The most recent men who’ve tended goal for the Detroit Red Wings and led them to the Stanley Cup don’t have much in common except for being stark raving mad.
I’ve always felt that way about hockey goalies.
Terry Sawchuk was the maddest of them all (he played mostly without a mask), and the most tormented.
It reminds me of the great comedians throughout history—the men and women who’ve made us laugh so hard but who themselves were among the saddest of folks.
Sawchuk, the legendary netminder and Hall of Famer of the 1950s and ‘60s, was the best goalie the NHL has ever seen, but if they gave out awards for self-fulfillment, old Terry would have come away empty-handed.
Sawchuk rarely smiled, and when he did, it was brief and forced. He was almost a goaltending savant who didn’t really like what he did, but he did it because he had to.
His teammates on the Red Wings tried to get close to him, tried to engage him, tried to get him to lighten up. But Terry always seemed so sad, which in turn saddened them. How much more enjoyable the Red Wings’ Stanley Cups of the 1950s would have been, had Sawchuk only been able to relax.
Sawchuk was dead by age 40, after a tragic bout of rough-housing with New York Rangers teammate and roommate Ron Stewart over some unpaid apartment bills.
Sawchuk’s brief life, in my opinion, was among the saddest in all of sports.
It was 42 years after Sawchuk and the Red Wings raised the Cup when the team finally did it again in 1997, behind the clutch goaltending of veteran Mike Vernon.
In 1996, you could have driven Vernon off the Ambassador Bridge and no Red Wings fan would have trolled for his remains.
After a brilliant 62-13-7 regular season in 1995-96, Vernon and Chris Osgood’s shaky play against the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Finals helped drum the Red Wings out in six games.
The Cup-less stretch reached 41 years, and counting.
But one year later, as the confetti flew inside Joe Louis Arena and the Red Wings skated around the ice with hockey’s silver chalice in tow, Mike Vernon was back in the city’s good graces.
Some fan had made a sign out of poster board and pressed it against the glass.
It read, “Vernie: I’m sorry!”
In a postgame interview on the ice, Vernon was asked about the sign.
He chuckled sheepishly and said, “What can I say? Apology accepted, I guess!”
A year after that, with Vernon banished to the San Jose Sharks, it was Chris Osgood’s turn to be the madman in goal who’d lead the Wings to another Stanley Cup.
It was a playoff run with more twists and turns than a corkscrew, and with surprise endings to games that would have made O. Henry proud.
Osgood caused almost as much anguish as he provided joy, making things more interesting than they should have been, usually due to his penchant for failing to stop shots fired from beyond the blue line.
Three times Osgood surrendered goals that came off shots originating in Timbuktu. All three times, the shots either tied the game late or won it.
But Ozzie persevered, and as the champagne flowed in the Red Wings dressing room in Washington following the Cup clincher, Osgood’s mother found him and hugged her drenched son.
“You did it, Chris! You did it, baby!” she cried.
In 2002, the Red Wings goalie was another savant, the 36-year-old Dominik Hasek, the human Slinky.
Hasek was an amazing netminder but a baffling person. You could say that he marched to the beat of a different drummer, except that it was a drummer no one could hear but him.
The Red Wings of 2001-02 were teeming with future Hall of Famers, and Hasek tended goal in the playoffs with a pure brilliance befitting the team’s roster of greatness.
As the final horn sounded on the season, the Red Wings had captured another Stanley Cup, with another goalie.
Six years later, Osgood did it again, rescuing the Wings when the 43-year-old Hasek faltered in the first round. Another Cup won.
And in 2011?
It’s getting closer to playoff time, which means it’s time to trot out the usual blather about the Red Wings goaltending situation heading into the postseason.
The doubters are out, once again.
Other than Sawchuk, who was born to win Stanley Cups, the Cup-winning goalies for the Red Wings all beat back the doubters.
Vernon, despite a resume that had “Stanley Cup Champion” on it, had to win back the fans after the disappointment of 1996.
Osgood alternately made friends and enemies in Detroit in 1998, sometimes shift by shift.
In 2002, Hasek had to overcome an 0-2 hole in the first round against Vancouver, when the fans were about to declare him a fraud in pads.
And Osgood was a 35-year-old backup when he replaced Hasek after four games of the first round in 2008. You could cut the doubt with a knife.
Currently, Jimmy Howard’s ability to lead the Red Wings to the promised land is being seriously questioned, and not just by the hockey denizens around town.
A couple weeks ago, the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports, ESPN, splashed on its website that the Red Wings were in big trouble and delusional if they expected the second-year goalie Howard to make like Sawchuk, Vernon, Osgood and Hasek.
The talking heads pointed to the numbers, which place Howard toward the bottom of the league in things like save percentage.
Apparently ESPN.com, allegedly so wise, has forgotten that the NHL has two distinct seasons: the regular one in the fall and winter, and the other one in the spring.
Like it or not, Howard will be the target of the springtime doubters, for as long as he shall live—in the playoffs.
It’s understandable, really.
Howard won a playoff series and lost one last year, his rookie campaign. In real plain terms, he hasn’t won diddlysquat for the Red Wings.
So naturally, people are going to say that he can’t. Until he does.
Because this is Detroit, and these are the Red Wings, a premier hockey team that has been typecast as one that has to win championships in spite of its goaltending, not because of it.
History doesn’t really bear that out, but why let facts ruin a good myth?