movie stars, playing hockey players, in hospital beds: seems like a man oughta have a regular job

Faking It: Johnny Hanson on his way from New York’s Polar Palace to Roosevelt Hospital.

John Wayne’s hockey movie was supposed to be called Hell On Ice, originally, before Hollywood’s self-censoring prudery police at the Hays Office objected, which is when it shifted to Idol of the Crowds. Already an established star of the saddle and six-gun, Wayne was trying to spread his wings in the mid-1930s, broaden his audience — well, Universal was, anyway, when they signed him to a six-movie deal, not one of them a western. Conflictcast him as a boxer, Sea Spoilers as an upstanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard (both 1936); he played a trucker in California Straight Ahead, a pearl diver in Adventure’s End, and a newsreel cameraman in I Cover The War! (all 1937).

I haven’t seen any of those, so I can’t say whether they’re more or less ridiculous than Idol of the Crowds, which was also released in ’37. I can report that Wayne sinks himself into the role of Johnny Hanson, a former hockey star now living in northern Maine, raising prize chickens. When the manager of the big-league New York Panthers shows up with his chequebook to see if Johnny will sign up, save the team, Johnny turns him down. “Thanks just the same, but I think I’d better stick with the chickens,” is actually the line he delivers, and I quote. “New York — it’s too big, too many people. Besides, I’d feel kinda foolish goin’ clear down there just to play hockey. Seems like a man oughta have a regular job. I want to build something and see it grow.”

But of course, the chickens can wait: the money’s too good to refuse, so off Johnny goes. From there on in, the plot is cut from hoary old cloth, the one with the gamblers-lean-on-him-to-throw-the-finals-but-no-way-is-he-going-to-bend-to-their-nefarious-will-plus-of-course-in-thwarting-their-plot-he-also-gets-the-girl pattern. At one point in a pivotal game against the Wizards, he fakes a fall into the boards, gets hauled off the ice by his teammates, rushed out to a waiting ambulance, and over to Roosevelt Hospital where — surprise! He’s fine, not concussed at all, nary a contusion on him, pretending he’d been knocked out was all part of his clever plan to fool and thereby foil the bad guys.

It’s all as fabulously hokey as it sounds. And the hockey? Some of the wide shots of the action at the Polar Palace borrow NHL footage from (I’m assuming) Madison Square Garden, showing actual Detroit Red Wings battling authentic New York Rangers. I think they’re Red Wings; the unmistakable bulk and baldness of Ching Johnson is enough to confirm the Rangers.

Closer in, when director Arthur Lubin turns his camera to his own cast … well, like most of the hockey you see in movies — and it’s even more pronounced in the many that came out in the ’30s — it’s just absurd. That John Wayne couldn’t really skate is apparent from the first stride he takes. To his credit (if not the movie’s), he knew it, and felt kinda foolish about the whole thing. “I’m from Southern California,” he’s quoted as having said in Scott Eyman’s 2015 biography, John Wayne: The Life and Legend, “I’ve never been on a pair of goddamn skates in my life.”

“He always remembered the experience with a sense of burning humiliation,” writes Eyman, who rates Idol of the Crowdsa “real stiff.”

An ice skating rink had been rented for 24 hours, during which all the hockey scenes would be shot. Wayne’s memory was that he could not skate at all. “My ankles are rubbing on the ice, and I can’t even stand up, but they pushed me around … I was in the hospital for two fucking days after that.”

Wayne did it, because, “This was the Depression. If you wanted work, you did what they told you to do.”

Hook-Checked: Johnny Hanson does his best to best to keep the puck — and stay on his skates.

 

for your consideration

Roll Camera: No hockey movies in the bidding for Oscars at tonight’s 92nd Academy Awards in Los Angeles, so here’s a still from that 1946 classic of screen and ice, Gay Blades. A comedy directed by George Blair, it starred Jean Rogers in the female lead opposite Allan Lane as the lovelorn hockey star. That’s him here, in a mood, wearing #11 for his Duluth Rustlers.

lived, breathed, died a goalie: adriana maggs on putting terry sawchuk on film

Man In The Mask: Mark O’Brien plays a tortured Terry Sawchuk in Adriana Maggs’ new film.

The successes of Terry Sawchuk’s goal-guarding years can be expressed in a notional array of the trophies that rewarded his best efforts — a Calder from 1951, his five Vézinas, the four Stanley Cups. There’s a narrative to be found, too, in numbers that delineate his career: the 63,444 minutes of NHL hockey he played over the course of 1,077 games, the 499 wins, the 115 shutouts. He faced 20,902 shots in his time in the league, which lasted from 1950 until 1970, of which he deterred 18,919.

The numbers speak for themselves; the trophies reflect a bright gleam. For a deeper understanding of the life of the man and of the sport he played — and of the agonies he suffered — there’s a world of it in Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems (2008) by the Corner Brook poet and academic Randall Maggs. As of this past Friday, when it opened at theatres across Canada, there’s also Goalie, a feature-length biopic that takes Maggs’ portrayal of Sawchuk as its inspiration and guide. Mark O’Brien plays the lead in the latter, under the direction of Adriana Maggs, who also wrote the screenplay with her sister, Jane Maggs. Adriana made her debut as a writer and director in 2010 with Grown Up Movie Star, which was nominated for a 2011 Genie for Best Screenplay. Yes, that’s right: Adriana and Jane are daughters to Randall.

I traded e-mails with Adriana Maggs last week: I sent questions, she had the answers. Here they all are:

I’ve talked to your father about Night Work and the intensity of his relationship to Terry Sawchuk’s life and story. How did yours develop? What was the process by which you decided that you wanted to make Goalie

My sister and I were looking for a project to do together. I had just come back from Sundance with my first film and met with producer Daniel Iron, who was asking what I was hoping to direct next.  At the time I was immersed in my father’s exquisite and haunting exploration of this beautiful, complex man and it just wouldn’t leave my mind. The truth is it was already forming as a film in my head. My sister felt the same way. We asked him about adapting it and he was into the idea.

The film does strike me as a kind of visual poem — an anthology of images and perceptions and sensations, of phrases, of qualities of light. How did the fact that your original text was a volume of poetry shape the form of the film?

My father interviewed so many players who watched Terry both on and off the ice for so many years and had such beautiful insights about him with the unique perspective of their understanding of the pressure and the game; their unique perspective after twenty or thirty years to reflect and ruminate on their own feelings of once being warriors. My father stood back and let those interviews become poems and the book creates a complex narrative of the game and of Terry. One I hadn’t thought of before. The poems dig into Terry’s struggle with happiness despite being the best person to ever play the position in the NHL. Terry’s story seemed to end so tragically, yet the poetry sought to explore more than that.  It ended with so much hope and redemption. A biography of Terry Sawchuk can’t do that, because a recording of the events of his life, they just don’t add up to a happy life, but we can’t know Terry’s private most inner thoughts. The poetry, the reflections of my father and the players with their age and wisdom lent us the ability to get inside his head in a way that straight up events can never could.

“I have come to accept the idea that factual history is simply too elusive,” your father writes inNight Work. As a writer and filmmaker, what was your approach to the importance of cleaving (or not) to the historical record?

A film is a different medium, obviously, and we were fortunate enough to have Terry’s son Jerry Sawchuk with us. I have a deep affection for him and we wanted to stick to his and his mother, Pat Sawchuk’s real experience as we sewed scenes together.  This led us to a second, very important book, Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World’s Greatest Goalie, a biography by David Dupuis.  There are a few biographies of Terry Sawchuk but this one was done with the Sawchuk family, who were brave and honest and wanted the real story told.

One more Night Work question: how much did you consult with your father over the course of your writing and the production of the film?

Oh, loooong discussions about themes and central ideas. I wanted the movie to feel like the book. I wanted it to track the events in Terry’s life but for viewers to come away feeling the way I felt reading the book.

Mark O’Brien’s performance is remarkable. Can you tell me about finding your Sawchuk and how you knew he was the one?

It was always Mark. Mark and I are friends from years back. He was in my first film, he was in my sister’s first play, we both are floored by his ability to possess another person. He understands what it is to be human, he navigates drama and levity and darkness and humour so seamlessly. He is a hockey player, himself. All the hockey in the film was him. Not a stunt goalie. Not a professional player. All I heard when gearing up to direct this is “the hockey can’t suck, it can’t be amateur, it has to look like the NHL.” And yet, in the early years, before Mark’s career had taken off, as we were piecing together funding, we were asked to look at actors who had apparent cache, but who didn’t have a fraction of what Mark had nor the hockey skills. There was a time I started to lose interest in the project. To be fair, these were early days and when we were getting close to being funded, and we actually started to seriously talk casting, we brought up Mark’s name and everybody was on board and thrilled.

I’m always interested in seeing how the spontaneity of a sport like hockey is dramatized. What were the challenges of directing hockey players, and of translating the fast, fluid disorder of actual NHL hockey (from another time) for the screen?

Shooting a lot, shooting with actors and professional players, shooting choreographed plays, over and over with two excellent camera operators on skates, on dollies and we even had a little robot camera on ice that the players kept tripping over.  The only issue is we couldn’t use the footage where the robot was in the scrimmage — ’cause that would’ve betrayed the period.

Hockey is obviously so dear to us as Canadians, soaked deep into our national psyche. Goalie offers up a fairly bleak vision of the game and its torments — not just in the blood and teeth that Sawchuk sheds, but in Doug Harvey’s testament (“in the end it’ll kill you”) and in Sawchuk’s own Newfoundland outburst (“Fuck hockey …”). Do you see the film as having an editorial element — and maybe even laying down an indictment of the darker aspects of hockey that we don’t always acknowledge?

Hockey is dear to Canadians. We’re a young country. The Greeks have their gods and the Norse have their gods and we have our original six who pour out onto the ice like Mount Olympus opening up. Indigenous people invented it. It reflects the sheer strength it takes to survive and thrive in a climate that makes warriors of us all.  At the same time I know ex-NHL players. My uncle was in the NHL and I listen to what he says. I’m proud of our hockey history but I’m not deluding myself, I’m not shutting out stories that conflict with the accepted narrative. I love the real story that celebrates what deserves to be celebrated and criticizes what needs to be criticized. Checks and balances keep us on top, relevant and strong, right?

Director Adriana Maggs_{62a086d9-0419-e911-944c-0ad9f5e1f797}

On Ice: Goalie director and co-writer Adriana Maggs with Mark O’Brien on the ice in Sudbury, Ontario during production.

 

 

all you have to do is stop the puck

“Out on the ice, with the game on the line, that’s where I was alive,” Terry Sawchuk says, adrift in a bit of a reverie in Goalie, the brand new feature-length film from Blue Ice Pictures that renders the life and selected torments of the Hall-of-Famer for the big screen. Mark O’Brien plays the lead, under the direction of Adriana Maggs — she also wrote the screenplay with her sister, Jane Maggs. The premiere is tonight in Toronto before the film opens Friday in assorted theatres across Canada. More Goalie coverage to come; watch this space. In the meantime, here’s a bluffer’s guide (or maybe a wincer’s) to some of the damage that hockey had done to Sawchuk by 1968. He was 38 by then, with 19 NHL seasons and four Stanley Cups behind him. He’d just finished a stint with his fourth team, the expansion Los Angeles Kings, when this graphic ran in The Canadian Magazine. After a brief return to the Detroit Red Wings in the fall of ’68, Sawchuk played one final year, ’69-’70, with the New York Rangers, before his death at 40 in May of 1970.

tijuana brash

Jean Béliveau, thoroughbreding through centre!

Frank Mahovlich, moosing down the wing past the Montreal blueline!

I don’t what it is about Blades and Brass, but it makes sense. If you’ve screened William Canning’s short film from back in bygone 1967, maybe you know this already. The old technicoloured hockey is fascinating in its own, though without the soundtrack, it just wouldn’t be the classic it is. Don Douglas wrote that, and Ken Campbell orchestrated it. Just what kind of sense the pairing of the hockey and the music makes, the how, and the why of it — that’s a whole other parcel of questions that might be better off left to itself, over there, in the shade, where maybe is it best if we just leave it unopened? The National Film Board’s catalogue copy has an understated charm that  surprises even as it fails to convey the near-perfect oddity of what you’re about to watch. “This short documentary showcases the best of the 1967 National Hockey League season, set to music in the Tijuana Brass style.”

Well, why not?

Jacques Laperriere!

Bobby Hull!

John Ferguson!

Forgive all the exclaiming, but I’m not sure there’s any other way to translate the footage to the page.

Terry Sawchuk! Eddie Giacomin! Gump Worsley in full flop!

Toronto’s Bob Pulford looking downcast! Béliveau wailing on Reggie Fleming of the New York Rangers! Phil Goyette, not seeing the shot that hits him amidships and drops him to the ice in painful anguish that causes you to shift in your seat, especially if you happen to be male! J.C. Tremblay carried off on a stretcher! One lonesome overshoe on the ice! The rink crew scraping up bloody slush! Toe Blake in a porkpie hat, chewing his chaw! Béliveau pressing a towel to a cut! Great goal, Claude Provost!

Blades And Brass is a masterpiece. Is there any doubting this? Watch it, the whole thing. It’s not long. Me, now — watching these 50-year-old scenes, I’m just not sure how I’m going to be able to endure the plain old modern non-mariachi NHL.

 

leaflet: george patterson scores a goal

g-pattersonWho scored the first Leaf goal? If you answered Tyler Bozak, well, yes, true enough, last night against the Florida Panthers he did do just that — but what about the first goal ever by a Leaf? Not this month, not this season — we’re talking here about 1927, when Conn Smythe and friends bought the team mid-season, transforming the club from one February day to the next from the St. Patricks they were to Maple Leafs we know today. If the name George Patterson doesn’t leap to mind — well, exactly.

Let’s review: the St. Patricks were 30 games into their 44-game schedule in mid-February of 1927 when Smythe did the deal that changed the complexion of hockey in Toronto. The Irish, as they were sometimes called, went to Detroit for their final game, which they lost by a score of 5-1 to the (pre-Red Wing) Cougars. It wasn’t much to see, judging by contemporary dispatches. Corb Denneny scored the St. Pats’ goal that night, the last in their history, in what sounds like an all-around dismal showing by both teams.

Other Toronto high(ish)lights: (1) Ace Bailey’s ongoing feud with Detroit’s Duke Keats was finally broken up by policemen on the penalty bench and (2) a winger by the name of George Patterson almost scored on a long shot at Cougar goalkeep Herb Stuart before stickhandling through to very nearly score another.

If Bailey remains a Maple Leaf legend, the same can’t be said of Patterson. Kingston, Ontario filmmaker Dale Morrisey is looking to change that with a new documentary, Hockey’s Lost Boy, which is just now making its way into wide release.

Patterson, who was 20 that winter and a Kingston boy himself, was in the first year of what would turn out to be a modest if incident-filled NHL career. His main claim on fame came two days after that dismal loss in Detroit when the newly minted Maple Leafs stepped out on home ice to take on the New York Americans.

In new duds, The Toronto Daily Star’s Bob Hayes wrote, “they looked like a lot of galloping ghosts in white;” more important, the home team didn’t let an early New York goal get them down, roaring back to win the game by a score of 4-1. And the very first Leaf goal, the one that started both the comeback on the night and a new era in Toronto hockey? George Patterson scored it, on a pass from Bill Brydge. “Lovely,” The Star rated it, with The Globe going a little deeper: Patterson’s “drive on the goal was so fast and well placed that [goaltender Jakie] Forbes hardly saw it.”

Morrisey’s thorough accounting of Patterson’s life and times includes interviews with former Leafs Doug Gilmour and Jim Dorey along with a host of distinguished hockey historians, including Bill Fitsell, Kevin Shea, Paul Patskou, and Mike Wilson. For more on Hockey’s Lost Boy, there’s a Facebook page, here.

the lightning game

That the New York Rangers beat the Montreal Canadiens three games to one in March of 1932 and advanced to play Toronto in the Stanley Cup final has no bearing on tonight’s meeting between the two teams, of course. If you’re a Canadiens’ fan, it might give you a bad, twitchy feeling all the same. Courage: those antique Rangers ended up losing to the Maple Leafs.

If it is 1932 that this British Pathé newsreel shows. If, as the title card tells us, it was a game played on New York ice and “CANADA (Montreal)” beat “AMERICA in play-off for Stanley Trophy — in the fastest game on earth!” … well, that didn’t happen in ’32. Montreal, two-time defending champions, only managed to win the first game that year, and that was at home. They then lost the second game, 4-3 (in epic overtime), before heading for the old Madison Square Garden and losses of 1-0 and 5-2. I think what we’re watching here is the middle New York game. That’s defenceman Ott Heller, number 14, we see scoring, as he did. A recent call-up from the Springfield Indians, he also scored in the next game, a pair of goals, but Montreal centre Pit Lepine didn’t play in that one, and he’s here in ours, number 9, at the opening face-off. (He’d collide with the Rangers’ Bill Cook before the night was out, breaking a leg.)

That said, L.S.B. Shapiro’s description of Heller’s goal in The Gazette doesn’t perfectly match up with what we see in skittering black and white:

The fair-haired rookie took the puck at his own defence, rushed down centre ice in a brilliant burst of speed and split the Canadien defence as though with a knife to burst in on Hainsworth. The goalie dived to save, but Heller played the shot with the wisdom of a veteran and flipped the puck over the goalie’s hurtling body high into the far corner of the nets. The exact time was two minutes and eight seconds after the start of the second period.

Close enough, I guess. Joseph Nichols from The New York Times saw it a little more succinctly. Heller picked the puck in his zone and sped along “the north lane.” Then:

Marty Burke advanced to check him, but the Ranger defense man feinted cleverly and evaded his eager opponent. Gaining a clear path for a shot, Heller rifled the puck past George Hainsworth, the Canadiens goalie, to register in 2:08.

When the final game of the series was all said and done, Heller was being hailed, again, as the difference-maker. The Gazette:

The brilliant reign of the Flying Frenchmen of Montreal ended in the coronation cheers of a new king of New York sportdom for, while the Canadien veterans, were fighting their hardest in the face of fatigue and painful injury, the flying feet and the tricky shift of 21-year-old Eberhardt (Ott) Heller proved the mainspring of the New York Rangers’ attack …

Hats off to him. Still, for me, Heller wins only supporting-actor laurels for his British Pathé performance. I’m much more interested in Ching Johnson’s headlong rush and Howie Morenz’s sinuous skating. Best of all, though, is George Hainsworth’s fantastic disgust with the puck in the moments after it has so brutally betrayed him.

rangers, habs: a speedy, smashing battle

As the New York Rangers prepare to face the Montreal Canadiens in their NHL conference final, maybe there’s just time for a quick look in, via British Pathé, on a 1936 meeting between the two teams packaged for European viewers. Home at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers won this December 21 meeting at by a score of 5-3, thanks to an (unsudden-death) overtime. A few glosses on the game:

• The Canadiens (8-6-2) were top of the Canadian section of the eight-team NHL (Montreal Maroons and New York Americans were still alive, that year) while the Rangers’ comparable record (8-5-3) had them second to Detroit on the American side. When the playoffs rolled around, the following March, it was the Red Wings who prevailed, beating Montreal and then the Rangers to win the Stanley Cup.

• Starting this night for Montreal were 41-year-old George Hainsworth in goal (in for Wilf Cude) with Walter Buswell and Babe Siebert on defence. Howie Morenz was at centre between right winger Johnny Gagnon (second in NHL scoring) and, on the left, Aurèle Joliat. Among the spares were Pit Lepine and Georges Mantha. Cecil Hart was the coach.

• For the Rangers, coached by Lester Patrick, it was Dave Kerr in goal with Art Coulter and Ott Heller on the blueline, fronted by Neil Colville with his brother Mac to the right and Alex Shibicky on the left. Spares included Frank Boucher, Phil Watson, and Cecil Dillon.

• Odie Cleghorn and Babe Dye were the referees. With the tie, the teams completed a ten-minute overtime.

• The New York Times:

The game was a speedy, smashing battle in which many penalties occurred, and the crowd of 14,000 hockey fans followed the action with unbounded enthusiasm.

• Watch the face-offs (right at the start of the reel and at 0:41) with the centres lined up sidelong.

• The Flying Frenchman (in the Times’ styling) went up 2-0 but the Patrickmen stormed back in the third.

• “We should have won 2-1,” Cecil Hart carped afterwards, “for Lynn Patrick was in the crease when he scored that last-minute tying goal. It should never have been allowed.”

• Montreal’s Joffre Desilets opened the scoring in the second (1:04). “A hard shot,” reported Harold Parrott in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, though you can’t really see that in the footage. British Pathé’s commentator does his best: “Canadiens’ Desilets gets the ball and streaking forward — shoots!” Note the lack of congratulatory celebration after the goal — just the goalscorer skating almost bashfully away. There’s a fleeting view, too, of Morenz.

• Stratford’s famous Streak was back that season with the Habs after a sad two-year odyssey that took him to Chicago and then, briefly, to these very Rangers. Back in Montreal, he may have lost a step or two of speed, but as of this late-December night, he stood eighth in the league in scoring with a goal and 10 assists in 16 games. A little more than a month later, he went down in home game against Chicago with his left leg fractured in four places. Just over a month after that, he died in Montreal’s Hôpital St-Luc.

• The Daily Eagle on Joliat’s goal (1:22): “A characteristic solo by [sic] Aurel Joliat, the ageless little wonder in the black hat, made it 2-0 in 18:24 of that same second period.” The Times: “The Habitant mite was in the thick of every play while he was on the ice, and his expert poke checking saved Hainsworth a lot of work in goal.”

• You can’t really see the legendary black hat — I can’t. There’s a quick glimpse of Montreal Babe Siebert wearing a helmet (1:25) — along with, on the back of his sweater, the number one. At 32, he was in his first year with the Canadiens. After a stellar, scoring career as a left winger with the Maroons and Rangers, he went to Boston where Art Ross shifted him to defence. He played three seasons paired mostly with Eddie Shore, though the two of them supposedly never talked, on or off the ice, because of a longstanding feud. Traded to Montreal when Ross decided he was past his due date, he ended the season as a first-team All-Star and won the Hart Trophy as the NHL MVP. Continue reading

time-out for a little hair-pulling

From the vaults of British Pathé, made available to the wider world on YouTube just last month, this brief reel of a 1933 tie between the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden is worth the watching. It might be the November 21 game, which finished 1-1, but that’s only a guess. Did the production team back in London have any notion of what they were seeing? The commentary, such as it is, makes you wonder. And I guess they did their best, writing the opening titles:

“All In” Ice Hockey Now! Ice rink quickly becomes fight arena in always ‘needle match’ between Canada (Toronto Maple Leafs – white jerseys) and America (The NY Rangers) (Crack teams).

That’s George Hainsworth in the Leaf goal, and you’ll see Hap Day on the rush. Red Horner is one of the protagonists in the “hair-pulling” episode, after 56 seconds or so. Is it unfair to suggest that the Toronto defence displays some familiar weaknesses? Watch also for the Leaf — don’t know who he is — arriving to support Horner with a stick raised for swiping at New York heads. And then at the end, too, after the flurry in front of the Rangers’ net, another agitated Leaf looks like he’s about to swing at the referee with his stick. I think that’s Baldy Cotton, but I apologize if I’ve got it wrong.