How Terry Sawchuk Forced An NHL Rule Change


Punch Imlach
1963-64 Parkhurst hockey card of Punch Imlach (Canadian Public Domain)

April 1964, the Toronto Maple Leafs had won their third straight Stanley Cup championship. Johnny Bower, the team’s number one goaltender for the past six years, had seen a stellar career to date. Having performed brilliantly in all the games of the two rounds of playoffs that it took to win in 1964, (with both series going to the full seven games in 1964-65), Bower allowed only 30 goals for an outstanding 2.12 goals-against average, his third straight league-leading GAA playoff season.


Bower also recorded two shutouts that spring, the second one a 4-0 blanking of the Detroit Red Wings in the last game. Although the Leafs were riding high, coach/general-manager Punch Imlach knew he couldn’t stand pat. He had to think of the future. Bower was the oldest goalie in the league at 39 years of age and he needed help: in particular, another goalie to split the duties with, equally.


Then came the June, 10 1964 Intra-League Draft summit in which the NHL teams were allowed to protect two goalies and 18 skaters. For the first two rounds, veteran Terry Sawchuk and youngster Roger Crozier had been the goalies protected by Detroit. But in the third round, the Red Wings chose another goalie, Boston Bruins George Gardner, leaving Sawchuk available, something that caught Imlach and the Leafs totally by surprise. Luckily, Toronto chose next in line, and Imlach grabbed Sawchuk.


Terry Sawchuk was 35 and an NHL icon. In his first five full seasons in the league in the early 1950s, he was a major part of three Red Wing championships. In all five seasons, his GAA was under 2.00 and he had shut out the opposition a staggering 56 times in the regular season and another nine times in the playoffs, with four of those coming in 1951-52 when Detroit won all eight of their post-season games.


By the time Sawchuk had turned 25 in 1955, he was considered by many as the greatest goalie ever. Now, 15 seasons later, Sawchuk, a little slower but still alert, could rise to any occasion. At least that’s what Imlach figured. He also believed in the two-goalie system, relatively new in pro hockey. “By rotating Bower and Sawchuk, we’d be tough to beat,” Imlach told reporters.


At first, Sawchuk was upset that the Red Wings would let him go in such a manner. But he saw the benefits of playing on a championship team. Bower, on the other hand, thought that Imlach had lost confidence in him. However, that wasn’t the case. Imlach saw the experience of his 30-plus veterans--some were discards from other teams--a big plus for the Leafs. Age meant nothing to him. If you could still play, and play hard, you could be a Maple Leaf.


Johnny Bower
1963-64 Parkhurst hockey card of Johnny Bower (Canadian Public Domain)

Besides Bower and Sawchuk, Allan Stanley was 37, Red Kelly was 36, Tim Horton was 34, captain George Armstrong was 33, and Ron Stewart, Andy Bathgate, Ed Litzenberger, and Gerry Ehman were all 31. This old-age group worked well with the under-30 youngsters like Dave Keon, Frank Mahovlich, Eddie Shack, Bob Baun, Bob Pulford, Jim Pappin, Billy Harris and Carl Brewer. And to boot, junior graduates Pete Stemkowski and Ron Ellis were ready for the coming season…


With the 70-game schedule 1964-65 regular season drawing to a close in late-March, the Leafs were slated to meet the Red Wings in a home-and-home, two-game battle, although Detroit had clinched first place and Toronto had taken at least the fourth and last playoff spot. The key to this series, nonetheless, centered on which team would take away the coveted Vezina Trophy, presented to--according to the rules then--the goaltender who played the most games for the team with the fewest goals against. The prize was $1000, measily by today’s standards but not in the era of very low salaries as it was then, and the goaltender would get his name engraved on the trophy.


With games 69 and 70 left to play, the dynamic duo of Terry Sawchuk and Johnny Bower had given up 169 goals, while Detroit’s Roger Crozier, who had played in every game, had allowed 170 goals. Sawchuk had played in 36 games, Bower in 32, with the latter scheduled for the last two. If the Leafs took the Vezina, Sawchuk would be the one awarded the trophy, as well as the prize money. Sawchuk wouldn’t hear of it and told Toronto’s The Globe and Mail so. “If we should win it, I won’t accept the trophy unless both are names are on it,” he insisted, referring to Bower. Sawchuk had already cut a deal with Bower to share the $1000.


On Saturday, March 27 before a Hockey Night in Canada crowd at Maple Leaf Gardens, Detroit took game 69 by a score of 4-1. But the following night at Olympia Stadium in Detroit, Bower shut out the Red Wings 4-0, the first Red Wings home loss in fifteen games. In full gear, Sawchuk spent the first two periods in the dressing game watching the game on TV, too nervous to sit on the bench until the final period. When the game ended, he headed straight for Bower and the two teammates celebrated on the ice.


Terry Sawchuk
1963-64 Parkhurst hockey card of Terry Sawchuk (Canadian Public Domain)

The Leafs finished with 173 goals against, the Wings with 174, and the Chicago Black Hawks close behind at 176, to make it a three-team race. Sawchuk’s goals-against average stood at 2.56, Bower’s at 2.38. Detroit took first place with a 40-23-7 mark, followed by Montreal’s 36-23-11, Chicago’s 34-28-8 and Toronto's 30-26-14, as 13 points separated the four playoff finishers.


When knocked out by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs in six games, Bower and Sawchuk decided to blow the entire $1000 Vezina Trophy prize money on a team party at the Conroy Hotel in Toronto. Incidentally, $1000 in 1965 (a sizeable amount then) is the equivalent of more than $8000 today. It must’ve been one hell of a party. “But it was worth it,” Bower admitted to friends.


Two months later, in June, at the annual NHL Board of Governors meeting a new rule became law: The Vezina Trophy would be awarded to both goaltenders of the winning team providing the team had two regulars who played in at least 25 games. More important, the new rule became retroactive to the previous season.


So, as a result of this decision, the names John Bower and Terry Sawchuk were both forever etched on the Vezina Trophy for the 1964-65 season, setting the stage for the names of several more goaltending duos being etched on the award in the coming years.


NOTE: Since the 1981-82 season, the Vezina Trophy has gone to the most outstanding goaltender voted by the NHL general managers. That same season, the William M. Jennings Trophy became the new award for the goaltenders playing 25 or more games for the team allowing the fewest goals against.