The Night Gordie Howe and Terry Sawchuk Played at the Pembroke Memorial Centre

With the National Hockey League season on pause as the world deals with the COVID-19 virus pandemic, television networks have been scrambling to fill hours of programming time normally consumed by Canada’s national sport.  The Saturday night slot held by the iconic Hockey Night in Canada on CBC has been replaced by Movie Night in Canada, and on March 21st the network kicked off  its movie lineup with a doubleheader of hockey films, airing Mr Hockey, the story of Gordie Howe’s later years as a professional player, and Goalie, the tragic story of his illustrious but troubled teammate, Terry Sawchuk.

In their prime, Howe and Sawchuk were the backbone of the Detroit Red Wings Stanley Cup winning clubs of the 1950’s.  Howe was always among the league’s top scorers, playing 25 years in Detroit before retiring and re-starting his career in the World Hockey Association to play with his two sons, Marty and Mark Howe.  Sawchuk was the all-star netminder, widely considered by many to be the greatest goaltender of his era, routinely turning away the scoring prowess of legends such as Maurice “the Rocket” Richard.

In the fall of 1953, Pembroke hockey fans had a chance to see these two legends take the ice at the Pembroke Memorial Centre.  The Chicago Black Hawks were in the midst of holding their training camp at the newly opened PMC.  To prepare for the season, the Hawks and Red Wings agreed to play a few exhibition games through Northern and Eastern Ontario.  Pembroke’s turn to host a game was on  Saturday, September  26th and the Pembroke Standard Observer made sure to list the game’s biggest stars who would be suiting up in the contest.

Among the headliners were of course Howe and Sawchuk, joined by Ted Lindsay and Red Kelly for the Wings, and Bill Gadsby, Bill Mosienko, Geo Geb, Al Rollins and Gus Mortsen were promoted for the Hawks roster.  The 9 p.m. face-off was the norm in those days for hockey games.

Mr. Hockey did not disappoint.  Howe scored a goal and an assist as the Red Wings and Hawks played to a 3-3 tie in front of a sold out crowd at the PMC.  The Red Wings had a powerhouse line-up that had gone undefeated in the 1952 playoffs, winning eight straight games to capture the Stanley Cup. Sawchuck was only 22 years old  and allowed only five goals in the eight Detroit wins, recording a goals against average of 0.62 in the post season.

The Wings would not win the Cup in the spring of 1953 but they would repeat in 1954 and ’55 with Sawchuk and Howe continuing to lead the way.  The Black Hawks were a struggling franchise in the 1950’s.  Their 1953 visit to Pembroke would be the only time they would host their training camp in the community and the Hawks were glad to see an end to the decade which was dominated by Detroit and Montreal, the Hawks rarely making the playoffs.

In the early days of the Pembroke Memorial Centre, hockey fans in the then Town of Pembroke were very fortunate to see some of the biggest stars play in the arena.  When the building opened in the fall of 1951, the Montreal Canadiens came to town with six future hall of fame players in their line-up to play an exhibition game with the Senior Lumber Kings.  The Habs came back again to play other exhibitions in an effort to help fundraising efforts for the cash strapped senior hockey team, bringing greats like Rocket Richard, Elmer Lach and “Boom Boom” Geoffrion to Pembroke, but after the 50’s ended so too did the visiting NHL exhibition games.

The 1950’s are often referred to as Pembroke’s Hockey Glory Years.  Delving into the city’s hockey history can offer a glimpse as to why these years are romanticized by those who had the opportunity to witness Howe and Sawchuk in person at a time when Hockey Night in Canada was just getting started on television. For the rest of us, the Sawchuk movie offers a glimpse into why these games happened.

Two years after Sawchuck played in Pembroke, and after he had backstopped the Red Wings to a Stanley Cup in 1955, he fell out of favor with Wings General Manager, Jack Adams, who traded him to Boston.  Sawchuk was miserable playing for a team that was routinely at the bottom of the league standings in the 1950’s.  The movie portrays an exhibition game that Sawchuk and the Bruins play on an outdoor rink in Newfoundland, one of his teammates providing a pre-game pep talk to the players on the bus, about the extra 25 dollars they would each receive for taking part in the game.

At a time when player salaries were exceptionally low, there was no player’s association and therefore no job security, and with only six teams in the league, these exhibition games were a means for the owners to generate new revenue, while giving the players a small piece of the pie.  That’s most likely why Howe, Sawchuk and the Red Wings came to Pembroke so many years ago.