Updated: Jan 1
Gone nearly 50 years now, Hall-of-Famer Terry Sawchuk comes to mind often when hockey’s greatest NHL goalies are mentioned by fans over a beer or two. His accomplishments were many. Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1929, and growing to a strong six feet at over 200 pounds, Sawchuk was a standout in his early years with the Detroit Red Wings. Nicknamed “Ukey” via his Ukrainian background, he rewrote the record book.
In first five full seasons, ranging from 1950-51 to 1954-55, he recorded an amazing 56 shutouts and helped Detroit take five straight first-place finishes and three Stanley Cups. Early in the decade, some sports people had already claimed him the greatest goalie to ever strap on a pair of pads. They loved his innovative “gorilla-crouch” style, where he bent his upper chest forward, head almost resting on the top of his pads to see screen shots better. That way he didn’t have to peer around the well-muscled, padded bodies to pick up the puck. Instead, he only had to look through all the many legs--opposition and teammates--in front of him. No one had seen such a technique before.
But, by the spring of 1955, Terry was becoming a headache to management and had to go. The one time happy-go-lucky player, he had lost considerable weight, turned sarcastic and irritable, stuck to himself and was hitting the booze. That June, he was dealt to the Boston Bruins in a 9-player deal. Besides, Detroit had youngster goaltender Glenn Hall waiting in the minors to take over. Sawchuk spent the next two seasons in Boston before being sent back to the Detroit Red Wings in time for the 1957-58 season, after Detroit had traded Hall to the Chicago Black Hawks.
Barring mood swings, a broken marriage, and continued drinking, Ukey lumbered through the next years in Toronto, Los Angeles, a third time with Detroit, before one season in New York, where he died in the spring of 1970, never quite living up to the standard of play he had achieved in the first-half of the 1950s, although he finished his 20-year career with 103 shutouts lifetime (a record that stood 40 years) plus 12 more in post-season, and one more Stanley Cup victory in 1967, the last Toronto Maple Leafs championship. What’s more, his weight had dropped to barely 170 pounds and he had acquired 400 stitches to his face prior to donning a face mask half-way through his career…
Let’s jump ahead to March 1, 2019, when the dark-drama, biographical film of Terry Sawhuck’s life, Goalie, appeared in select theatres across Canada. Written by sisters Adriana and Jane Maggs, produced by the former, directed by Daniel Iron, and starring Mark O’Brien as Sawchuk, Goalie was distributed by Mongrel Media.
I saw the two-hour long film one Saturday night a few months ago--CBC TV had picked it up--along with my wife and another couple. None of us were impressed. It had to be the worst sports movie--by far--I have ever sat down to watch. Good thing I didn’t pay for it in a theatre. I even felt embarrassment for the three others with me that evening.
Why was it so bad? Where do I start?
OK, this was an historical piece. First, due to copyright issues, the uniforms used weren’t anywhere close to what the Original Six teams wore during that time period. The hockey scenes looked cheap because of this. Second, the person who played Red Wings’ General Manager Jack Adams--veteran actor Kevin Pollak--was wearing a scruffy beard or maybe it was supposed to be a goatee. Are you kidding me, in the Fifties? Adams never wore any facial hair at any time in his life, certainly not in the 1950s. So much for authenticity.
Being an author myself, I had learned one thing in my putting any novel together: It needs ups and downs in the storyline. Goalie was one big downer from beginning to end. It’s a very one-sided movie. It’s reminiscent of a marriage counsellor getting the story from one spouse, then coming down hard on the other person without checking the latter’s side in the matter. I think the writers had it in for hockey players. Or so it seemed.
To illustrate more, I own 18 different books on my baseball hero, New York Yankees Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle. My favorite is The Last Boy, Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood by Jane Leavy, not because it’s candy coated, but because it presents both sides of a complicated man: his amazing talent, how his teammates loved him and protected him, accompanied by his demons, including his hard drinking, womanizing, and his awful attempt at fatherhood for his four sons who experienced substance abuse themselves, along with their mother.
Goalie doesn’t come close to presenting both sides of Sawchuk clearly. Certain scenes could’ve easily have been depicted in only a few minutes to lift the movie from its depressive state, such as Sawchuk’s “last hurrah” in the NHL, instead of the film only mentioning it in passing. It was Game Five of the first round of the 1967 playoffs, the third-place Leafs vs the heavily favored first-place Chicago Black Hawks tied at two games apiece. Johnny Bower started in the nets for Toronto but was replaced quickly after one shaky period with the mighty Hawks up 2-0. Sawchuk came in to take over.
Early in the second period, he took a Bobby Hull slapshot on the shoulder that knocked him out cold. After coming to with the help of smelling salts administered by the trainer, Sawchuk looked up just in time to see Stan Mikita skate by and say, “Stay down, Ukey.” Sawchuk uttered a few choice words that I won’t repeat and got up…ready and raging mad. Over the next two periods, Sawchuk stopped shot after shot, many of them sure goals, as his teammates mounted a comeback one goal at a time. As a 15-year-old, I saw the game on TV and it sent chills all over me.
With five minutes to go in the game, the Hawks had all but packed it in. “You could see it. They literally gave up…these guys aren’t champions…when we saw that, we knew we had won,” said Leaf teammate Red Kelly. Another Leaf, Ron Ellis added, “I can still see him [Sawchuk] standing on his head, challenging Hull. He was so courageous. I’ll never forget it.”
Sawchuk stopped a total of 37 shots in two periods. By game’s end, the Hawks had outshot the Leafs 49 to 31. But the Leafs won 4-2. Back to Maple Leaf Gardens for Game Six, the Leafs took the series with Sawchuk between the pipes, turning aside 35 shots and winning 3-1. Sawchuk’s two periods of superb play in Game Five was easily the turning point in the series as well as the Leaf post-season, resulting in a Stanley Cup championship.
I feel sorry for any young hockey fan watching Goalie. They’d be left with the impression that Terry Sawchuk was a loser, an angry deadbeat, a drunk.
When Sawchuk died May 31, 1970--as a result from a fight with New York Rangers teammate Ron Stewart on the lawn beside the house the two had been renting for the now-finished 1969-70 season--Rangers General Manager Emile Francis saw Sawchuk’s body (at 40 he looked more like 80) in the morgue and uttered to himself, “There’s the greatest goalkeeper I had ever seen.”
Despite Sawchuk’s demons, that’s the impression of the netminder that movie goers should have been left with: a positive for a person who had severe off-ice problems. Terry Sawchuk’s impact on the game was unquestionable. He was something special, and he deserved better than how he was portrayed in Goalie.