Rookie Of The Year
Sawchuk left home at sixteen to play in junior leagues, then spent most of three years in the minor leagues, playing for Omaha in the United States League and Indianapolis in the American Hockey League. He was named Rookie of the Year in both leagues and led Indianapolis to the AHL's Calder Cup in 1950. He played his first NHL game on January 8, 1950, at age twenty, filling in for the Red Wings' injured goalie, Harry Lumley. In seven games for the Red Wings that year, Sawchuk was 4-3, with a goals-against average of 2.28. That proved he was ready to play goal in the NHL, so at the end of the season, the Red Wings traded Lumley to Chicago and made Sawchuk their regular goalie. He played in every Wings game in 1950-51, his first full season, shut out the Wings' opponents eleven times, compiled a GAA of 1.98, and won the Calder Trophy for NHL Rookie of the Year.
Right away, Sawchuk's stance in goal attracted attention around the league. Back then, goalies would usually bend at their knees but keep their upper bodies erect. Instead, Sawchuk bent deeply at the waist. "I found that I could move more quickly from the crouch position," he explained in an interview quoted in Chris McDonell's Hockey All-Stars. "It gave me better balance to go both ways, especially with my legs. Scrambles and shots from the point were becoming the style in hockey when I broke into the NHL. From the crouch, I could keep the puck in my vision much better when it was coming through a maze of players." Goalies around the league eventually adopted his stance.
The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in Sawchuk's second full season with them. He again played every game, had twelve shutouts and a 1.91 GAA, and won the Vezina Trophy. The Red Wings swept through the playoffs, winning the semi-finals and finals four games to none. Sawchuk didn't let in a single goal in any of the home playoff games. "Sawchuk is their club," declared a frustrated Maurice Richard after his Montreal Canadiens lost in the finals (according to David Dupuis's book Sawchuk). "Another guy in their nets and we'd beat them."
For the next three seasons, Sawchuk remained at the top of his game. The Red Wings won two more Stanley Cups, and Sawchuk won the Vezina Trophy two more times. Each year, he let in an average of less than two goals per game. "The key for us was Sawchuk," Wings defenseman Bob Goldham once said, looking back on the 1954 and 1955 Stanley Cup wins, according to Dupuis's Sawchuk. "He was the greatest goaltender who ever lived. We could always count on him to come up with the big save."