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An interview with Randall Maggs, the Sawchuk Poet

Randall Maggs, author of "Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems". (Photo courtesy Brick Books)
Randall Maggs, author of "Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems". (Photo courtesy Brick Books)

The unincorporated village of Floral, Saskatchewan, has a fame in the hockey world wholly incommensurate with its tiny size. It is of course the birthplace of Gordie Howe, greatest player of his day - "day" being loosely defined as a third of a century! - and honoured member of the Extremely Short List of Greatest Hockeyists of All Time.

Floral now has a second claim to fame. Simply by being in its place at the right time, it inspired one of the greatest hockey books it has been my pleasure to readIn the mid-90s Newfoundland-based poet Randall Maggs was conducting a book tour through western Canada which took him on the road to Floral. (Or should I say, the road through Floral.) Just seeing the name "Floral, Saskatchewan" on its best-known building, a grain elevator older than Gordie Howe himself, transported Randy to a different time and place, a time when hockey was central to his life. The seed that was planted that day took some time to sprout, but eventually flowered into a magnificent book, Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems.

As the title implies, the subject of Night Work is not Gordie Howe himself but his Detroit Red Wings teammate, Terry Sawchuk, the talented, troubled 'tender who is still ranked by many as the greatest goalie of all time. Undeniably he was at the forefront of his own time, the so-called Golden Era of Goatending (roughly, 1950-67), emerging from that era with NHL records for games played, wins, and shutouts that each stood for decades. Renowned for both his brilliance and his darkness, "Ukey" would become the perfect subject for an in-depth character study that was as long in the making as his records were in the breaking.  

While Terry Sawchuk dominated the NHL in the early 1950s, Randy Maggs and his brother Darryl were growing up with their own dreams of hockey fame in Sawchuk's home city of Winnipeg, skating on the same rinks that "Ukey" had skated (scraped?) on. Darryl would go on to play in the NHL, while Randy wound up in the Hockey Hall of Fame! That was the setting when Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems was launched two years ago, there with the plaques of Sawchuk, Howe, and countless other greats of the age whom the Sawchuk poems recognize and remember with honesty and dignity. There with the greatest prize they had all dreamed of and battled for, the Stanley Cup.  

I have personally installed Night Work on my nightside table on the "to-be-reread" pile with Peter Gzowski's The Game of Our Lives, Scott Young's The Leafs I Knew, Ken Dryden's The Game, and Andrew Podnieks' Portraits Of The Game: Classic Photographs From The Turofsky Collection At The Hockey Hall Of Fame. Each is an enduring classic. 

Having serendipitously initiated contact with the publisher, we at the Copper & Blue pressed our luck and requested an interview with the author. We wound up with an interview and a half! Randy responded to our questions graciously and loquaciously, his remarks as insightful as they were delightful. (Now you know why I am not a poet.) Read on following the jump for hockey-soaked reflections of the past and of today, of the game's place in society and its role in ending the Cold War, of the motivations of men who play hockey and those who write poetry.

Two of the poems mentioned in the interview, "Guys like Pete Goegan" and "Different Ways of Telling Time", can be found in this post; I couldn't resist adding a third at the very bottom, "One of You", Ken Dryden's favourite which speaks eloquently to the singular craft of goaltending.     

Randall Maggs tours western Canada next week, giving readings from his award-winning book, Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems in Edmonton, Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Vancouver (details here). Stay tuned to the Copper & Blue for a chance to win a signed copy of the book.

Copper & Blue: Why hockey? Why poetry? Why hockey poetry?

Randall Maggs: Why hockey--why not? When I think back to my childhood and youth, I think about winters mainly and being at the rinks from morning until night. In the writing of this book, though I was not consciously dealing with this at the time, I was looking at landscape and climate and how they shaped our natures, our lives and values. The book has a strong cultural focus obviously though that kind of emerged unconsciously. When you look at the subject matter of the poems, other than the 1967 section, there’s not much that deals with game action.  I’m looking at the people and the age as much as anything really and the game provides a pretty good way of getting at these. When you think about games and their reflection of cultural values, this is probably not surprising.

Hockey is a marvel really. Anyone who watched that last game when Canada and the US battled it out for 67 minutes knows this. That’s probably the game of my lifetime, the dramatic way it worked out, the fact that the Olympics were in Canada, Vancouver my hometown, Canucks my team, Luongo’s past difficulties, etc. A great moment for me in these Olympics. . . when Luongo and Demitra paused with each other in the handshaking at the end--Demitra having missed that open net at in the last minute of the Canada-Slovak game-- and that big delighted sympathetic grin on Luongo’s face.

My own strong belief is that hockey played an important part in helping to end the Cold War. People stopped paying attention to the government bullshit. The Russian people came to know Orr and Gretzky. We came to know Tretiak and Kharlamov and were saddened at Kharlamov’s death in a car accident. We didn’t want to fight the Russians, other than on the ice. There will always be people who don’t care about sport, fair enough. But there’s so much they don’t see. And so much they miss.

When I began working hockey into my writing, I was a long way from thinking about a book of poems about Terry Sawchuk. "The Season of Wayward Thinking," the oldest poem in the book, has nothing to do with Sawchuk and little to do with hockey really. The game provided me with a metaphor to explore the difference between Western Canada, the world that I'd grown up in and Newfoundland, the world that I was living in at the time.

What seems to have caught the interest of the media with this book was the mix of hockey and poetry. To a lot of people they seemed incompatible. These are just two aspects of life that have given me great pleasure. In my view, you can write poetry about any subject, plums in the fridge, a wagon out on the lawn, if you find the right way to do it. I don't think I could write a good poem myself about goal scorers (though I know one young poet who certainly can); my interest was in defenders. I find defenders more interesting psychologically, more subtle and complex, more aware of themselves. I know there were people who had little interest in the poetry in Night Work because the subject was hockey, and others who were sports-minded but had little interest in the hockey because it was dealt with in a book of poems. I've been up against that kind of thing all my life. Seemed I had my arts friends and my athletic friends, for the most part, two different crowds. Sad, really.

The day before the launch at the Hockey Hall of Fame, I was interviewed on both Prime Time Sports and Classical FM 96.3. I got a kick out of that. And I did discover there were a lot of readers who did enjoy both poetry and hockey, or were sufficiently open-minded to give the book a chance. That was really uplifting. By far, the best part of my experience with this book has been meeting so many people who appeared willing to venture into unfamiliar territory. One woman who invited me to read in Nanaimo had to ask her husband what the blue line was. She enjoyed the book primarily for its poetry but, in the process of her reading, became interested in the game as well. One male on-line reviewer of hockey books mentioned that, because he knew nothing about poetry, he kept the book by his bedside and managed only to read a poem or two a night. But still, for him, it was the "hockey book of the year."

Copper & Blue: Why Terry Sawchuk?

Randall Maggs: I played my minor hockey in Winnipeg, where he grew up and played himself. My Silver Heights team played Elmwood and East Kildonan, his former teams, on the the same North End rinks as he'd once played on. When I was playing midget and juvenile in Winnipeg, he was having those first five great years in Detroit. With Gordie and Delvecchio, Kelly, Lindsay and Pronovost. Terry had been the one player more than any other who had fascinated me. There were plenty of players in the old NHL from Winnipeg but there was something always special about him. I'd always liked goalies. I liked the gear. Sawchuk--that name just had all the magic of the game in it. In my head I could hear it spoken by Danny Gallivan. Foster Hewitt as well. And both of them speaking with a kind of wonder and disbelief at what he could do in the Detroit net. He was a great big-game goalie and then of course there was always the irony of his living the great Canadian dream and really being miserable and something of a tragic figure almost from the beginning. Then things began to deteriorate for him and that was always a mystery to us. The trade to Boston and all the fuss over the so-called breakdown. And more and more there was the talk of how difficult he could be and how much a loner he'd become. I was never able to reconcile that with my early idea of what he was like. Finally in 1970, the terrible and never satisfactorily explained death. By then, though, expansion had arrived and I wasn't watching much. 1967 had marked the end of my watching.

In the mid-90s, a reading tour through Saskatchewan brought me back to the prairie for the first time in many years and got me thinking about my growing up in that part of the world, in places like Claresholm, Vermilion and Winnipeg. Driving into Saskatoon for a reading, we passed a small town with two elevators and not many more houses, and the name up on those elevators, Floral, really jolted me. Floral was Gordie Howe's birthplace, and everyone would have known that back in the days of the Six Team League. Suddenly I was transported back to that time and that world. 

Copper & Blue: You mention many figures from the game's "dark side", for example Doug Harvey who is a frequent character in Night Work. What drew you to explore this aspect of the game, and of humanity?

Randall Maggs: As I mentioned above, it was the dark side of Sawchuk that puzzled me because that was not my earlier sense of him. I wanted to understand how that developed and that led me to looking at what it was like to play goal in his day. That’s why this book ended up being about all the great goalies of perhaps the greatest age of goaltending, Hall, Worsley, Plante, and Bower as well as Sawchuk. To a lesser extent I’m looking at all defenders, who seem to me much more complex in nature than offensive players. They have much more responsibility and a much subtler role than offensive players.  Who gets the blame when the team loses? But what goalies were up against in that day was astounding. And yet they were so good that they revolutionized the game, not just goaltending but offensive play. Scorers had to develop new techniques to beat them, the slap shot and intentional deflection, for example. Defensemen became more offensive. Running the goalies became more prominent. And in that transition period, the goalies had such poor equipment and coaching.

I bring in not just Harvey but [Eric] Nesterenko because they also had battles with alcohol. Harvey didn’t fare any better than Terry with the problem but Harvey was essentially different in that he sought out friends. Remember that he left the coaching job in NY because he couldn’t get anyone to go for a drink with him. At least that’s the story. When he was working with Indianapolis he had his buddies from Newfoundland as drinking companions. That story of the sweaters he gave them is a true story. My brother was in Indianapolis at the time. The story is that Harvey did die alone. If that’s true, that makes his tragedy even greater. Nesterenko is included because of his common heritage with Terry as well as his common problem. But he seems to have found a way to deal with it. He was very receptive to my visiting him but wouldn’t talk about the game or the old days at all. I thought for a while I'd pretty much wasted my time travelling into the mountains to see him. But I realized later that he had told me much more than I realized at the time.

Copper & Blue:
I saw your brother Darryl play a number of games with various WHA teams over the years. What role did Darryl play in offering insights, anecdotes, and connections?

Randall Maggs:
You probably saw him play more than I did. My brother was the key to the book. I know hockey from my own years of playing the game. I'm still at it though not as quick and steady as I think I once was. What I didn't know was the professional game. That's what he was able to provide for me. My brother is quiet, very observant and in possession of a great and very dry sense of humour. He's acutely sensitive to the absurd. All of this very helpful. His mark is all over the book and he's got a copy on the bar of The Crystola roadhouse which he owns in Colorado. The poem "Guys Like Pete Goegan" comes directly from one of his stories. I also got the Harvey material from him.

He and I met up last month and drove from the Ute Pass just outside of Colorado Springs up through the mountains to Park City; my daughter Adriana had a feature film being screened at Robert Redford's Sundance Festival. A brilliant young actress from Saskatchewan in the film, Tatiana Maslavy, won the Breakout Actor Award. That was pretty special.

Copper & Blue:
Many famous hockey names appear in the acknowledgements; to name but one dozen of several, Johnny Bower, Ken Dryden, Red Fisher, Emile Francis, Glenn Hall, Bobby Hull, Dick Irvin, Red Kelly, Ted Lindsay, Dickie Moore, Red Storey, Gump Worsley.  Many of them make an appearance in the poems themselves. How many of those individuals did you have the opportunity to interview personally?

Randall Maggs:
All of them. I talked to pretty much everyone I acknowledged in that list, either in person or on the phone. Hull was the only exception that I can think of. He and my brother were pretty good friends--that's why Darryl jumped to the WHA after an unforgettable year in Oakland with the Golden Seals. About a year or two they ran into one another in Vail and stood outside and talked for several hours. A few of the stories dealing with Hull came from that conversation as Darryl had mentioned the book to him and Bobby talked a lot about Sawchuk and especially that 67 series. As for my travels to conduct interviews, I was everywhere from Vancouver to Vail to Lewisport NL. Johnny Bower was a great help to me and I talked to him on several occasions. Ralph Backstrom helped me make contact with several people. Bill White is a good friend of my brother and very good to me as well. Dryden would give me practice passes to get into Maple Leaf Gardens and sent me to the National Research Centre where he had done his research for The Game. Dryden's favourite poem (I'm told by Leanne Ryan of CBC Gander) is "One of You." Red Storey was wonderful to me. None of the hockey people with the exception of Red Storey and maybe Bill White can tell stories like the Newfoundland guys I talked to however. 

Copper & Blue: Any particularly memorable personal encounters during your research?

Randall Maggs:  Lost it with Butch Bouchard, the big tough defenseman, captain of the Canadians in the early fifties who saw Sawchuk in his prime. I just became a fan. He was so impressive, so dignified and intelligent. I watched two periods of a game in the bowels of that dreadful new arena the Canadians play in now. Three stories down. The large painting of Richard with the burning eyes staring out at us from the wall was impressive though. Butch had brought a writer from La Presse along with him because he was insecure about his English. No need of it though. His English was fine. Told me among other things that Ted Lindsay once tried to get between him and the boards. "He only tried that one time," Butch said.

Talking to Glenn Hall out your way was also pretty impressive.

Copper & Blue: Your work speaks in many voices and several different poetic styles. How tricky was it to weave the many threads together into a coherent whole?

Randall Maggs:
The different voices came naturally to the works as much of what wrote was based on stories and interviews. So I was hearing those voices in my head as I thought about the subject. And I thought and wrote about Terry’s story over a period of ten years so those different voices got pretty familiar. Often as in Red Storey’s case, I’d try to get behind their words so I was presenting what I thought that they were thinking as well as saying. Then the narrator plays a part in some of the poems as the circumstances of the interviews as with Bergman and Nesterenko for example seemed relevant to me. I didn’t worry too much about pulling this all together. I knew I wasn’t going to come up with any easy answer about why Terry was the way he was--there were so many factors, the game, his position, his nature, his family situation--his brother’s death, his mothers withdrawal for example--his growing up in a poor part of the city, being an immigrant in a not-very-tolerant period in this country’s history . . .

Given all these contributing factors I thought a linear and orderly structure wasn’t appropriate. Most of the poems were written as individual pieces, each dealing with a particular incident or story or idea. Sometimes one poem would open up into two or three etc. I had no structure firmly in mind, was not really troubling myself to think of this aspect of the book, as I was working when I could grab some time on the individual pieces. I was doing a lot of research as I was writing, reading and travelling and interviewing people as well as recalling my own experience and my brother's stories of his experiences. I first came up with the idea of focussing the attention on Terry's complex nature using the Red Storey pieces which centre on the question Terry once asked him and which he could understand and never forget. What I had was a mountain of information from many sources, and voices in my head that I'd been hearing over the years of my research. Getting closer to the end, I considered several different ways to organize this. Then Phil Pritchard, vice president of the Hockey Hall of Fame and my good friend after ten years of working at the Hall, gave me the police report and Terry's autopsy. The passage on the scars on his face, even more, the cold clinical language that conveyed that information, jumped out at me. I saw how I wanted to use that as a preface and then tell the human story behind that cold clinical report, but tell that story making use of all the different voices. I knew I would never have any definitive answer, didn't want one really, so I would create a kind of collage of information and let the readers take away what they would. I also began with a linear structure following the two Storey poems which make up the preface; but when I hit "A Clever Dog", the poem that looks at the upcoming meeting between Terry and Jack Adams, I break off that pattern intentionally. What appears from there on is perhaps less orderly in appearance, which reflects what happened in Terry's own life as a result of Jack Adams's handling of him. From then on there are sections more or less grouped together having little regard for any orderly historical unfolding of time.

Copper & Blue: Speaking of the Hockey Hall of Fame, what a thrill it must have been for you to launch your book in such an environment, with all the plaques and the Stanley Cup right there! It seems as though Night Work has been well-received from the beginning, and continues to be today judging by its most recent recognition earlier this month with the Kobzar Literary Award.

Randall Maggs: Thank you.  Anne, my wife, and I had a great time at the Gala. For me, the experience was a kind of rediscovery of an important part of my western upbringing. I had played with and against so many Ukrainian kids, not that we thought much about that in those days. But my defence partner for several years was Paul Nedlec and the guy that always gave us fits was Peter Stemkowski, who went on to play with the Leafs and who appears as Sawchuk's one friend in his Toronto days. We had a pretty good team in Silver Heights (west end of Winnipeg), Provincial Champions one year, and always close. The president of the Shevchenko Foundation, which is based in Winnipeg, is Andrew Hladyshevsky, who is a lawyer practising in Edmonton. Great guy, still playing hockey himself. I'll be seeing him some time over my two days in the city.

The most moving thing at the Kobzar gala was the number of people who came to tell me they loved the poems most that went into Terry's mind and thoughts. That was pretty affirming considering that these were Ukrainian people telling me this. One always has doubts and fears about the validity of this kind of writing.

Copper & Blue: A key section of your book describes the Boston Bruins' tour of Newfoundland in 1956. As a native Newfoundlander I found a whole lot of value-added "down home" references in this segment and enjoyed it immensely. As a Newfoundland resident yourself, what sort of special joy did you take in researching and writing this segment?

Randall Maggs:
That's the section that people seem to most enjoy right across the country. You can imagine the fun I had with it. The character who scored on Terry, "Gerald," I went looking for and found him up in the cottages in Lewisporte. That entire section is pretty historical, including Gerry Regan's participation (ex-premier of NS and scouted my brother in junior) and the Bay Roberts poem. I'm still looking for the photograph of Terry with the umbrella!

Copper & Blue: Another section of Night Work that I, childhood goalie, greatly enjoyed was the Goaltender Suite, featuring many of the game's zanier characters: Frank "Ulcers" McCool, who skated off the ice during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals for a drink of milk to settle his stomach and had to be convinced to return. Wilf Cude, who threw a gameday steak at his wife and retired in the heartbeat between it hitting the wall and the floor. Steve Buzinski "The Puck Goes Inski"; Plante and his mask, the gregarious "Gump" Worsley, Sawchuk himself. Do you agree with the old saw, "you don't have to be crazy to be a goalie, but it helps"?

Randall Maggs: Yep. I played goal one year of Pee Wee hockey. I loved the gear and I was a first baseman so I could catch the puck. But one year was enough. Goalies understand irony. What's more ironic than zero being the best you can do. What I found out, though, was that goalies (and to a lesser extent defenders generally) are more generally complex individuals than offensive players and hence more interesting as subjects for poetry (and probably art generally). Like catchers in baseball. Look at the epigraph (Torborg's line--brilliant) to the section you're referring to. ["There must be some reason we're the only ones facing the other way" -- Jeff Torborg, in Thomas Boswell's Why Time Begins on Opening Day]

Called Worsley and told him I was working on a book about goalies from his period, Sawchuk, Hall, himself, Bower and Plante. He said, "you're going to have a hell of a time talking to Plante."

Copper & Blue: When you first conceived this project, what one word first ran through your mind when you hear the name "Sawchuk"? Now that you've published the book, what word runs through your head when you hear the name?

Randall Maggs: Now I think "courage." Back then I guess I would have to say "conspiracy." I was wrong as it turns out.

Copper & Blue: I read early versions of several of the Sawchuk poems in the Spring 2005 edition of The New Quarterly: Canadian Writers & Writing, "Hockey Write in Canada" issue (Jamie Fitzpatrick, Editor). Each of the four poems changed a-little-to-a-lot over the three years before the publication of Night Work.  Comparing the versions gave me a small sense of the enormous labour of love this work must have been. Noting your previous poetry work, Timely Departures, was published way back in 1994 leads me to ask how many years, how many hours, and how many rewrites went into Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems?

Randall Maggs:
Labour of love, you've got that right. Enjoyed it from beginning to end. I could have gone on forever. I expect I was intending to. It was my friend and editor, Stan Dragland, who saved me. He reached a point as I was rewriting and rewriting and adding new material, wanting to fix the rhythm in this line or chop a stanza in that poem where he finally said "the book is done. Leave it alone." I guess I was getting pretty compulsive. What I was up to I'm not quite sure but there was a sense of obligation of some sort.

Copper & Blue: Of all the poems in Night Work, my personal favourite may well have been "Different Ways of Telling Time". Turned out that "last minute of play" from  that suite was the poem that set the stage for not just the last section but the very last line of the whole  book, an infinitely satisfying punch line that I will leave for the reader to discover.  From a writer's perspective, I'm interested to know at what stage did you know you had captured the book's concluding thought, and that you were gradually working towards that specific "finish line"?

Randall Maggs:
I often read "ice time" from this poem just to show how poetry can do something that fiction cannot in giving you a better concrete sense of a subject, and can generate more emotion in a reader. I often read it at the beginning of a reading if I'm feeling nervous as my own nervous energy transfers into the lines conveying Terry's own nervousness.

You did read this book carefully. I'm impressed. And a little humbled. I certainly wasn't working consciously toward that line. I was carrying the whole in my head though, all the voices and images. And that was one of the last poems I worked on. The story about the Newfoundlanders came from Darryl from his Indianapolis days (like that story about the move he put on Doug Harvey?) The line "Let the goalie go first," and the way to end the poem just came to me. I don't want to be overly mystical but it was just there. That's why I say humbled. I'm not being falsely modest here. It seems the best things in this book came to me from God knows where. That's the beauty of art maybe.


One of You

Catchers in baseball, closest to cousins
in your differentness, the safeguarding home, the healing bones,
the serious gear (which ought to indicate the possibilities),
and only one of you.

Denied the leap and dash up the ice,
what goalies know is side to side, an inwardness of monk
and cell. They scrape. They sweep. Their eyes are elsewhere
as they contemplate their narrow place. Like saints, they pray for nothing,
which brings grace. Off-days, what they want is space. They sit apart
in bars. They know the length of streets in twenty cities.
But it's their saving sense of irony that further
isolates them as it saves.

Percy H. LeSueur, for one, in a fitful sleep,
flinching at rising shots in a bad light, rubbers flung
out of the crowd, insults in two languages, finally got out of bed
in a moment of bleak insight, went down and burnt a motto
onto his stick, Haec est manus quae ictum deflecit -
"This is the hand that turns away the blow."

Or Lorne Chabot, in 1928, when someone asked
him why he always took the trouble to shave before a game,
angled out a leg to check a strap and answered in a quiet voice,
"I stitch better when my skin is smooth."

Or dapper Charlie Rayner, who stopped a bullet
with his chin, another couple of teeth and some hasty
work to close an ugly cut. Back the next night, he takes another,
full in the face. A second night in a row, he's down, spitting
bits of tooth on the ice. "It's a wonder," he mutters,
"why somebody doesn't get hurt in this game."