Nfld. & Labrador

Mark O'Brien transforms into troubled goalie for Terry Sawchuk biopic

Newfoundland's golden boy is learning to stop pucks with his face, like one of the best goalies in hockey history.

Film expected to be released by end of year

Mark O'Brien will play NHL Hall of Fame goaltender Terry Sawchuk in a biopic. (Mark O'Brien/Instagram (left), public domain)

Mark O'Brien grew up playing hockey in rinks around St. John's, but he was far removed from the days when goalies stopped pucks with their bare faces.

This week, the Newfoundland-born actor wraps up shooting in Sudbury, Ont., where he's been learning the ways of Terry Sawchuk — one of the greatest goalies to ever play the game.

He had one of the most memorable faces in the game, the result of playing without face protection for most of his career.

O'Brien, along with his wife, Georgina Reilly, will appear in a Sawchuk biopic entitled Goalie.

"It tells a large portion of his story," O'Brien told CBC's On the Go. 

"He died at a young age, at 40 years old. So it basically goes through his whole life in an interesting manner. It's a very different style compared to most biopics in the way that it flows together. It's very poetic."

In fact, the film is partly based on Night Work: The Sawchuck Poems, a book of poetry about the goalie's life written by Newfoundland author Randall Maggs. 

The script was written by Maggs's daughters, Adriana and Jane Maggs, both successful writers in the Canadian film and television industry.  

Adriana has taken the reins on set, directing the film as well.

"[She] has done such an incredible job," O'Brien said. "And it's so nice to work with a fellow Newfoundlander."

A tragic life

Sawchuk, who came from a working-class Ukrainian family in Winnipeg, started his career in the National Hockey League in 1950 with the Detroit Red Wings.

He suffered tragedy at a young age, losing his two older brothers to sickness. Depression followed him throughout his career and he suffered from alcoholism.

I've never played a character like this before.- Mark O'Brien

Despite his own problems, Sawchuk finished his career as the winningest goaltender in the National Hockey League's history.

He died at the end of the 1969-1970 season, when he and teammate Ron Stewart got into a drunken argument that ended with Sawchuk falling and suffering internal injuries.

"He had a lot of problems, but I think a lot of them were justifiable in a weird sort of way," O'Brien said. 

"It's been really interesting. I've never played a character like this before. There was a lot of confusion. I think he was a very confused guy."

No easy task to play Sawchuk

There are complications that come with playing such a unique person on the big screen — walking the line between an homage and an impression, O'Brien said.

There are also issues with playing a goalie from a long-gone era of hockey, who was known for the numerous scars on his face from puck gashes. But with a little help, O'Brien learned the ropes.

"I played hockey my whole life but I only played as a goalie in net a few times," O'Brien said. "I have no set style, so when I worked with the goalie coach here on the film, it was easy for me to adapt to Terry's style, to a certain degree."

Reilly will play Sawchuk's wife, Patrician Ann Bowman, who suffered through a rocky and sometimes abusive 16-year relationship with Sawchuk. The couple had seven children.

The movie is also based on Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World's Greatest Goalie, a book by David Dupuis.

O'Brien said the film is expected to be released before the end of the year.

With files from On the Go