The Boston Bruins, surprise team of the National Hockey League (see story page 30), got a shock themselves last week. Terrance Gordon Sawchuk, their remarkable but moody goalie who had squired the team to an early-season lead in the NHL, decided abruptly that he was through with hockey. With a hare and hound act that would do justice to the creakiest class B movie, Sawchuk disappeared from sight, popped up once to say, "I quit," promptly disappeared again, and in Boston was last seen boarding a train for Detroit and home. He announced, "I am through with hockey."
Team members, officials and the ubiquitous Boston press couldn't have been caught more off their guard. Only a few hours before the curious procession of events began, Sawchuk had been selected as goalie on the midseason All-Star team. This was in recognition of his brilliant play in the early part of the season, during which he compiled a 2.15 "goals against" record, second lowest in the league. It also seemed tacit proof that Sawchuk had recovered from infectious mononucleosis, a debilitating disease of the blood (known also as glandular fever) for which the best cure is rest and penicillin. Sawchuk contracted the disease in December, and many thought he wouldn't return to the lineup for the rest of the year. But in an incredibly short two weeks the persevering Sawchuk was again in front of the nets, apparently better off for the rest.
Boston newspapermen had as many theories for Sawchuk's seemingly strange behavior as there were newspapers in town: Sawchuk tried to come back too soon after mononucleosis; he was suffering from the occupational disease, "puck shock," a colorful way of saying his nerves were shot; he was having family trouble, or, conversely, he was homesick; he couldn't get along with Coach Schmidt. For their efforts at analysis, Sawchuk had scant reward. "I've got news for you," he told the reporters. "When I get home I'm going to sue four Boston newspapers for what they said about me."
In a Detroit restaurant at week's end, harassed and as interview-shy as Greta Garbo, Sawchuk paused from the chase long enough to tell reporters, "You fellows ought to know that the Boston club treated me good, maybe too good. I never caught hell once from them in two years, and I deserved it a few times."
The conversation turned to Sawchuk's weight. When he came up with Detroit six years earlier he weighed 219 pounds and played at 205. But in his third season he reported in at 176, a drop of 43 pounds. His mother now claims that Sawchuk dieted that year, and that he has never been the same since. Detroit doctors could find nothing organically wrong with him, but it is true that in four years he hasn't gained his weight back. Sawchuk denied that his health had anything to do with his leaving Boston. He did admit, though, "I'm about 166 now, maybe lower," having started the season at "about 178-180." Then he said: "It was getting this season so I couldn't eat and couldn't sleep. I was awful tired but I'd lie there all night and smoke and couldn't go to sleep. Then I'd get up but I wouldn't have any appetite. I thought I was getting lazy because I wanted to lie down all the time. I thought maybe I'd become too complacent mentally, too. But we were winning and in first place and I kept getting by even though I could hardly wait for each game to end because my legs were so tired. Then I got knocked out against Montreal and the game was delayed while I went off for a rest. The doctor came to examine me and I told him my neck was so stiff I could hardly turn it. He felt around and said my glands were swollen. He said I should go to the hospital but you know how I like hospitals after all those other times....
"Then two days later I couldn't get out of bed, so I finally went. They kept me two weeks and then the team doctor said I was 100% O.K."
Lynn Patrick, Boston's general manager, predicted last weekend that Sawchuk would be back in a month, as soon as he has regained some of his confidence and optimism, and as soon as "everybody gets off Sawchuk's back." Boston, by intimation, would rescind its lifelong ban imposed on Sawchuk January 16.
A cloud of uncertainty continues to hover heavily over the hockey future of Terry Sawchuk, but the past presents no such problem. Sawchuk is manifestly the best goalie of his day, and there are some, including Frank Boucher, the former general manager of the New York Rangers, who have called him the greatest in history. In Sawchuk's amazing record there is ample evidence to bear them out.
In his first five full years in the league, all with the Detroit Red Wings, Sawchuk three times led the league in the least number of goals allowed per game and missed tying for the lead by narrow margins the other two seasons. He made the league All-Star team three of the years, was on the second team twice. The Red Wings won the league championship every year Sawchuk was with the team, three times won the Stanley Cup playoffs, and in the 1952 playoffs, Sawchuk's greatest, allowed only five goals in eight games.
In a sport justly celebrated for the cobra-quick reflexes of its players (a hard-struck puck has been clocked at 120 miles per hour), Terry Sawchuk unquestionably is the fastest-moving of all goalies. A 27-year-old native of Winnipeg, with black hair and pale, smooth skin except where it has been scraped, cut and stitched, he doesn't move so much as he explodes into a kind of desperate epileptic action: down the glove, out the arm, over the stick, up the glove—all in such rapid succession that it is difficult to watch him. The action is punctuated by occasional cries: "Get out of the way!" "Take it!" "Behind you!" When the action moves away he continues to concentrate on the puck with such fierce determination that he estimates he probably sees no more than 30% of the over-all play. He takes what is called a "submarine" stance, bent over in front of the net so that he can sight the puck better through the legs of the players.
Remarkably, Sawchuk is something less than a whole man. A baseball accident when he was 12 left his right arm 1½ inches shorter than the left and the elbow joint is so stiff Sawchuk cannot touch his right shoulder with his right hand. Of the myriad stitches in Sawchuk's body, three are in his right eyeball.
Son of a Ukrainian tinsmith who emigrated to Canada, Sawchuk began skating when he was 4. At 16 he was playing professionally with the Gait (Ontario) Red Wings. In the off-season he lives with his wife, Pat, and their two children, Gerry and Jo-Anne, in Union Lake, a suburb of Detroit. He used to love to hunt and fish but he has spent most of his recent summers in hospitals recovering from the previous season and getting ready for the next. Before games he has always tried to lie down and rest, but without much success. He twists and tosses and thinks about buzzing, zigzagging, puck-hounding foes around his cage, shooting slap shots, snap shots and power shots. A goalie's life, he said not long before his present travail, is a battle between himself and his nerves. After seven years in the National Hockey League, the strain had plainly begun to tell, even on the remarkable Terry Sawchuk.