‘Hockeyland’ Doc Follows Rival Minnesota Hockey Teams

The filmmakers got unfiltered access to high school hockey culture up north, will all the drama, hope, and uncertainty that goes with it
Eveleth-Gilbert Golden Bears team members
Eveleth-Gilbert Golden Bears team members

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There’s a moment in the new film “Hockeyland” when the father of a 17-year-old boy on the Eveleth-Gilbert High School varsity team says, “When he’s not playing hockey, he gets in trouble.” Such can be the salvific grace of hockey.

“Hockeyland,” released in theaters this fall, chronicles the 2019-20 season of two rival northern Minnesota high school boys teams with rich traditions, the Hermantown Hawks and the Eveleth-Gilbert Golden Bears. The 108-minute documentary captures how hockey nurtures those who play it and holds these communities together. Outside forces, though, threaten the existence of such programs, with national development teams, private schools, and suburban programs luring kids away. “It’s such a rare and special thing, these hockey programs built from the community around them,” says Tommy Haines, director and co-writer of “Hockeyland.” “Let’s hope this film helps keep this going, keeps it pure.”

Goalie Jacob Backstrom scrapes frost from the window to see the Greenway arena as his Hermantown team arrives for a game
Goalie Jacob Backstrom scrapes frost from the window to see the Greenway arena as his Hermantown team arrives for a game

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The two teams are intertwined throughout the film, playing each other twice in the regular season and again in the section semifinals. Haines and company capture the crescendoing drama with exciting game footage—filming the action with as many as four cameras—and emotional locker room speeches. The heart of “Hockeyland” is the storylines of four players—two from each team—gleaned from unlimited access to their locker rooms and living rooms. One is dealing with the diagnosis of his mother’s cancer, another battling his personal demons, another fretting about his future after hockey, and the fourth, Blake Biondi, chasing a dream to play in the National Hockey League. “We were trying to find the authentic experience,” Haines says.

Director Tommy Haines
Director Tommy Haines

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That came naturally for Tommy and his brother J. T., who’s 21 months older and co-wrote the movie with their Northland Films partner, Andrew Sherburne. The Haines brothers grew up in the Iron Range town of Mountain Iron until their family moved to Rosemount when they were 11 and 13 years old. While they have made two other hockey films—“Pond Hockey” (2008), an ode to the joy of hockey played outdoors, and “Forgotten Miracle” (2009), documenting the dramatic Olympic gold medal the U.S. men’s team won at Squaw Valley in 1960—“Hockeyland” was more personal. “These are my roots I got to explore,” Tommy says. “That’s what makes this one so special.”

“Hockeyland” also tells the story of Hawks’ coach Pat Andrews, who starred for Hermantown in the late ’90s and has returned to replace the recently retired legend Bruce Plante. Andrews admits it was “nerve-wracking” to allow a film crew such intimate access and hard to watch the first time he saw it. In an early scene, he chews out one of his players. But Andrews claims no regrets. “The film is a great reminder of your actions versus your intentions,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what you intended to say; what people perceive is your actions. It made me a better coach to see that.”

Minnesotans who’ve played hockey or know someone who has—basically everyone—will be able to relate to the culture portrayed. “Everyone is going to find something they can relate to in the film,” says J.T., an attorney who moonlights at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy in Duluth. “The moms at the Duluth screening told us they felt something in this film they hadn’t quite felt elsewhere. The film let them in the locker room. They learned things about their kids.”

Find more about “Hockeyland,” including screenings, here.

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