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?

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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.

the winter crop of the snow-covered fields

Come for the views from bygone days deep inside the Toronto Maple Leafs’ dressing room, stay for the priceless glimpse of Frank Nighbor out on the pond, schooling the youngsters in the lost art of stealing pucks from charging forwards.

Hot Ice is a short Canadian-government confection from 1940, a meandering piece of propaganda that American director and writer Irving Jacoby devised to congratulate Canadians on the “national folk dance” they practice on skates, with sticks. Morley Callaghan contributed “extra commentary,” the credits say; I guess we can forgive him that. “Wherever they are, whatever they’re doing,” our narrator innocently blathers, “whenever Canadians get together, hockey is news. Good news — good enough to bring us from the fireside, crowds of us — gay, hopeful, good-natured crowd, with faith in their own spirit.” Yay for us, I guess — though the us depicted, it’s worth noting, is so very white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, male. Still, the hockey footage is fascinating. Guided into the Leafs’ dressing room, we find the self-conscious players getting into gear, Red Horner and Sweeney Schriner, Gordie Drillon with some stagey rough-housing, Turk Broda padding up. Here’s trainer Tim Daly showing off his cabinet of salves, and Tommy Nayler at the skate-sharpener  — and coach Dick Irvin taping up Syl Apps’ sore shoulder. Conn Smythe prepping the troops before battle! Or pretending to. The final minutes of Hot Ice take us out onto Maple Leaf Gardens’ ice for Foster Hewitt narrating the Leafs and the New York Rangers having at it. Alf Pike! Bingo Kampman! Muzz Patrick! Ott Heller! Referee Bill Stewart! All of them, and (for some reason) a series of cutaways to fake fans for their insights on the action — and incitements to attack the Ranger goaltender. “Why don’t they hit [Dave] Kerr in the head with a brick?” you’ll hear amid the chatter, should you choose to endure it.

The best part, for me? Back before we get to Leafs and Rangers, at the nine-minute mark or so, there’s a 40-second cameo by a 47-year-old Frank Nighbor. Yes, the Hall-of-Famer just happens to be passing by the old frozen slough where the kids are out playing, and yes, the Peach has his skates on, and his stick — and he just happens to be wearing his old striped sweater from when he helped the 1927 Ottawa Senators win the Stanley Cup (this very one). It would be great to hear Nighbor’s voice here, instead of the narrator’s, droning on, but never mind: Nighbor is about to show the boys his sweep-check. Pay attention — the demonstration lasts just a few seconds. The sweep may only have been the second-best of Nighbor’s legendary defensive weapons (after the hook-check), not to mention mostly obsolete by 1940 as an effective hockey utensil — still, though, make no mistake, this is like a visit with Monet at Giverny, meeting the artist as he quietly deigns to show you a masterpiece.

terry sawchuk: big hands, fast reflexes, an already much-stitched face

Wheelmen: Detroit’s powerful 1959 line-up included (from left) Marcel Pronovost, Terry Sawchuk, Red Kelly, coach Sid Abel, Alex Delvecchio, and Gordie Howe.

“He has big hands, fast reflexes, and an unorthodox, gorillalike crouch — ‘I feel more comfortable down there.’” So chronicled Life magazine’s unnamed writer in a February, 1952 feature profiling Detroit Red Wing goaltender Terry Sawchuk. Winnipeg-born on this date when it was a Saturday in 1929, Sawchuk was a mere 22 in ’52, and just halfway through his second season in the NHL, but already Life was prepared to proclaim him the greatest goalie ever. In 50 games up to that point in the season, he’d accumulated ten shutouts and a miserly average of 1.86 goals a game. He’d play all of the Red Wings’ 70 games that year, and be named to the NHL’s First All-Star while winning the first of his four career Vézina trophies. That same spring, Sawchuk would backstop the Red Wings to the first of the four Stanley Cups he’d get his name on before he died, aged 40, in 1970. Already in ’52, Life was registering the damage he’d sustained doing his duty, noting that it wasn’t so healthy for a man in his position to be guessing where the puck was going and getting it wrong: “Sawchuk has 40 stitches on his face to prove it.”

Sawchuk’s eventful story is the subject of a Canadian biopic due for release in 2019. It’s a narrative (as some early production notes explain) that explores Sawchuk’s youth as well as his 20-year, five-team NHL career — “during which he recorded 103 shutouts and 400 stitches to his face.”

Filmed mostly in Sudbury, Ontario, earlier this year, Goalie (Blue Ice Pictures) stars Mark O’Brien as the man himself. It also features Kevin Pollak in the role of Detroit GM Jack Adams. Adriana Maggs is directing; with her sister Jane Maggs, she also co-wrote the screenplay that draws on both the poems in Night Work (2008) by their father, Randall Maggs, and David Dupuis’ 1998 biography Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World’s Greatest Goalie.