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The Problem with Hockey Movies

Canadian filmmakers seem to love hockey stories -- whether theatrical motion pictures, TV movies, or TV series.

From the recent CBC biopic, Mr. Hockey, all the way back to 1972's Face Off (and probably earlier). Hockey movies have profiled Gordie Howe (the aforementioned "Mr. Hockey"), Maurice Richard, Don Cherry and Sheldon Kennedy and union agitation (Net Worth) and international grudge matches (Canada-Russia '72). Hockey has inspired blistering drama (The Rhino Brothers) and musical-comedy (Score), sitcoms (Rent-a-Goalie) and soap operas (He Shoots, He Scores).

Curling got Men with Brooms, basketball got The Phantoms, figure skating got Skate!, baseball got The Blue City Slammers, football got The Man Who Lost Himself, but in Canada hockey definitely is in a league of its own.

So given the sheer quantity, is there something telling about the fact that Mr. Hockey star, Michael Shanks, cited two American films as his favourite hockey movies?

Too many Canadian hockey movies are made by hockey fans for hockey fans. On the surface, that should be good (I've long regarded with scepticism any science fiction movie/TV series made by filmmakers who insist they don't like science fiction). But a lot of these are hockey opposed to movies involving hockey. If you see the distinction.

A good movie should take the parochial and turn it into a story with universal resonance.

I've seen sports movies about everything from baseball to horse racing, and many have been entertaining even if you had little -- or no -- prior interest in the sport in question. The Hollywood baseball flick, The Rookie (starring Dennis Quaid), was similar to Mr. Hockey, being about a player who makes a comeback in middle age. But The Rookie approached it as an introspective character drama.

I had only occasionally heard Johnny Cash on the radio -- yet Walk the Line was a compelling motion picture.

A Beautiful Mind didn't bank on its target audience being restricted to mathematicians. Salesman didn't give Glengarry Glen Ross the Pultizer. And I don't think ballet fans alone accounted for the critical acclaim of Black Swan.

Yet hockey movies often seem to expect -- nay, demand -- the audience share the filmmakers' fanboy idolatry. The characters aren't particularly richly drawn and the narratives tend to string together incidents and anecdotes simply revelling in the milieu of locker room hazing and practice sessions, rather than because they develop a plot. Bigger themes often seem absent. And romances are often secondary and poorly developed, even in movies like Goon and Breakaway.

And though there will be criticisms of the owners, there's little liable to challenge the fans themselves. I'm not sure I've ever seen a hockey movie that criticized fighting (the closest was the comedy, Score: A Hockey Musical, in which the message was more "let's agree to disagree"). But doesn't good drama carry with it at least the potential for challenging the status quo? Paeans to the "greatest game" may make hockey fans all tingly...but it doesn't always make for powerful drama.

Has there been a hockey equivalent of, say, The Harder They Fall?

Hockey may also just not translate well to the screen.

Baseball is played outdoors, making it aesthetically appealing. And it's a team sport that breaks down into personal moments (the pitcher, the batter, the guy racing around the bases). It's also played at a much slower pace, so it's easier to dramatize the action.

While football movies are often about the surrounding community -- the real drama taking place off the field.

I also suspect hockey scenes are among the most difficult of any sport to stage for film.

Because hockey movies seem aimed at hockey die hards, there's often little effort to make them about something bigger than the game (exceptions being The Sheldon Kennedy Story and one or two others). In Goon, a dramedy about a dimwitted enforcer, the movie climaxes with a brawl between characters who had no beef with each other, fighting simply for the sake of fighting. Imagine a western where the high noon showdown is between two guys who aren't enemies, and it won't affect anything. I suspect most people would say that was a pretty lame shoot-out.

Even when hockey movies do try to graft on bigger ideas, such as the comedy Breakaway, about an upstart Indo-Canadian team, it can suffer from the other flaws I mentioned (a disjointed narrative, confusing game scenes, undeveloped romantic sub-plots, etc.). And that's even ignoring whether Indo-Canadians would really have to "prove" something in multicultural Toronto. While Chicks With Sticks, about a misfit all-female team taking on a sexist guy team, had the right idea and good performances from Jessalyn Gilsig and others...but the laughs still weren't that big and the drama tended toward luke warm.

I've long maintained that one of the best hockey movies I've seen was the 1987 CBC TV movie, The Last Season. And that's because, though rooted in its milieu, it was a human drama first and foremost...not simply a hockey drama. Likewise, Waking Up Wally, about hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky's dad recovering from a brain injury, was a moving drama regardless of how much -- or how little -- you cared about the game itself.

Success-wise, some hockey movies do okay, some don't. Even then, I'm not sure but the desire to believe in their success causes people to exaggerate the numbers. I'm pretty sure the most successful (English-)Canadian sports movie remains the curling comedy, Men With Brooms. On TV the first Don Cherry bio-pic was a ratings smash...yet I think its sequel was rather less so.

And I suspect these movies have hit a glass ceiling by aiming mainly for hockey fans. Writers and producers need to start asking not whether they have a great hockey story...but whether they have a great story. Period. They need to separate their fanboy enthusiasm from their creative instincts and make hockey movies that appeal to hockey fans and non-hockey fans both.

Hockey may like to think of itself as Canada's national sport...but hockey movies and TV shows still have a way to go.

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