Every long form “embedded” sports documentary is an incredible leap of faith.
Think of “Hoop Dreams,” where you go in, invest years covering and getting close to a small group of players, clinging to the hope that at least one of them will become a star in the NBA — eventually.
A filmmaker sees a narrative going in, a classic underdog story. But the reason so many of us love sports is the knowledge that you never know how things are going to turn out. Hard to plan “heartwarming” when a rattle off the rim, “a ground ball with eyes” or a tipped pass can upend your “Hollywood Ending.”
“Hockeyland” is a polished, intimate and somewhat generic look at lives on and off the ice in the Motherland of American hockey, northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. It sets up as an underdog story — the dying town clinging to its glorious hockey past, a high school revival, a storied program’s first playoff run in 18 years. But as any hockey fan’ll tell you, it’s a fast-paced, brutal and fickle game. You can have a star or stars bound for the NHL, working class kids “maturing” and seeking redemption, or playing through debilitating back pain, a tragic backstory or two off the ice. None of that matters if run into that red hot goalie who guards the net like his firstborn.
“Saving Brinton” director Tommy Haines, a Midwesterner, knows the lay of the land and gives us a sometimes graceful, occasionally bone-jarring film that vividly captures action on the ice — trash talk and brawls include — and far more banal lives off of it.
He contrasts modern Minnesota high school hockey power Hermantown with fading, once-lauded Eveleth, once so storied it became home of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. More populous Hermantown had become “the big bad bullies” of Minnesota high school hockey. Eveleth’s a dying town on the Iron Range, its high school reduced to merging with neighboring Gilbert and destined — before the film was finished — to be absorbed by the larger school in nearby Virginia, Minnesota.Hermantown’s coach preaches “mindfulness” and meditation in addition to his usual exhortations. Eveleth’s is Mr. Old School “Go out there kick their asses.”
Hermantown had a bound for glory star in Blake Biondi, a very good team — including brothers Indio Dowd and Ardyn Dowd — around him and a winning culture thanks to its all-involved coaching staff.
In 2019-20 Eveleth fielded a team with 15 seniors. But star Elliot Van Orsdel is a reckless sort who “gets into trouble” in between hockey seasons, everybody says. A senior not deemed fit to be “captain” material, his redemption story is winning back that trust and restoring a fading town’s reputation as capital of Hockeyland.
Haines is a good enough filmmaker to get a decent movie out of this rivalry and these characters when things aren’t likely to give him a storybook finale. We pick up on that early on, with the army of talent making relentless Hermantown seem unstoppable. Still, there’s that “one hot goalie” hope, hanging around as we see games over the course of the season, every storyline pointing to the state playoffs, “Mr. Hockey” voting and hockey hopes post-graduation.
The brutal action on the ice might not deliver lump-in-the-throat moments. But the backstories — this kid lost a mentoring father to cancer, that one has a mother fighting the deadly disease, a scoliosis diagnosis here, pro scout visits there — give the movie a dab of heart.
If it wasn’t for the “Slap Shot” trash talk on the ice, “Hockeyland” would feel positively quaint, a Minnesota of Garrison Keillor’s imagination — wholesome kids hanging with grandad, (some) religious families, a PG-dating scene and recklessness limited to skidding your SUV off the road in the snow. High school kids being the way they are, and with the obviously blue collar nature of Eveleth’s stars and their families, I wondered what the kids weren’t letting Haines see.
And despite Haines’ best efforts, the film’s shift in focus once its original narrative breaks down is jarring. All of a sudden, golden boy Blake is the focus when he’s barely in the early acts. Haines set up expectations when he shows us the “It’s Eveleth” disdain in the Hermantown locker room, a “pride goeth before the fall” trope, one neither the underdogs nor the movie about them can deliver.
But the slice of life stuff — busting up lumber scraps for firewood at one of those ever-unfinished Minnesota working class houses, bowling night, post-game parties — is somewhat immersive and paints a portrait of one place where the kids want to escape and another that’s found meaning and attention and self-worth thanks to hard work, discipline and not running into that “one hot goalie” all that often.
Rating: unrated, hockey violence, profanity
Cast: Elliot Van Orsdel, Indio Dowd, Lori Dowd, Blake Biondi, Jeff Torrel, Pat Andrews, Jessica Van Orsdel
Running time: 1:47