sent winger Larry Jeffery to Detroit for the 40-year old Sawchuk and minor-leaguer Sandy Snow.

“The best goalkeeper I ever saw in the National Hockey League was Terry Sawchuk. He’s my number one guy”, Francis told me recently. “I picked him up at the end because I was developing (Gilles) Villemure. I knew I was going to use Giacomin about 60 games and I didn’t want Villemure sitting around playing 10 or 12 games, we were playing 72 games back then. So I left Villemure in Buffalo to develop and I brought in Sawchuk, because I knew it would probably only be for a year.”

Emile was surprised by Sawchuk’s physical condition when he reported to training camp that September. “When I first played against him, he weighed 220 pounds, but when I picked him up in New York, he weighed 170 pounds. Francis explained. “He had been sick and lost a lot of weight and had a lot of family problems. But he was a great goalkeeper. The first year he played with the Red Wings they won the playoffs in eight straight games and he had four shutouts. His goals against average was 1.0”.

Physical condition aside, Terry did not let Emile down. He played 8 regular season games posting a 3-1-2 record with a 2.91 goals against average. He also recorded the 103rd shutout of his storied career on February 1st, 1970 in a 6-0 win over the Penguins at Madison Square Garden. “I’m old and tired but I try my best” Sawchuk told reporters after the game. Some of his teammates good-naturedly kidded that the shutout might have been Sawchuk’s last. Unfortunately, they were right. Ironically, Sawchuk’s very first shutout also came in New York at the “old” Garden, in a 1-0 defeat of the Rangers by Detroit on January 15, 1950, Terry’s rookie year.

Sawchuk, “Ukey” to his friends, due to his Ukrainian heritage, also made three appearances in the playoffs that season, totaling 80 minutes and posting a 4.50 GAA. His final appearance as a Ranger came on April 14th in Game 5 of the quarter-finals against the Bruins in Boston. With the Rangers losing 3-2, Francis wanted to slow the pace of the game and replaced Giacomin with Sawchuk. After allowing Terry the league mandated warm-up period, Giacomin returned to the net following the next faceoff. The Rangers ultimately lost the game 5-3 and the series in six games.

Six weeks later Terry Sawchuk was dead.

At the start of the season Sawchuk had rented a house with teammate Ron Stewart in Atlantic Beach, Long Island, where most of the Rangers stayed during the season. The two were old friends having previously won Stanley Cups and roomed together in Toronto. They had a lot in common. Both were divorced, both liked to drink and both were known to lose their temper when drinking.

The problem started on April 29th, 13 days after the Rangers were eliminated from the playoffs. Stewart and Sawchuk were drinking at the E & J pub which was a local hangout that the players frequented. The pair began to argue about whose responsibility it was to clean the house before returning the keys to the owner. Stewart also claimed that Sawchuk owed him some money for household expenses. They began pushing each other in the bar and were asked to leave. The argument continued outside the bar until the bartender told them to go home. They each drove separately back to the house at 83 Bay Street where they started arguing again on the lawn in front of two witnesses, Stewart’s girlfriend Rosemary Sasso, a registered nurse and Ben Weiner a friend of Sawhcuk’s. Sawchuk moved to grab Stewart, but was pulled back by Weiner. Unfortunately the two men stumbled and both fell on Stewart. It is not known whether Sawchuk fell on Stewart’s knee or a barbeque grill, but he immediately doubled over in pain. Seeing that Terry was in trouble Sasso called Dr. Denis Nicholson who found Sawchuk pale, in shock and with very low blood pressure.

Sawchuk was taken to Long Beach Hospital where tests revealed that he had suffered damage to his gall bladder and liver. He then underwent surgery to remove his gall bladder. A few days later he had another operation to repair his liver.

Terry was in the hospital for three weeks before it became known to the public. The story was broken on May 22nd by Gerry Eskenazi of the New York Times. There were rumors of a cover-up but in actuality Terry didn’t want anyone to know because his father had been in an auto accident and was in a Detroit hospital and Terry didn’t want him to worry.

Terry took a turn for the worse on May 29th and was transferred to New York Hospital, which specialized in acute illnesses. Tests found internal bleeding and Sawchuk once again underwent surgery to further repair his liver.

Following the surgery, Sawchuk regained consciousness briefly but died in his sleep from a blood clot on May 31st.

“The whole Sawchuk affair was one of the toughest things I had ever faced in my whole life,” recalled Francis. “They called me back, I was out scouting in Quebec and I had to go to the hospital” Emile recalled. “He underwent a five hour operation that lasted until midnight and the doctor came out and said ‘you might as well go home because there’s nothing you can do here, we’ll call you if anything changes’.” “They called me at six in the morning to tell me he died. I’ll never forget it was Memorial Day weekend in New York and I had to go to get his body from the morgue on Second Avenue. and honest to God there were 30 people lying on the floor in bags like we carry hockey sticks in. The guy that took me down there, I could tell he’d been drinking, I could smell it. He said ‘Okay which one is the body you came to claim?’ I mean I could have nailed him right there. I looked over and I see Terry’s head sticking out from one of the bags with a tag around his neck to identify him. God damn that’s where he ended up on the floor in a morgue in New York City on Memorial Day weekend. And I said to myself, if this guy only knew that’s the greatest goalkeeper ever. I mean I was sick, believe me”

Stewart took the news very hard and now faced criminal charges. The Rangers hired noted attorney Nicholas Castellano to represent him, but a grand jury in Mineola, New York, eventually found no reason to bring charges and the case was closed.

Francis also felt bad for Stewart who at 38 was on the down side of his career. Rather than release or trade the veteran winger and make him feel like an outcast, he brought him back to play the next season with the Rangers. “It was the right thing to do,” Francis told reporters at the time, “and I would do it again.” Francis eventually chose Stewart to coach the Rangers at the start of the 1975-76 season.

Despite the notoriety of the case, the press left Stewart to himself and didn’t make an issue out of the tragedy. Francis recalls only one incident of anyone ever confronting or taunting Stewart. “Stewie was still playing for us,” Francis said, “and a guy in Toronto poked his head into our bus behind Maple Leaf Gardens and called Stewie ‘a murderer’. Vic Hadfield pounced off the bus and threw the guy into a snow bank.”

Overall, Sawchuk played in 971 regular season games in the NHL posting a 447 – 330-172 record with 103 shutouts and a 2.52 GAA. In 106 playoff games he went 54-48 with 12 shutouts and a 2.54 GAA He won four Stanley Cups and four Vezina trophies and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1971.

“Terry was one of the greatest, maybe even the greatest, but you just never know in real life” Francis concluded. “It was a tragedy that far transcended hockey.”

Note: In addition to personal interviews, information for this article was gathered from Shutout – The Legend of Terry Sawchuk by Brian Kendall.