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Five Movies About Hockey

So it looks like there will finally be a 2011-2012 season for the NBA. But I wonder if casual NBA fans will be less interested after having to wait while the players and owners argued over how to divide up the multibillion dollar pie. Perhaps a few of those fans might decide to take a chance and check out a hockey game on cable.

I suspect that a lot of the new viewers will end up liking what they see. Hockey’s got speed, power, precision, artistry… everything you need for a sport to be enjoyable from a spectator’s perspective. And while hockey stars can really stand out, good team play is usually an essential part of winning.

I’m not sure why hockey isn’t a bigger draw these days on television. I know watching hockey on TV used to be next to impossible, but today – even with $200 high-def televisions, it’s easy to follow the action without gimmicks like the horrible glow puck. Sure, NBA basketball will probably be starting up on Christmas, but do yourself a favor and check out an NHL game before that.

Slap Shot (1977) 

For many movie fans, this is the quintessential movie about hockey (and in my view it’s one of the most entertaining movies about any sport). Each time I watch it I’m caught a bit off guard at how it feels so over the top at the beginning. It’s almost like we’re being prepped for some kind of farce or satire, but thankfully that doesn’t come to pass. Once we get up to speed we find that the characters are real people (who just happen to be a bit violent and raunchy at times), and that we have a thoroughly enjoyable story to take a genuine interest in.


Like other movies about hockey, Slap Shot focuses on the violence in the sport, and the choice that each player has to make whether or not to embrace that violence. Sure, there’s enough going on off the ice to give emotional depth to the main characters, but the real drama is on the ice.

“Oh this young man has had a very trying rookie season, with the litigation, the notoriety, his subsequent deportation to Canada and that country’s refusal to accept him, well, I guess that’s more than most 21-year-olds can handle… Ogie Ogilthorpe!” – Commentator Jim Carr

George Roy Hill directed Paul Newman here, as well as in some of Newman’s most famous roles. I don’t think it’s a stretch to put Reggie Dunlop on part with Butch Cassidy or Henry Gondorff in terms of the power of his screen presence or “bad boy” charisma.

Youngblood (1986) 

We learn all about the violence in minor league hockey from Slap Shot, and how it’s an integral part of the sport. But is there a place in the sport for an undersized but overskilled skater and scorer? That’s what Dean Youngblood tries to figure out when he gets a chance to leave the farm and skate with the Hamilton Mustangs.

So pouty and pretty...

So pouty and pretty…

His journey runs through a checklist of 1980s movie standards, including a Rocky IV-inspired low-tech training montage. Unfortunately, watching Rob Lowe work out in a barn isn’t quite as impressive or inspirational as watching Sly do it. By the end of the story Dean finally gets a chance to prove himself, even if the resolution turns out to be exactly what we would expect. I suppose the message is that you can be a great hockey player without fighting, but you won’t be a complete man unless you do.

“To the game and getting out of this hick town! Thank God there is a sport for middle-sized white boys.” – Derek Sutton

Rob Lowe is perfectly cast. His lack of bulk and muscularity make him stand out from his teammates, and a spot on fit for the role of a non-fighter.

The Mighty Ducks (1992) 

It seems like a no-brainer for someone facing a drunk driving charge: put in some community service hours by coaching a pee wee hockey team to avoid jail time. But attorney Gordon Bombay had some really bad experiences playing hockey as a child, so he chooses the coaching with some reluctance.

“You think losing is funny?” – Gordon Bombay

“Well, not at first, but once you get the hang of it.” – Les Averman

Coach Bombay doesn’t like the kids at first, of course, and the kids themselves don’t seem to like hockey. He eventually teaches the kids that teamwork – particularly in hockey – can help everyone get better. Coach also helps the one genuinely skilled player to learn how to cope with the kinds of pressures that Bombay himself had to deal with as a kid.

Emilio Estevez does what he can with the role of Gordon Bombay, and I can’t say that I disliked the movie, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it would have been a little stronger if he had been a bit rougher around the edges. Given his disposition and background, I would have expected – and would have liked – Gordon Bombay to be more like Morris Buttermaker (the Walter Matthau incarnation, of course).

So I suppose the biggest downside of The Mighty Ducks is that it wasn’t closer to The Bad News Bears. If there had been more substance and uncertainty to the interactions between the coach and the kids, then perhaps the drama wouldn’t have had to rely on an obvious “final showdown” scenario to bring the movie home. We’re supposed to be watching kids play a difficult sport, so let’s see how kids really act. Instead, The Mighty Ducks is a little too bland and sanitized to be a good movie about hockey… or kids.

Miracle (2004) 

It’s an impressive accomplishment to take a true story where we all know the ending, and keep us interested in watching how that ending came to be. It’s particularly impressive when we’re talking about sports, where the outcome is almost always the thing that gets remembered above anything else.


Just 10 minutes into Miracle we’re hearing the names we already know; Eruzione, Ramsey, Craig… We know that the team will come together and who the key players will be, and we know that they’ll beat the Soviets (and go on to beat the Finland) to win an improbable Gold Medal. So what could be the fun in watching?

“I’m not looking for the best players, Craig. I’m looking for the right ones…” – Herb Brooks

Actually, it’s a lot of fun to watch. Coach Brooks has a somewhat subversive philosophy of wanting to assemble a TEAM rather than just trying to get the best individual players onto the ice. It makes for a great conflict between the individual with a vision and the short-sighted establishment. Kurt Russell does a great job in a straight on role that doesn’t seek to capitalize on his comedic talents or his sex appeal. Miracle has a great old-school style and sensibilities, linear storytelling with great momentum, and is well worth watching.

Mystery, Alaska (1999) 

The residents of the small town of Mystery, Alaska are crazy about their hockey. They may live their lives with different levels of education, financial success – and even morals – but they come together to watch the weekly hockey game between the local hockey jocks.

“Two things we’ve always had in Mystery; our dignity and our illusions. I suggest we cling to both.” – Judge Burns

Sure, it’s cliched in a lot of places (there’s even a slow clap at the end), but it doesn’t suffer from any delusions about its scope. It tries to keep itself small and a bit sappy… and it succeeds. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Mystery, Alaska feels like a holiday season movie that you could sit the extended family down in front of, and everyone can find a reason to be interested enough to keep watching.


Best of all, unlike much of the crap that we’ve seen in recent holiday seasons (movies like Jack and Jill or Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squekqual), Mystery Alaska wasn’t at all harmful or stupefying. I might have been in a bit of an insulin shock afterwards from all the sappiness and sentimentality, but at least I didn’t feel stupider or insulted for having watched it.  None of the story lines are particularly compelling (and we keep bouncing back and forth between them so often that the dramatic flow is always being interrupted), but Mystery, Alaska is honest with itself and enjoyable enough to watch.

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About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.