Detroit Red Wings goaler Terry Sawchuk made hockey history 45 years ago tonight at the Montreal Forum, becoming the National Hockey League’s shutout king.
With his 2-0 blanking of the Canadiens, Sawchuk recorded his 95th career regular-season shutout, passing former Hab George Hainsworth – Sawchuk’s boyhood hero – who won the Vézina Trophy the first three years it was awarded.
Like so many greats of the NHL, Sawchuk is linked to the Canadiens. The goalie’s 94th shutout also came against Montreal, at the Detroit Olympia two months earlier, to tie Hainsworth.
It was the fourth shutout of Terry Sawchuk’s season, yet it was so much more.
Forty-five years ago tonight, Sawchuk turned aside 36 shots in the Detroit Red Wings’ 2-0 victory over the Canadiens at the Forum.
It was the 17th and final time he would blank Montreal in regular-season play, and this shutout truly was one for the books. It gave Sawchuk 95 in his career – he would earn another eight before retirement – to lift him past former Canadien George Hainsworth on the all-time list to rank him as the NHL’s shutout king.
Hainsworth, winner of the Vézina Trophy the first three years it was awarded, had occupied the shutout throne since 1936. Sawchuk rules to this day, nearly 39 years since his death.
The chase of his ghost will be resumed by New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur, the Devils superstar who is parked at 98. Brodeur perhaps had a shot at the record this season, until he went down in November with a bicep injury.
Typically, Sawchuk didn’t give much thought to his feat that historic 1964 Saturday night, physically and emotionally spent in the dressing room.
“I didn’t give a darn about (the shutout) during the game,” he told reporters. “The win was more important.”
The achievement received just sidebar play in Monday’s Gazette and Montreal Star, neither paper publishing the day after. The Canadiens’ 1-1 Sunday tie in Boston was Monday’s banner-headline news.
But how perfect that Sawchuk would turn this dramatic page against the Canadiens in this building, a game in which his work “bordered on sheer thievery,” according to one report.
His first shutout against Montreal had come Nov. 12, 1950 at the Detroit Olympia, a 4-0 victory with Gerry McNeil in the Montreal goal. It was his third of 103 lifetime.
Sawchuk would blank the Canadiens four times the following season. In 1952-53, he and McNeil played in a goalless draw, one of nine such games in Sawchuk’s career. Six times, over the years, he outduelled Jacques Plante.
But little seemed to suggest his record-breaking effort would come that night at the Forum. Sawchuk hadn’t had a Forum shutout since Oct. 27, 1956, when he played briefly for Boston, and the Canadiens hadn’t lost in their home rink since Nov. 16.
Fiercely competitive Canadiens coach Toe Blake wanted no part of being more history, especially at the Forum.
Just two months earlier, Montreal’s greatest record-setting legend had been eclipsed by a Red Wing.
On Nov. 10, Detroit forward Gordie Howe had passed Canadiens’ Maurice Richard for the NHL’s regular-season goal-scoring lead with the 545th of his career, fired shorthanded against Montreal’s Charlie Hodge at the Olympia. That was a 3-0 victory for the Red Wings, and the Hainsworth-tying 94th shutout for Sawchuk.
“It had been expected that the Rocket’s goal record would be passed. It was only a matter of time,” Red Wings defenceman Marcel Pronovost told author David Dupuis in the 1998 biography Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World’s Greatest Goalie.
“However, the shutout record of Hainsworth, now that’s another story. Nobody ever thought it would be touched, but Terry was on the verge of doing it. We couldn’t believe it.”
The goaler had been more ornery than ever in the white-hot spotlight of this record chase, in pain with a wrenched back since November. A sullen loner, Sawchuk now was being pursued relentlessly.
But he was brilliant from the opening faceoff that night, making 13 saves in the first period. Floyd Smith’s goal on Hodge sent Detroit to the dressing room up 1-0.
The Canadiens stormed Detroit in the second, but Ralph Backstrom, J.C. Tremblay and Jean Béliveau were unable to beat Sawchuk with what seemed to be certain chances. John Ferguson was foiled on a breakaway and as a thank-you later that period he delivered a butt-end to Sawchuk’s gut, one that brought Detroit trainer Lefty Wilson onto the ice.
Sawchuk and Hodge turned aside 10 shots apiece, and the score remained 1-0 until Detroit’s Eddie Joyal scored 35 seconds into the third.
The game’s final minute had nothing to do with the Canadiens wanting to win; it had everything to do with Blake frantic to deny Sawchuk his record.
The coach pulled Hodge in the final minute, but the swarming Canadiens couldn’t find the range.
Pronovost has bitterly recalled the strategy:
“When they pulled Hodge, we thought, ‘You sons of bitches, you won’t give Terry his record, eh? We’ll show you!’ ” he said. “It only made us all madder and we dug down deeper.”
Sawchuk would warm, a little, to the landmark achievement.
“I guess we’ll have to start on the next 95,” he kidded reporters, suggesting he was lucky to make a stick-shaft save that he never saw.
But bittersweet was the fact that bumped to No. 2 on the all-time list was Sawchuk’s childhood hero.
In this building, George Hainsworth was the goaler who charted a path to hockey history, an uncatchable record Terry Sawchuk had chased his entire career.
And now it was his, finally, coralled in the same arena.
Detroit goalie Terry Sawchuk accepts postgame congratulations from coach Sid Abel and teammate Gordie Howe after becoming the NHL’s shutout king on Jan. 18, 1964 with his 2-0 blanking of the Canadiens at the Forum.
David Bier, Montreal Star files