Terry Sawchuk was a Canadian-born champion goalie who played in the National Hockey League from the 1949 to 1970. At the time of his death, he was the all-time leader among goaltenders, with 407 wins and 103 shutouts over 21 seasons. Goalie is the moving, elegiac story of his tragically short life.
The film opens in frozen Winnipeg during the height of the Depression. Young Terry (Aiden Glenn) and his older brother, 17-year-old Mitch (Owen Maggs), are being raised by parents who are as cold and distant as the land itself. What keeps them going is their dream of becoming professional hockey players and escaping their grim, poverty-stricken surroundings.
But Mitch’s dreams are shattered when he is ordered by their father, Louis (Ted Atherton), to come work alongside him in the factory. When he suddenly collapses on the factory floor, dead from a heart attack, the family is inconsolable — especially Louis.
From then on, the boy tries to take Mitch’s place in his father’s heart, but it’s all in vain. Even years later, when the adult Terry (Mark O’Brien), is signed by the Detroit Red Wings, Louis is unmoved.
Life in the NHL starts out great for Terry. He quickly makes a name for himself as a winner and finds a father figure in Red Wings coach Jack Adams (Kevin Pollak). He enjoys being a celebrity, along with the other players on the team — but only when they’re on top.
When they hit a losing streak, everyone is susceptible to the fury of the team owners, mockery by the press, and the threat of being traded. As a matter of fact, trades happen so fast and frequently that Adams’ nickname is “Trader Jack.” This keeps the already-insecure Terry constantly on edge.
And in the early days of professional hockey, it didn’t occur to anyone that goaltenders should wear masks. With pucks flying toward him at lightning speed, Terry receives repeated traumatic injuries, and his body becomes a roadmap of the pain he’s suffered.
His coping mechanism for this tumultuous lifestyle is lots of alcohol and fits of rage. Even when he meets and marries waitress Pat Morey (Georgina Reilly), a wife and children can’t ease the torment he carries inside. Bouncing from team to team, his career begins its inevitable downward trajectory — and so does his life.
O’Brien (Arrival) is excellent as the stoic but tortured Terry, and Pollak gives an assured performance as the gregarious Adams, who wants everyone to be his pal — until they aren’t. Reilly is also affecting as Pat, who patiently waits out Terry’s frequent outbursts in the hopes of something better.
The production of Goalie is truly a family affair. Director Adriana Maggs co-wrote the screenplay with her sister, Jane, and it was partially based on the book of poetry, Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems, written by their father, Randall. Her son, Owen, plays older brother Mitch, and O’Brien and Reilly are married in real life.
Maggs directs the film with more emphasis on the drama than the action, which is appropriate, given the somber material. This tone is enhanced by Jason Tan’s cinematography and Joseph’s Karbach’s production design, which are drained of color. Even the outdoor scenes feel mournful. There’s not much sunshine in Terry’s world.
Far from being your typical uplifting sports biopic, Goalie is a solemn examination of a man who sacrifices everything in search of the fulfillment that constantly eludes him.
Goalie opens in theaters in Detroit and Los Angeles on Jan. 31, followed by a Feb. 25 DVD release via Dark Star Pictures.