Original-Cin Q&A: Director and star of Terry Sawchuk biopic talk pain, hyper-critical hockey fans and "Ukrainian dumplings"


Adriana Maggs – director and co-writer (wiith her sister Jane Maggs) of the Terry Sawchuk biopic Goalie – doesn’t consider her film a sports movie. 

“It’s about pain and isolation and I guess about not being happy,” she says in a dual interview with the movie’s star Mark O'Brien (Republic of Doyle). “How could a hero not have been happy? Maybe that’s something important to understand.”

Not a huge sports fan herself – but quickly becoming familiar with the fans’ passion towards icons – Maggs’ connection to the story comes courtesy of her father Randall Maggs, who wrote a book called Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems. She also has a favourite uncle, Darryl Maggs, who ended his playing career as a Chicago Blackhawk.

Director Adriana Maggs plans Terry Sawchuk’s next play with star Mark O’Brien in Goalie

Director Adriana Maggs plans Terry Sawchuk’s next play with star Mark O’Brien in Goalie

So, Goalie - which opens in theatres Friday - is not a happy nor triumphant movie about one of the greatest goalies of all time, “The Uke,” the guy who was in net the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1967.

Original-Cin’s Jim Slotek sat down to nitpick, talk hockey and filmmaking with Newfoundlanders Maggs and O’Brien, who previously worked together in Maggs’ Sundance feature Grown Up Movie Star. O’Brien had just confessed that, in a scene set in Newfoundland, his St. John’s accent slipped in for the first time in his career.

ORIGINAL-CIN: Okay, then let’s talk about accents. Terry Sawchuk grew up in the North End of Winnipeg in the ‘30s. Even when I grew up there in the ‘70s, everybody’s Ukrainian mom had an accent. He’s a cultural hero to Ukrainians. Did his parents (played by Ted Atherton and Janine Theriault) not have accents?

ADRIANA MAGGS: “I know that his dad was Ukrainian, he had an accent and the mom didn’t. We just kind of went, ‘Let’s not do it.’ I’ve got to be honest with you, I have a hard time with pretend accents.”

MARK OBRIEN: “We didn’t key on that. I mean, there was one reference to him being Ukrainian in the movie, where they mention ‘Ukrainian dumplings.’”

OC: You mean ‘pierogies.’ No one has ever referred to them as ‘Ukrainian dumplings.’

MAGGS: “Oh my God, we’re dead. I knew we were going to get called on something.”

OC: Wait, I’ve got more later. But I understand this movie was inspired by your dad’s book of poems.

MAGGS: “He says it’s poetry, but there are a lot of beautiful interviews with players. And it’s very haunting. It explores the hero on the ice and also the man.”

OC: Which explains the elegiac quality of the film. It’s not the kind of movie that ends with a big celebration. I mean, the movie starts with his autopsy.

O’BRIEN: “I think that’s what’s true about it. An athlete’s career, and I think an artist’s career too, is not just fixed by one end point. Like we weren’t making Hoosiers, where they win the championship. There’s nothing wrong with that. But Terry could keep winning Cups and nothing would change, it wouldn’t make his problems go away.” 

MAGGS: “We wanted to explore his childhood, which was filled with tragedy actually (mainly the death at 17 of his favoured brother and goaltending mentor). And I think the trauma from that enters your DNA.”

OC: I was reminded of Walk the Line, when Johnny Cash’s dad says, “The wrong kid died.”

MAGGS: “I know, it’s funny. There’s almost the same line in Stand by Me.”

O’BRIEN: “And think about how much that gives you something to prove the rest of your life.”

OC: The opening, with the rundown of every injury Terry Sawchuk had his entire life, seems contemporary, especially now with issues of CTE and concussions. Do you think this is the story of a pathology? Because he starts out as a shy, nice guy, who turns ugly with these outbursts of rage.

MAGGS: “I don’t think he was self-medicating.”

O’BRIEN: “If you’re in pain every single day, it’s going to affect your relationships. The bruising and stuff. That’s true. He would take off his shirt in the locker room and he would be just black. Jerry Sawchuk, his son, said he remembers that every time his dad took his shirt off, he would be like, black and purple and beat up. I mean, to do that every day…”

MAGGS: “And then you’re going to do it again tomorrow. Another trauma for the character was getting traded from Detroit to Boston. He thought he’d found a family, they were going to love him.”

OC: That was interesting, because the father figure who betrayed him, Jack Adams, was portrayed before by Al Waxman (in the TV movie Net Worth), who played him as the SOB everybody remembers. Kevin Pollak plays him much softer.

Kevin Pollak as the oft-vilified ‘Trader Jack’ Adams

Kevin Pollak as the oft-vilified ‘Trader Jack’ Adams

O’Brien: (To Maggs) “I think you did a really good job with that scene where (Adams) says, ‘You and I are people whose lives are always hanging in the balance. It’s not like he was deliberately screwing him over. He was on a short leash too.”

MAGGS: “And he (Adams) was horrifically poor, and what he pulled himself up from is incredible. So, it’s important to look at the reasons why people are the way they are.”

OC: Adriana, besides your father’s influence, why was it that you had to make this movie?

MAGGS: “Well, there was my uncle. I have his retirement watch from the Blackhawks. He didn’t want a watch. He wanted a belt buckle. But they gave him a watch anyway, so he said, ‘Make it a woman’s watch.’ And now I have it. He was a handsome man. He’s still a handsome man.

“I don’t know. My other movie has hockey in it too. I think it’s like I love the mythology of hockey. I just think we’re Canadian, and maybe not every community in Canada loves hockey, but we all came here for this interview today. It’s minus 10 out there. We exist in this kind of ‘we shouldn’t probably live here’ place and our sports heroes are our gods. The Original Six, they fought against the ice.”

O’BRIEN: “It’s a warrior sport. I grew up in minus-20 weather to go skate, I think, every day. I still play three times a week.”

OC: Mark, were you always in line to play Terry Sawchuk?

O’BRIEN: “When Adriana mentioned it to me, I wasn’t sure it was serious. It was long before, when I was in her first movie. I wasn’t sure she, like, really meant it.”

MAGGS: “Maybe because it ended up taking eight years to make.”

OC:Eight years?

MAGGS: “My God yes, from writing the script and optioning the script. And then we wrote it over and over and got a million notes and consultants and Telefilm.”

OC: Do you think you ever got pushback because you were a woman, or a non-diehard hockey fan telling this story?

MAGGS: “I don’t think so. Maybe it would be a better movie if a super fan made it. But last year I wrote on Frontier, a fur trader show, I did an apocalypse show (Aftermath), a cop show (Rookie Blue) and a drug smuggling show (Caught). 

O’BRIEN: “Luckily you had a background in each one.” (Laughs).

OC: Let me preface this by saying, ALL pro sports in the ‘50s were really white, and hockey was probably the whitest sport this side of golf. I’m assuming the black guy in the Bruins dressing room (Dwight Forde) is supposed to be Willie O’Ree (who broke the NHL colour barrier in 1958).

MAGGS: “Yes.”

OC: But they never played together. Has anybody mentioned that?

MAGGS: “You have no idea. I’ve had loads of comments online about that. But we did it because we’re condensing 30 years into 90 minutes, and one of the things I wanted to show was the progression of the game. And yeah, they missed each other by a season or something, but y’know what? I really just wanted to see a black dude. I wanted to show that the game was growing. I thought it was really important.

“(Hockey historian) Paul Patskou,our consultant, said, ‘They didn’t play at the same time.’ And I said, ‘Can’t I do this one thing?’”