Mark Dwyer: The Troubled Genius

By: Mark Dwyer

His face changed hockey. Staring down shooters in the no mask era of the 1950s and ‘60s, Terry Sawchuk played the game like it was a matter of life or death. Perhaps it was. The tangled scars of 16 NHL seasons were brutally visible, the result of over 400 stitches and, by age 30, even Frankenstein would have surrendered the goalie pads to save face.

His deepest scars, though, were well hidden. By 40, one of hockey’s greatest goaltenders was dead.

Under a Dark Cloud

Sawchuk stopped his last puck in 1970, a year before I was even born, but his legend has lingered like a dusty hockey card. Some say he was the greatest and his Hall of Fame numbers present a solid argument – four-time Stanley Cup champ, 11-time all-star and a mantel lined with hardware.

But despite national adoration, the star goaltender trudged through much of his life under a dark cloud. He is also remembered as a troubled alcoholic who reportedly took his anger out on his wife and children. In ‘70, while playing in New York, he was injured during a drunken fight with Rangers teammate Ron Stewart, and later died of internal injuries. He was 40.

Goalie, a biopic recounting his troubled life and iconic career, will hit the big screen next month and the actor behind Sawchuk’s mask is none other than Newfoundland’s own Mark O’Brien. The Paradise native, 34, spent much of his childhood on blades but that’s where the parallels end. “I’ve never played a character like this,” says O’Brien, also listed as the film’s executive producer.

Sawchuk was an enigma – celebrated but miserable. Born at the beginning of the Depression in ’29, he came from a working-class Ukrainian family in Winnipeg where tragedy arrived early – losing two young brothers to illness. His dad Louis, who fled impoverished Ukraine as a child, was harder than any puck. Louis once settled an argument with a former Canadian boxing champ with a single punch. 

“He had a lot of problems but they were justifiable in a weird sort of way,” O’Brien rationalized in an exclusive interview with Herald scribe Dillon Collins.

Incredibly Athletic

Nicknamed Uke – a tribute to his Ukrainian ancestry – he shouldered grief like a lumbering hockey bag, appearing moody, bitter and combative. His role between the pipes was hardly an escape from the inner turmoil that haunted him from childhood. Of all the troubled occupations of a sportsman, none was more daunting – or sadistic – than that of an unmasked hockey goalie from that era. The game proved violent from the crease as Sawchuk used every inch of his modest 5’9 frame, including his face, to stop the puck. He was fearless and incredibly athletic, arguably the greatest ever. “You could throw a handful of rice at him and he’d catch every piece,” former teammate Ted Lindsey once said.

Emotionally and psychologically, it’s a perilous position to play. A single mistake shows up on the scoreboard or the emergency room. It’s strangely unpredictable where the highs and lows of a game sway like manic depression. It was the world Sawchuk knew.

It’s not unlike the role of an actor where you’re exposed to the task at hand, vulnerable but deliberate. Perhaps it’s why O’Brien, a bright talent in his own field, takes such pride in sharing Sawchuk’s life story.

As loved as he was, the hockey legend presented a sad character. O’Brien’s test in this film will be to tell the story and emerge emotionally unscathed, something Sawchuk couldn’t do.

Mark Dwyer, NTV’s Director of News & Current Affairs, can be reached by emailing [email protected]

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