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The ghost of shutouts past

"I think it's a bar that I put for goalies. People in the past put bars for goalies to excel and I've reached them. Hopefully I'll raise 'em up and good for the guy that's going to go after them.” – Martin Brodeur

“I stopped the %$##@#$ thing, didn’t I? Now, let’s play some hockey.” – Terry Sawchuk

In baseball, they call the equipment – shin guards, athletic supporter, chest protector and mask - worn by catchers the “tools of ignorance.” In hockey, those same tools could be dubbed the “paraphernalia of pain.”

Yet no catcher in the modern game was ignorant enough to crouch behind home plate without the benefit of face protection. The same cannot be said of the hockey goaltender. For seven decades, the custodians of the crease stood perched in their cage barefaced and oblivious. Even after Jacques Plante introduced his crude invention to the game fifty years ago, most goalies still maintained their mask-free pose.

In 1966-67, the final season of the “Original Six”, every starting netminder – Bower, Giacomin, Worsley, Johnston, Crozier and Hall – faced their slapshot-shooting, banana-bladed adversaries without face protection. Terry Sawchuk – the NHL’s all-time leader in shutouts at the time – was not on that list.

Sawchuk wore a mask and, as such, was relegated to backup duties, sharing the Toronto Maple Leafs crease with the club’s antiquated – but proudly barefaced – China Wall, Johnny Bower.

When Sawchuk had finally acquiesced to the pressure and the pain before the start of the 1962-63 season, he had 88 shutouts on his resume. He also had a face - crisscrossed and creased by hundreds of stitch scars - that resembled the railway tracks of a hump yard.

When he finally decided to don the mask, he selected a gruesome piece of plastic that gripped his shallow cheeks and projected an eerie sneer. It may have hid his battle-bruised skin, but it barely concealed the emotional baggage carried by its beholder.

The mask seemed to only accentuate each and every one of his grimaced glares, scowling stares and piercing peers. It reflected perfectly the personality that was wearing it - cantankerous, moody, tortured and tormented.

Although he led the Detroit Red Wings to the Stanley Cup finals that season and the next, he was left unprotected by the team and claimed on waivers by the Maple Leafs in June of 1964.

Sawchuk carried on in the game for another six seasons, moving through Toronto, Los Angeles, Detroit and New York before a fateful fight with teammate Ron Stewart following the conclusion of the 1969-70 season left him with a broken heart, a bruised body and a shattered spirit. It also left him dead.

During his career, he had endured punctured lungs and ruptured discs, blocked intestines and a ruptured spleen, mononucleosis and neurosis. In the end, a drunken sprawl and ill-timed fall finished what a million pulsing pucks couldn’t.

By the start of the 1970-71 season, only Lorne "Gump" Worsley and a journeyman named Andy Brown dared stand between the pipes without a face shield.

When I was Curator of the Hockey Hall of Fame, it was claimed that Terry Sawchuk’s ghost lived in the building. Although I never witnessed his paranormal presence, we all thought it odd he would choose the Hall to haunt instead of the bowels of the Detroit Olympia or the basement of the New York City morgue. We decided he needed a place of permanence – a home that would protect the records he set that could never, ever possibly be broken. Come on, we reasoned, who will ever register 104 shutouts?

Well, the Hall has moved from Exhibition Place to downtown Toronto. And now, Terry Sawchuk’s place in the record books has been shifted as well. Martin Brodeur has replaced him on the highest pedestal. Soon, Sawchuk’s ghost will be looking for a new home.

Somewhere in heaven, perhaps at the Hemp’n’Hut Bar and Grille on St. Peter’s Boulevard, a gaggle of old goaltenders – Hainsworth, Broda, Durnan and Vezina - have gathered to raise a toast to the Uke.

Meanwhile Sawchuk’s mask, safely enshrined in the Hall of Fame, still maintains its frightful smirk.

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