This is the second part of my interview with Canadian poet Randall Maggs. (Read the first part of the interview here, and the third part here). I spoke to him about his book Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems, which was published by Brick Books in 2008. Night Work explores the turbulent life and career of NHL goaltender Terry Sawchuk, and casts both a critical and elegiac eye on the brutal world of the National Hockey League in the fifties and sixties. I spoke to him from his home in Newfoundland.
Nolan: Something that's critical in the book is looking backwards. In the key middle section where Terry is with the Boston Bruins and the Bruins go on a tour of Newfoundland after they miss the postseason, a line that reoccurs three times is "There's a memory." The players look up at the rafters and they see frost on the bolts, or they're looking at a frozen pond.
Randall: Jeez, is that line in there more than once?
Nolan: With slight variation it's in there three times.
Randall: That's what I was getting at, Nolan, with that Newfoundland section, and maybe that relates to the title.
When those guys came to Newfoundland to play, you know Terry was very unsociable and very unhappy because when he was he was here at that time, which would have been early April of '56, the Detroit Red Wings were in the playoffs again and Glenn Hall was wearing his sweater. I mean his exact same sweater. There was a blood stain on it that Terry remembered and it was on the sweater that Hall was wearing.
So Terry wasn't happy, but I think the players in a way came back to play in rinks with crowds that they'd known growing up. It took them back into their past into a game that I saw as being somehow a little romantic. The professional game, there's a taint about it that I think all fans are suspicious of. The pure game is a game played out in the open, in the open air, and once you put guys inside a building, and especially the way some of those owners manipulated the players... it's kind of a prostitution of the game, and that's what I was trying to get at in the title of the book. I'm not explaining that very well today, but that's what I was getting at with the whole idea of "night work."
Most of these guys grew up in small towns in Ontario and the prairies. I think the tour of Newfoundland put them back in that world. Especially when they went to Bay Roberts. They didn't realize this, but they ended up playing outdoors. That's what I was getting at with that line.
Nolan: And the whole idea of, as you put it, the prostitution of the game, everybody calls that Original Six era the golden era, but it's not romanticized in this work. It seems a very brutal, vicious period of treatment of the players.
Randall: Yeah, I think so. In some ways when I look back on it, that game is still closer to pond hockey than the modern game. Sawchuk was devastated when he was traded from the Red Wings. Players hated being traded more in those days. And the idea of a guy like Marian Hossa jumping from team to team to get a winner, even the notion of wanting to go to a team that was going to win. I am so offended by those three basketball players going to Miami. That's the worst kind of collusion, that's as bad as owner collusion. That's the modern game. The lack of loyalty to a city, the lack of loyalty to the fans, the gouging that goes on with the fans.
The old game was to my way of thinking more human. The scale was more human. Like Sawchuk and Bob Pulford sneaking out after the second period, going into this little room under the stairs and having a cigarette. Or there's a picture, I don't know if you've seen one where Sawchuk's sitting with Johnny Bower and he's got a cigarette down between his legs. It was more like what senior hockey is like now.
Nowadays there's so much money involved in it, the guys are all fitness freaks and super-conditioned. I'm sure the drinking is kept to a minimum. There's just too much money involved in the game now, I think that's basically the problem. Not that those guys back in those days would have said no to that kind of money. It just wasn't available to them. But they were treated badly. I think the only reason they're treated better now is because of the union, that's all.
Nolan: Reflecting on what you just said, there's a couple of lines that stand out. One is when Terry gets his face smashed by yet another shot and gets stitched up without any freezing so he can go right back into the game, and the line you've given him is "They love me tonight, the shits."
Randall: Yeah, he didn't like the fans much. Terry was a very sensitive person. He bridled at criticism, and I think the trouble with his teammates in the beginning was that they didn't understand goaltenders. When he was hurt, "suck it up," that was their attitude.
I just think that goalies in those days were not understood. The pressures of playing goal were not understood. There's reference somewhere in the book to Eddie Shore's training techniques, I think it's in one of Red Storey's accounts, where Eddie Shore didn't want his goalies going down so he threw a rope up over the rafters and put a noose around the goalie's neck and any time the goalie went down he'd jerk the rope. Those guys were so isolated from the team, and there was only the one goalie on the team, so I think it was a really difficult position to play, not just physically but psychologically. They were different, those guys.
I think Claude Lapointe was the one that said about Ken Dryden, "Yeah, goalies are different, but Ken was like, different-different." I don't know if they start out being isolated figures, but they certainly become that because of the nature of the job.
Nolan: The book goes quite a bit into the damage the game does to Terry. From the hatred of the management of the team, to the difficulty with teammates, booze, hating the media, hating the fans, and you're left to ask yourself, what is there for him in this except a paycheck?
Randall: In the end there wasn't much but the money. He had seven kids that he had to feed, but in the end, he just should not have been on the ice. There was a time when Bill Gadsby had him and two other goalies in Detroit [in the 1968-1969 season]. He had Terry and Roger Crozier, both Calder Cup winners, brilliant goalies, neither one of them wanted to get in. When Roy Edwards, the third goalie, when they said he was going to play, the boys were happy. They just didn't want to be there. They'd look at one another and wink.
That may be overstating it too, because I think he loved the game in the beginning. He had a passion for the game. Partly he was a goalie because of his brother. You're familiar with that? That thing is dealt with in the book. I think that's part of the complexity of the legacy of being the goaltender, because he was playing for his brother, so when he did badly that just added to it, made it worse.
But in the prose section that deals with Gary Bergman, at the end of it when you saw him on the ice when the game was on the line, he'd get a fire in his eyes, what Bergman was saying was that was when Terry was most alive. There was something about the game and I think right to the end, something about playing goal. Something about being quicker than everybody else when the money was on the line that he took a great pride in. I know he had a lot of pride in his records, the records that he had for so long, and how well he had played the game.
That incredible 1952 playoff, when Detroit won the semis and the finals each in four straight. Nobody scored on him in Detroit through the whole playoffs, he had four shutouts in Detroit. He let in five goals in eight games in all. That's phenomenal. That's how good the guy was in his prime.
And I think in 1967 he went back to be that good, which is why Toronto won the Stanley Cup that year. But he was stung into going back. A couple of things happened to him that year. I mentioned what a proud person he was. He was kind of stung back into being the goalie that he was when he was younger, and I think that took its toll on him as well.
There was the incident of Pierre Pilote skating through the crease there in Chicago, telling Terry after he'd been hit in the shoulder that he'd better stay down, and the other was when those telegrams came from the guy in Newfoundland. Both of these incidents are dealt with in the book. I think that's why he did as well as he did in 1967. I think that's the most incredible goaltending performance really, at least for my money anyway, the most incredible goaltending performance in the history of the game. 1967.
Nolan: And he was coming off some pretty graphic injuries as well. I think reconstructive back surgery earlier that year.
Randall: His back, that's right. That goes back to your earlier point, "They love me tonight, the shits." You win for them, they love you. You lose and they're all over you. I think he was hurt by that, but you're not the kind of person growing up on the prairies to ever allow to see that your feelings are hurt.
Your way of dealing with that is to get angry. And I think that's the way he responded to that.
Those three telegrams, the first two of them that came through were congratulating him, for the hundred shutouts, for that incredible defeat of Chicago, and then he plays a bad game against Montreal, probably if he wasn't drunk he was certainly hung over because he wasn't expecting to play, but the goals that he let in weren't that bad anyway. And then he gets this telegram that says congratulations Terry, how much did you get? That's the kind of thing I think just enraged him. And he crumpled that telegram up and he threw it down on the floor in the dressing room, and then he went out and hammered Montreal in the next game. I think that was a direct result.
[This was the second part of the interview. Read the first part here.]