Wings’ tradition of goalie controversies has old roots

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
During his career in Detroit Terry Sawchuk went from being the untested new guy to the dominant superstar to the exiled hero.

Detroit — Beating the Maple Leafs in the playoffs was the problem for the otherwise victorious Red Wings teams immediately after World War II.

Goalie Harry Lumley dispatched the deficiency with a transcendent performance in the playoffs, which was essential to the Wings winning their fourth Stanley Cup on April 23, 1950.

Less than three months later, they dumped Lumley.

Only seven games into his career, Terry Sawchuk went between the pipes. The Red Wings disappointingly did not repeat as champions, but Sawchuk proved indispensable to three cup victories in the following four seasons.

Sawchuk lifted the third on April 14, 1955.

Six weeks later, the Wings dumped him.

Minding the net draws attention. All goalies are scrutinized in ways that defensemen, despite their difficult, intricate jobs, and high-scoring forwards, with all their allure and flair, escape.

It is particularly so in Detroit.

The demanding perspective is handed down from parent to child, older sibling to younger. The roots of the obsession lie in the shocking decisions of longtime general manager Jack Adams and the dramatic events of the first eight years of the Red Wings’ most glorious decade, the 1950s, when they won four Stanley Cups.

Provided with outstanding goaltending, the Wings stressed defense with forwards who routinely played a 200-foot game.

And great goalies arrived as if Adams got them off one of the assembly lines dotting the city and driving the boom of what was then its heyday. The franchise delivered three future members of the Hockey Hall of Fame in goal with the timing of shiny new models.

Lumley, Sawchuk and Glenn Hall each established their dazzling careers, secured the Wings’ position as the best team in the game and alternately thrilled and deeply divided fans during one of the greatest stretches in the history of the franchise.

From 1950 to 1957, loyalties were proclaimed and parried concerning which of “the best goalies in the league” was the best goalie for the Red Wings.

A goalie controversy?

Compared to it, the immediate circumstances of Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard hardly rise to the level of a debate. Howard’s inconsistency led to the further ascendance of Mrazek, who was already leading despite Howard making the 2015 All-Star team just 12 months ago.

At this juncture, Mrazek is lightning quick, stalwart in performance, forceful in bearing and seemingly possessed of unshakeable intention.

Howard seeks to recover his consistency.

The facts prevail.

At an undetermined point in the future, perhaps as early as this summer, given salaries, the cap and the exigencies of developing an NHL roster, some dramatic determination is likely.

For the moment, mostly, harmony reigns.

Shocking deal

But back in the 1950s? Different facts drove a narrative unlike anything seen at that position, or perhaps any other in the long history of the city’s four dominant professional sports franchises.

The Red Wings were an increasingly effective team after the war, and finished in first place for a third consecutive season in 1950, part of a stretch that would eventually include eight of the nine first places from 1948 to 1957.

But in 1945, 1947 and 1949, they lost to the Maple Leafs in the playoffs, including two sweeps in the Stanley Cup Final.

Finally, in 1950, Lumley lifted them.

Playing without the team’s dominant player, Gordie Howe, who nearly lost his life in an on-ice collision with Teeder Kennedy in the semifinals, Lumley recorded three shutouts and a 1.85 goals against average, a playoff record, in two thrilling seven-game series.

It was the fourth Stanley Cup for the Red Wings. The town was smitten.

Lumley had arrived as a 17-year-old goalie in 1943, when most young men — including much of the rosters in the NHL — were at war. Unlike many of the war fill-ins, the florid-faced kid — known as “Apple Cheeks” in the era before masks — stuck, becoming one of the best goalies in the NHL.

But, that summer, Adams shipped him off to Chicago, then the NHL equivalent of Siberia.

The trade was astounding in scope at the time. Adams traded Lumley; his toughest defenseman, “Black Jack” Stewart; Pete Babando, who scored the Cup winner in overtime in the seventh game against the Rangers; Don Morrison; and Al Babando for the diminutive forward Metro Prystai, Gaye Stewart and the journeyman goalie Sugar Jim Henry.

The trade not only dumbfounded fans, it shocked the Red Wings, too.

“We were stunned when the news broke,” Gordie Howe wrote in his autobiography, “Mr. Hockey.” “The press was equally shocked and our fans didn’t seem to know how to feel about the trade either.”

When Harry Lumley was traded following the 1950 season fans feared the Wings would suffer for years.

Among other things, Lumley was the local hero and Sawchuk mostly unknown.

“Having played in seven games that season, including one shutout, Terry sufficiently impressed Adams that he negotiated the biggest trade in NHL history to that time,” wrote their longtime doctor John Finley, in a book titled “Hockeytown Doc.”

Part of it was Adams’ conviction that players became overly content on winning teams.

“After one of Detroit’s Stanley Cup wins in the 1930s, he stood pat, only to watch the Wings, in his mind, become less hungry the following season,” said Howe, for whom Adams was like a father.

“He told himself it was the last time he would become complacent. From then on, regardless of how well his team did the year before, he remained unsentimental about his players. Anyone could be traded.

“As the years went on, Sawchuk proved to be one of the best to ever put on pads, so making room for him in the lineup worked out, in retrospect,” Howe said.

“At the time, though, seeing Lumley moved to the Black Hawks with little more than a nod didn’t make us feel very warm inside. As much as I loved playing hockey, it was moments like those that reinforced the business side of the sport.”

The Detroit News summed it up in a headline the morning after the trade, “Big Hockey Trade Boils Down to Gamble on Sawchuk.”

It was about the goalies.

Gamble backfires

After finishing first again in 1951, with the 20-year-old Sawchuk as the Calder winner for rookie of the year, the Red Wings lost to the Canadiens in the semifinals.

Despite the successful regular season, fans blamed the trade for the catastrophe in the playoffs.

But Sawchuk continued to play well. As the city flexed its industrial might, the Red Wings won Stanley Cups in 1952, 1954 and 1955.

Although Adams continually hectored him about his weight and an already self-critical Sawchuk sustained a series of injuries, the young goalie was the best in the game, at age 25. He was an All-Star for five consecutive seasons and routinely the leader in goals against average and wins. It was during those years that Sawchuk began amassing shutouts for the career record of 103 that stood for 39 years.

But Adams dumped him.

Again, the trade shocked “the hockey world.”

Wings get away from grind with desert respite

Young Hall was developing in the minors, but it seemed he would likely wait years to replace the best goalie in the league.

But Sawchuk, Marcel Bonin, Lorne Davis and Vic Stasiuk went to the Bruins two months after the Wings’ third Stanley Cup in four years, for Gilles Boisvert, Real Chevrefils, Norm Corcoran, Warren Godfrey and Ed Sandford.

“We let Sawchuk go because we found ourselves with two top goalies,” Adams said, according to The Detroit News. “Hall is more advanced now than Sawchuk when he joined us and all the players insist Glenn has been NHL material for the past year.

“It was a case of trading one of them and Sawchuk is the established player. Consequently, he brought a better offer.”

The Bruins’ rookie general manager Lynn Patrick was so daunted by the major deal, Adams said he did quite a bit of hand-holding in the negotiations.

But Patrick reveled in the results.

“In our wildest dreams, we didn’t think we could pry loose a guy of Sawchuk’s status,” Patrick said.

It might have seemed like another master stroke for “Trader Jack” Adams. But it was not to be this time. The trade was part of what Howe and a generation of Red Wings fans considered the dismantling of the best franchise in the NHL.

It would be 42 years before the Wings finally won another Stanley Cup.

“You’ve got to guess right,” Adams said, according to The News, the day after the trade. “If we’ve calculated correctly, the Red Wings will be better next season.”

They were not.

Trading Sawchuk was such a bad idea, Adams had to get him back. To do so, two seasons later he parted with the John Bucyk, who would score 556 career goals, win two Stanley Cups and enter the Hockey Hall of Fame in a lengthy career for the Bruins.

The controversy would continue through much of the 1960s. With Sawchuk’s career fading, Hall excelled and when the Red Wings narrowly missed some Stanley Cups many fans thought Hall would have made the difference.

In more recent years, the Red Wings had to trade Mike Vernon after Stanley Cup in order to retain a young, but accomplished, Chris Osgood with a waiver draft approaching, and Dominik Hasek, Curtis Joseph and Manny Legace made for some awkward moments in the room.

Talk of the trio of terrific goaltenders and the tempestuous trades went on and on. Wings fans passed on word of the comings and goings of the great goalies as part of the lore of the franchise.

Sawchuk dominated the league in his first stint in Detroit, and was among the best goalies in the second.

Lumley won the Vezina Trophy for the Leafs in 1954 and amassed 330 career wins.

Traded to the Black Hawks in a deal in which Adams jettisoned Ted Lindsay for trying to organize the players union, Hall was a 10-time All-Star, three-time Vezina winner and won both a Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy for most valuable player in the playoffs.

The trio and their iconoclast of a general manager were sources of controversy that, across generations, became an obsession.