A movie about the trials and tribulations and ultimately the tragic death of Detroit Red Wings goalie Terry Sawchuk opened at 10 Emagine theaters in Metro Detroit on the weekend and continues through this weekend at most of the theaters.
'Goalie' features Canadian actor Mark O'Brien as Sawchuk, who Detroit teammate Gordie Howe said was the "best goalie he ever saw."
Detroit News assistant sports editor Mark Falkner talked with O'Brien about his role as lead actor and executive producer, Sawchuk's depression and alcoholism and why the death of the four-time Stanley Cup champion at age 40 was a tragedy.
►Question: Why did you want to tell this story about Terry Sawchuk?
►Answer: He's known as the greatest goalie of all time and I thought that warranted a movie about him when you consider his life was pretty interesting. You heard the names of Ken Dryden and Jacques Plante but Terry Sawchuk was the best. He also died at such a young age and he was quite a competitor and his career was so up and down. He faced so many physical challenges. I just thought that made for a great hockey movie and as a hockey fan it was such a unique thing to play a character like that.
Trailer for Terry Sawchuk movie 'Goalie,' which debuted this weekend in 10 theaters in Metro Detroit The Detroit News
►Q. Wasn't it odd that goalies didn't wear masks back in the 1950s?
►A. It was just kind of eye-opening to think that's what someone would risk every single time he goes to work. Back then, they weren't making the kind of money they are today and there wasn't a union and all that kind of stuff. He was completely fearless. If you lowered into that crouch that he did, your head is basically right in the middle of the net which is where most pucks are going to wind up. As a hockey player myself, I grew up wearing a cage. I can't imagine how much pain he played through immense pain.
Q. How would you describe Sawchuk's goaltending style?
A. He was extremely quick but he also tracked the puck very well. That's what I got from watching tape of him. He was also a winner. Even if he let in four goals, he was going to do everything he could to win that game. There was just no quit. I'm a Montreal Canadiens fan and you look at Brendan Gallagher. He just never stops. I really admire that attitude. You're just going to have to kill me. That's the only way I'm going to stop.
►Q. What was the pressure like when Sawchuk came to Detroit to replace Harry Lumley, who had led the team to a Stanley Cup in 1950?
►A. It was certainly daunting. He was 20, 21 and he just came from Winnipeg. It was so different from today. We have so many facts and figures and stats at our fingertips and we have footage to rank players and analyze players and video analysis. Back then, nobody knew who Terry was when he showed up in Detroit. All they knew was (GM) Jack Adams called up this kid from Winnipeg after Lumley got hurt. There was no hype and if you were good, you just kept playing and playing. It was also probably very lonely, kind of like when players go off to juniors at 14 years old. It's scary and you're uncertain about your future. He went from Winnipeg to this massive city with this storied franchise and if I make it, I am the guy. That's the pressure. And there's only six teams so there's only six goalies. The pressure was this moment. He took it and ran with it.
►Q. Detroit News reporter Jerry Green remembers watching Terry Sawchuk go after a heckling fan after a 1-0 loss to the Leafs at the old Olympia in 1955. Does that sound like something Sawchuk would do?
►A. From what I can surmise, that must've made him irate, to hear fans remind him of his play. It was that competitive spirit that you don't see as often today. Everyone is kind of chill although I'm saying this after we just saw a goalie fight (Oilers vs. Flames on Saturday) but you don't see people jumping into the stands. As a fan, I love that in a player, somebody who really cares and hates losing and will fight until the bitter end. It's kind of like the guy who blocks a shot with 30 seconds left in a 4-0 game. It might be deemed not smart but it's impressive.
►Q. How would you describe Sawchuk's relationship with GM Jack Adams, who traded Sawchuk to Boston despite winning three Stanley Cups in five years?
►A. It was certainly a very complicated relationship because this was a time when players weren't traded as often. Trader Jack wouldn't be called Trader Jack today. He would be called Conservative Jack. Back then it was rare, especially for a goalie who had a goals against average under two in his first five years. That trade completely damaged the relationship. You're lauded as a great goalie and you're winning Vezinas (Trophy) and Cups and then all of a sudden you're gone. It becomes personal.
►Q. Your wife in the movie (Georgina Reilly, his real-life spouse) said 'Goalie' is also a sad story about someone who didn't get a lot of help for depression and alcoholism. Do you agree?
►A. Athletes are looked at to be these strong men but they're just people who are doing things that are very difficult and physically demanding. That's likely going to take its toll psychologically. Some people are going to be able to handle it and others aren't. Back then, it wasn't really okay to talk about this. If Terry had spoken about how he felt, he probably would've felt he was in danger of losing his job. I don't want to talk out of turn too much but I feel he probably wasn't fully aware of what he was feeling. I always looked at him as someone who wasn't articulating his feelings. That confusion was even worse because he didn't know what was going on.
►Q. Is Sawchuk's story a tragedy?
►A. I think so because he only lived until he was 40. That's tragic. That's a very young age to die. In North American sports, he had one of the top 10 most impressive careers, for sure. It's just his tragic demise at such a young age. His kids loved him for who he was and I think they came to understand him. Yes, he fought demons but he still fought through them, had a family that loved him and still succeeded.
►Q. Any final lessons about the life and times of Terry Sawchuk?
►A. When you see someone you revere, remember they're a person just like us. What I think is interesting about the movie is it's not a journey towards Game 7. It's about how he just continues trying to get better, succeeding, how it's almost infinite. Sometimes when we watch someone we admire and they don't do a good job, we kind of get angry with them. But they're just someone who is trying their best, especially right now when you see what happened with Kobe Bryant. We're all human. We're not superhumans.