Goalie: NHL Hall of Famer Terry Sawchuk's life told as painful, downhill spiral

By Jim Slotek

Rating: B-minus

Notwithstanding the experience of two generations of Leafs Nation, most sports fans are not in it to get depressed.

Indie film fans, on the other hand, don’t mind a little ennui with their history. Unfortunately, a Venn diagram of the two groups would provide but a sliver of people who might appreciate Adriana MaggsTerry Sawchukbiopic Goalie. I guess i’m one of them, more or less.

The troubled Sawchuk was considered one of the greatest goaltenders of all time (he had more wins and shut-outs than anybody at the time he died), and backstopped the Leafs to their last Stanley Cup in 1967 (I did use the word “history” somewhere, right?). But anyone expecting a road to glory will be disappointed by the dour Goalie, which presents Sawchuk’s career as one long, pain-ridden ride downhill awash in booze, depression and outbursts of violence. Even that Cup, so venerated by so many, is practically glossed over, a final pit-stop en route to the Winnipeg-born Sawchuk’s ignominious last act.

The legend as basket case. Mark O’Brien as Terry Sawchuk and Kevin Pollak as Jack Adams in Goalie

The legend as basket case. Mark O’Brien as Terry Sawchuk and Kevin Pollak as Jack Adams in Goalie

How mordant is Goalie (which was inspired by Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems by Maggs’ dad Randall Maggs)? It opens with his autopsy (he died after a fight with Rangers teammate Ron Stewart in 1970). The litany of scars and ancient contusions takes us to one that is deemed to have been suffered in childhood, a segue to scenes of Sawchuk’s childhood in Winnipeg.

(This desanguination of sports glory is not new. As recently as last year, Janus Metz Pedersen gave us the largely-unseen Borg vs McEnroe, which took arguably the greatest Wimbledon Final of all time, and turned it into a framework for a peek into the anguish of Björn Borg’s soul. Swedes!).

As a biopic, Goalie takes some liberties. There’s the motivating childhood-trauma (the death of a beloved brother who also was Sawchuk’s goaltending mentor), which, though true, is a trope in this kind of movie. It would have been nice to see Winnipeg in the ‘30s presented with as much care as Detroit in the ‘50s though. “The Uke’s” North End was a melting pot of East-European accents then and would have been great colour.

Speaking of colour, there’s an attempt to make this whitest of sports in the whitest of decades into something a little more inclusive. When called up from the juniors to the Red Wings, Sawchuk (Mark O'Brien) spots a spiffy pair of shoes in a store run by two African Americans. They immediately recognize him as the Wings’ rookie goalie and practically give him the shoes. I have to think young Blacks in the early ‘50s would be into sports like baseball and the NBA that were breaking the colour barrier, but okay.

More glaring is Sawchuk’s trade to Boston in 1955, where we see him playing with Willie O’Ree (Dwight Forde), the first black NHL player (who didn’t play until 1958, by which time Sawchuk had been traded back to Detroit. They not only never played together, they probably never even met).

I guess only fans would nitpick like this. But they might appreciate Maggs’ decision to sprinkle the narrative with “interviews” with aged hockey legends (played by actors) like the Hall of Fame ref Red Storey (Sean McCann), the Canadiens’ Doug Harvey (Joel Thomas Hynes) and Stewart (Jamie Maczko), super-imposing their career stats.

I did like Kevin Pollak’s performance as infamous Wings GM “Trader Jack” Adams, generally remembered as an SOB (as per Al Waxman’s portrayal in the TV movie Net Worth), but softened up here as a kind of mercurial father figure to Sawchuk.

As for the lead, O’Brien brings a brittle, unknowable demeanor to his portrayal of Sawchuk, which seems right (he apparently wasn’t much of a talker). And his interaction with his eventual wife Pat (Georgina Reilly, O’Brien’s real-life spouse) comes off as the most believable relationship in the movie, even when Sawchuk later falls off the rails and turns abusive.

The pacing of the movie is a little off-putting. If Sawchuk’s life was one of highs (winning) and lows (pain and self-doubt), we don’t ride that rollercoaster with him. There’s a sameness to the telling, where each event, big or trivial, good or bad, seems like just another thing that happens en route to a bad end, by which time the audience feels like its absorbed as many hits as its protagonist.

Goalie. Directed by Adriana Maggs. Starring Mark O’Brien, Georgina Reilly and Kevin Pollak. Opens Friday, May 1 in Toronto and Vancouver.