Inside the NHL
With the slow summer television and sports season upon us and another month before NHL training camps, now seems a good time to discuss the better hockey movie watching options.
No league has had its destiny shaped as much as the NHL by fictional and biopic films. From satires like “Slap Shot” in 1977 to “The Mighty Ducks” in 1992 that spawned an actual NHL team’s name, hockey movies have – for better or worse – played a role in how the league is viewed.
For novice local NHL fans, or those wanting a celluloid refresher, non-documentary hockey movies represent an easygoing route to perspective on where the game has been and come. And understanding the NHL’s evolution from a brawl-filled past widely depicted on-screen can provide context for the product we’ll see in Seattle come October 2021.
Daniel Iron, producer of this year’s “Goalie’’ biopic depicting the turbulent life of Hall of Fame netminder Terry Sawchuk, recently told The Seattle Times the NHL wouldn’t allow use of its uniforms and logos within the film because “there was blood’’ in some scenes.
Now, it’s hardly shocking the NHL wouldn’t cooperate with a movie that might appear to show the league condoning on-ice blood or violence. Not after the NHL was on the receiving end of a 2014 lawsuit making that exact allegation: that it actively promoted on-ice violence through popular movie culture to draw more fans.
The lawsuit mentioned the 1999 movie “Mystery, Alaska” that stars Russell Crowe leading a band of washed-up players from a make-believe Alaskan town in an outdoor exhibition game against the visiting New York Rangers. No actual Rangers participated, but the team’s logo and uniforms were used.
Alas, those days appear done.
Mind you, arguably the best hockey movie ever – the aforementioned “Slap Shot” starring Paul Newman – didn’t depict the NHL. Rather, the movie’s fictional Charlestown Chiefs played in a made-up “Federal League’’ loosely-based on the minor pro Eastern Hockey League.
The movie is memorable for epic characters such as the Hanson brothers and comedic “puttin’ on the foil’’ one-liners, or scenes like a French-Canadian goalie giving a heavily accented explanation of hockey’s finer points. But “Slap Shot” is mostly about on-ice violence, as relayed to screenwriter Nancy Dowd by her hockey minor-leaguer brother, Ned, who appears in the film as super-goon Ogie Oglethorpe.
For some critics, the violence was overdone.
Though some scenes were intentionally over-the-top – as happens with satire – suggesting “Slap Shot” glorified violence seems equally excessive. After all, many of the film’s outlandish moments, like fighting during pregame warmups, players going into the stands and a coach benching a player who wouldn’t fight, were all replicated by the real-life NHL well after the release of “Slap Shot.”
It’s almost as if “Slap Shot” predicted 1980s NHL incidents that led to major changes within the league.
On-screen hockey violence took an unintentionally comedic turn with the 1986 film “Youngblood,” starring Rob Lowe, which tried — rather melodramatically — to depict the fighting and teenage loneliness within the Canadian major junior game.
The movement toward more Disney-centric fare began with “The Mighty Ducks” from 1992, starring Emilio Estevez. Put “The Bad News Bears” on skates and you’ve got the misfit Mighty Ducks, except no Major League Baseball team ever adopted the former’s name the way Anaheim’s NHL expansion franchise did with the latter in 1993.
The Disney-owned Mighty Ducks as an NHL team were soon ridiculed for the name and poor on-ice play. It’s a big reason the team’s new owner dropped “Mighty’’ from the name just ahead of the “Ducks’’ winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 2007.
Food for thought for fans still pushing for Seattle’s NHL team to adopt “Kraken’’ or other movie or gimmick names.
Still, the G-rated Mighty Ducks movie and sequels proved popular with younger hockey fans who are now adult parents coveted as NHL season-ticketholders. It was followed by the 2004 Disney biopic “Miracle’’ starring Kurt Russell as U.S. Olympic team coach Herb Brooks leading mainly underdog American college players to a stunning 1980 victory over the Soviet Union.
Not surprisingly, the idea of an NHL with reduced violence and more-skilled play also gained traction as the 1990s begat the 2000s. Even the limited on-ice violence in “Mystery, Alaska” in 1999 was far tamer than previously shown. Seattle’s own G-rated cinematic moment arrived with the 2001 middle film of the “MVP” trilogy featuring a hockey-playing chimpanzee suiting up for the “Seattle Primates” squad.
Some personal favorites include Canadian productions like “Gross Misconduct’’ from 1993 by acclaimed director Atom Egoyan. It chronicled the dark life of NHL journeyman Brian “Spinner’’ Spencer, whose post-career struggles were somewhat similar to other lesser-money, pre-1990s NHL players as was his alcohol abuse that began in his teens.
There’s also the “Net Worth” biopic from 1995 based on the book by David Cruise and Allison Griffths about Ted Lindsay and the struggles to form the NHL Players’ Association. And “The Last Season’’ from 1986 adapts a fiction novel by Canadian sports columnist Roy MacGregor about a Philadelphia Flyers “enforcer’’ named Felix Batterinski, exploring themes that later became reality of NHL players confronting violent roles with sometimes tragic consequences.
Other biopics worth watching include “The Rocket’’ from 2005 on Montreal Canadiens legend Maurice “The Rocket’’ Richard. Also, a “Keep Your Head Up, Kid’’ miniseries from 2010 about controversial hockey broadcaster Don Cherry depicts “old time’’ hockey and the less-violent modern game colliding head-on.
By the time the entertaining “Goon” movie franchise arrived in 2011, its enforcer main character was becoming outdated. While “Goon” depicts violence and comedy similar to “Slap Shot,” its persistent “fighting is bad’’ undercurrent seems needed to justify a continued depiction of brawl-filled hockey that rarely exists anymore.
So, sit back, enjoy and perhaps gain some appreciation and insight on what Seattle will — and likely won’t — be seeing once the real-life NHL arrives.