There’s a scene midway through Goalie, the new Terry Sawchuk biopic that opened across Canada this month, and it’s a key one in the story of our beleaguered hero’s unwinding. It’s early in his career in Detroit, and Sawchuk, as rendered by Mark O’Brien, is already starring for the Red Wings, though the cost is already starting to tell. The puck that lies tauntingly behind him in the Detroit net has passed him by with maximum malice, which we know because he’s down on his knees, spitting out his teeth, bleeding his blood.
But that’s only the start of it. In the nearby stands, out of the Olympia hubbub, a needling voice rises: “Sawchuk! Sawchuk!” He’s nothing new, this heckler, just an everyday loudmouth, but Sawchuk has had it, enough. When Marcel Pronovost points him out, Sawchuk charges. Downs stick and gloves, skates headlong for the fence, which he scales quick as a commando.
But before the goaltender can clamber his way up to the fourth or fifth row to tear his tormenter apart, the man flees in a panic. Sawchuk’s the taunter, now. “Yeah,” he jeers, “you better run.”
Realizing where he is, he also apologizes to the fans whose midst he’s invaded. “Sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
That’s the movie. The history is that Terry Sawchuk did scale the wire at Detroit’s Olympia, in 1954, in pursuit of a vociferous fan, though it wasn’t really about him, the goaltender was really only acting in a supporting role, backing up teammates.
Credit where credit’s due: it was Red Wings captain Ted Lindsay who led the charge. Lindsay didn’t have to do any climbing, it might be noted: whereas Sawchuk was on the ice and saw fence-climbing as his only option to join the fray, Lindsay was already off the ice, on his way to the dressing room, when he identified his antagonist and went at him.
In the days since his death on March 4 at the age of 93, Lindsay has been praised as a hockey giant, which he was, no question. A dominant force on ice, Lindsay was a tenacious leader who could do it all, and did, mostly on his own terms. His dedication off the ice to the cause of players’ rights has been highlighted, as has the price he paid for not backing down in the face of lies and intimidation of the men who were running the NHL.
Here, for the moment, we’ll focus on a lesserly known episode from his career, a single season among the 17 Lindsay played. I’ll propose that it offers insights into his later battles with the NHL, and more: it also adds context to events that exploded this very March day, 64 years ago, in Montreal.
To do that, we’ll follow Ted Lindsay through the 1954-55 season, which means pursuing him into the crowd for what must (I think) count as his most cantankerous year as an NHLer — it might be one of the most cantankerous season any player played, ever.
Lindsay was in his eleventh season with the Wings, his third as team captain. He’d finished the previous season third-best in league scoring, and was elected to the 1st All-Star. His Wings were on a roll: the defending Stanley Cup champions had won three Cups in five years.
The NHL’s 38th season is and forever will be charred at the edges by Montreal’s season-ending Richard Riot. It’s with no intent to diminish the importance or damages inflicted by those ructions, nor with any disrespect to Richard, that I’m going to posit here that, when it comes to instigating uproar, Ted Lindsay’s ’54-55 is a remarkable one in its own (if mostly forgotten) right.
Also: imagine, if you would, a circumstance by which, in today’s NHL, one of the league’s marquee players, captaining the defending Stanley Cup champions, finds himself implicated in altercations with spectators, not once or twice, but on four separate occasions. It would be the story of the season — though not in ’54-55. Is it possible that this player would still be around to be to contribute to his team’s winning a second successive Cup? It is, and was — in ’54-55.
A bit of background is in order here. Early in November, 14 games into the season’s schedule, Detroit traded centre Metro Prystai to Chicago in exchange for a mostly untested right winger named Lorne Davis. A valuable cog in the Red Wings machine that won Stanley Cups in 1952 and again in ’54, Prystai was also a good friend and roommate of Lindsay’s and Gordie Howe’s at Ma Shaw’s rooming house. With Howe out with an injured shoulder, Prystai had moved in to take his place on Detroit’s top line, alongside Lindsay and Dutch Reibel.
For the defending champions, this wasn’t so much a hockey trade as a league-mandated equalization pay-out. Detroit didn’t pull the trigger so much as the NHL decided that the swap would help out Chicago, of the league’s perennially worst teams.
Conn Smythe, Toronto’s owner and martinet-in-chief, seems to have engineered the whole affair, chairing a meeting of league moguls in New York for the purpose of improving have-not teams like Chicago and Boston. “A unique professional sports move toward sharpening competitive balance,” is how Al Nickleson described it in The Globe and Mail; The Detroit Free Press dubbed it a hockey “Marshall Plan.”
Call it collusion, set it aside as an exhibit for some future (never-to-be-launched) anti-trust ligation — to the men in charge of NHL hockey, it was merely good business. Four players were involved upfront: Chicago got Prystai and Montreal’s Paul Masnick, while Boston landed Leo Boivin from Toronto. The Leafs got Joe Klukay; Detroit landed Davis; Montreal’s piece of the pie was to be named later.
“We’re trying to apply logical business sense here,” Smythe pleaded in the days before the redistribution went through. He only had the customer in mind, he would continue to insist. “What we want to do is present hockey at its highest calibre in every rink in the NHL.”
But Detroit was seething. “Is big-time hockey a legitimate sport or just a family syndicate?” Marshall Dann wondered in the local Free Press. Marguerite and Bruce Norris co-owned the Red Wings while another brother, James Norris, ran the Black Hawks. The word was that Red Wings’ GM Jack Adams didn’t know about the Prystai deal until it was already done, telling Prystai, “I’m sorry, they ganged up on us.” Adams accused Smythe of trying to break Detroit’s morale. No more would he serve on NHL committees, he said, and he vowed that he’d be boycotting Red Wings’ road trips to Toronto forthwith, as well.
The Wings had a home game the week of the Prystai trade, on the Thursday, against Smythe’s Leafs. Before the Wings hit the ice, Lindsay demanded that the Norrises, Marguerite and Bruce, meet with the players and explain to them why Prystai had been shipped out. In his 2016 memoir, Red Kelly says it was just Bruce who showed up, and that the players weren’t impressed by his explanation. They talked about sitting out the game to make clear their unhappiness. “We weren’t going to go on the ice that night, no way. The people were in the stands, but we didn’t care.”
Somehow, someone convinced them to play. They did so, let’s say, in a mood.
Ted Lindsay’s didn’t improve as the evening went on. In the second period, he unleashed on Leafs’ defenceman Jim Thomson, punching him in the face as they tangled near the Toronto bench. “They both went at it,” the Globe’s Al Nickleson wrote, “with no damage done.”
As order, or something like it, was being restored, Leaf coach King Clancy chimed in. “That’s the first time I ever saw you drop your stick in a fight, Lindsay,” is how Nickleson heard it. What he saw, next, was Lindsay throwing a glove at the coach. “The glove — it belong to Thomson — brushed Clancy and was lost in the crowd behind the bench.” Lindsay threw a punch at Clancy, too, but missed his mark.
Toronto won the game. Sid Smith scored the only goal and Leaf goaltender Harry Lumley, a former Wing celebrating his 28thbirthday, contributed a shutout. That can’t have lightened Lindsay’s temper, and when a fan spoke up as the Wings were headed off the ice, the Detroit captain decided to climb the wire and chase him down.
It’s from the scene that followed that director Adriana Maggs’ Goalie drew when she had her Terry Sawchuk climb into the crowd. Here’s Nickleson on Lindsay’s non-movie incursion:
He may have landed a blow or two — certainly he was swinging — although the action was partially hidden by fans, and by other Detroit players clambering over the high screening. Even Sawchuk, goal pads and all, made it with the help of a boost from a teammate.
Bernard Czeponis was the heckler. A blow of Lindsay’s that did land blackened his eye. He was only too happy to describe what happened to Marshall Dann from the Free Press. “I only asked Glen Skov if he wanted my crying towel,” Czeponis said. “He used foul language. Then Lindsay, instead of stopping it as a club captain should, came after me and hit me.”
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?
“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.
“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.
Head Leaf honcho Conn Smythe liked the look of the young left winger he was watching at Toronto’s training camp in September of 1949. Eighteen-year-old Danny Lewicki was fast, impossible to hit, a great stickhandler. “He looks to me,” the Leafs’ managing director said, “more like Aurèle Joliat than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Born in what was then Fort William, Lewicki died in Toronto on Monday. He was 87. His NHL career, which spanned nine seasons, included stints with the Leafs, the New York Rangers, and Chicago’s Black Hawks. There’s memorial news of that here and here, though not all of it entirely accurate. The assertion that Lewicki was the last surviving member of the Toronto team that won the 1951 Stanley Cup will be news to 95-year-old Howie Meeker. (Update, September 26: CBC.ca has amended its story to acknowledge Meeker’s survival.)
Working on a training-camp line, in 1949, with another young junior star, George Armstrong, Lewicki had Smythe thinking of some great old Leafs, too. “They’re the best pair I’ve seen together since Charlie Conacher and Harvey Jackson,” he said.
All of which boded well for the here-and-now Leafs, but for one small catch: Lewicki had no interest in playing for the Leafs. He had, it’s true, signed a contract as a 16-year-old indenturing himself to the team, but as he wrote in his 2006 autobiography, From The Coal Docks To The NHL, Lewicki felt he’d been duped. Rather than report to the Toronto’s Junior-A Marlboros as the Leafs wanted, Lewicki preferred to return to the team in Stratford where he’d played previously. “I don’t like Toronto,” he told reporters. “It’s too big.”
Smythe stood fast: Lewicki could either play in Toronto or he could play nowhere at all. He eventually did join the Marlboros in time to help them win the 1950 Allan Cup.
Graduating to the Leafs the following year, he skated on a line with Joe Klukay and centre Max Bentley. Bentley told him that it was the second-best line he ever played on, next to the so-called Pony Line on which Bentley had previously prospered in Chicago alongside brother Doug and Bill Mosienko. Lewicki finished third in the voting that year for the Calder Trophy for best newcomer, behind Detroit’s Terry Sawchuk and teammate Al Rollins. And then there was, too, of that Stanley Cup the Leafs won in the spring of ’51, beating Montreal in five games. Not a bad way to start an NHL career in the city he’d done his best to shun.