Ice Hockey in the Cinema – well not playing in the cinema but films about it, you know what I mean – part one…

These articles were originally written around 2013 for the now defunct Iceman UK ice hockey news/views/reviews website I decided to republish them in case they solicited any interest – spelling mistakes an all!

Hockey in the Dark

Part One

The Iceman, rather foolishly, has given me a chance to create more verbal nonsense for his well-appointed website.

Having a free-hand at the content and sentiments I was in a quandary as to what to write about that might entertain his regular visitors. I guess a truism is writing about what you know but sending him an article about the upkeep of leopard geckos and White’s tree frogs was not really going to cut the mustard on a website dedicated primarily to ice hockey.

Anyone who follows me and likes my work on social media, yes I’m talking to you in the shadows, knows that I paint a bit and create graphics, mainly associate with ice hockey [at the moment], and I also write reviews on films I have watched. This I do mainly to make me feel intellectual and superior to people, I’d like to think I’d be friends with Victoria Coren-Mitchell and her husband David Mitchell and go to their house for drinks and long discussions on….well everything. Then people read my reviews and know I’d be lucky to be friends with….well anyone really. Bearing this in mind I decided to combine my on-off love affair with ice-hockey and my lifelong ambition to be another Mark Kermode. So, films and ice-hockey, what people have put on celluloid that mainly deals with the topic of hockey played on frozen water.

There’s no real rule to the article, I don’t have to have watched them all but they do have to be about the sport of ice hockey, so no Jean-Claude Van Damme doing the splits in goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins – that wasn’t about hockey sorry. It featured hockey but it wasn’t about hockey – in fact, I’m not really sure ‘Sudden Death’ is about anything, it was rather silly.


Victoria Coren-Mitchell waits for the
police to arrive.

Everyone who likes hockey in the UK knows about Slap Shot, surely the most ‘watched on a coach’ film ever, and I mean ever. A close second to this is probably Youngblood, for goodness sake, and the Mighty Ducks, who even had a team named after them, but what about Net Worth or the Rhino Brothers? Let’s get into these films and others.

The main problem with any film depicting a team sport is getting the team sport to look realistic whilst making it cinematic. In truth, this is a marriage made in hell. Ice hockey, like football, rugby and basketball is a free flowing sport that ebbs from end to end and moves in a ‘non-scripted’ way. American Football and baseball have more natural stops and pauses in the progress of a game and therefore can be made to look more natural in the darkened room of the cinema. I have never been involved in making a film about ice hockey but I would imagine plonking a camera on the ice and saying to some players and a few actors ‘make this look realistic’ certainly is not going to magically create a convincing ice hockey match situation. Often these scenes to look stilted unrealistic and seem to have way too much mid-action pauses for your heroes to discuss a lot of plot and game points in detail. Mind you if you filmed the action in real hockey match in a dramatic or comedy film that would not make a good film for the average audience. Therefore, like everything on the silver-screen, it is a compromise for ‘dramatic effect’, or ‘we are doing this our way and don’t care what you think’.


I can see a gross misconduct being
dished out here son…

As with any article, you have to research what you going to write about otherwise you might as well work for the Daily Mail. So I searched a few other, better written, articles, IMDB and various lists on sporting films.

Within the topic of ice hockey, the first film on the list that kept cropping up is ‘Idol of the Crowds’ made in 1937. It was only 60 minutes long so I can’t imagine anyone watching would get overly bored. The most amazing thing about this film is that the main character, the ace hockey player, is played by John Wayne, yes the John Wayne. Apparently, the Duke was trying to change the image of him being ‘B movie cowboy’ and this film was one of his attempts at it from 1936 to 1937. The storyline, probably exciting and enthralling at the time, sounds utterly hilarious today. In fact, it reads like the outline of a new Adam Sandler comedy.

John Wayne plays ‘Johnny Hansen’ a retired hockey player who comes out of retirement to raise money to extend his chicken farm, I kid you not and leads his team to the championship series. It is here that gangsters come along and ask him to throw the game [on his own, I don’t know, it doesn’t say] and he refuses. Shenanigans ensue.

You can find most of this film on YouTube nowadays and it does look as if was filmed in a cellar lit by a very dim 40-watt lamp but it does show some genuine hockey footage from the thirties, which looks like British ice hockey from the seventies.

I feel you would have to be utter ice-hockey film completist to watch this film from start to end but I have been intrigued enough to feel up to peering into the dark mists of 1930s ice hockey just to watch John Wayne wrapping one round for the ‘Panthers’ against the ‘Wizards’.

Title: Idol of the Crowds
Year: 1937
Director: Arthur Lubin
Starring: John Wayne, Sheila Bromley, Charles Brokaw


John Wayne shows his total lack of understanding
even the fundamentals of ice hockey by preparing
to face off against one of his line-mates.

After this highlight of cinematic ice hockey, there definitely seems to be a lull in anything that you would consider note-worthy on the silver screen with regards to ice hockey. Many films and semi-documentaries featured the sport as a back drop but not many actually had the sport as part of the story front and centre. For the connoisseur, for yes I have decided that is us, it starts to properly pick up in the 1960s and 1970s. Even ‘Love Story’ featured ice hockey a tiny bit, I think Ali McGraw got into a fist fight with Claude Deschamps of the Boston Brawlers late in the third or did I dream that? But the next film that features on many lists comes from 1971 and is called ‘Face Off’. No, it is not the John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, rubbish-fest, where two of the world’s most over-rated actors ‘face-off’ against each other in horrible ham-infested, scenery-chewing, logic-defying, roller coaster ride, if the roller coaster only worked on the down slopes. No, it’s not that film, thank goodness. Just to cause some massive confusion this film is also known as ‘Winter Comes Early’ which means the people behind this realised that a much worse film called Face Off was going to arrive in the future.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, it is not a film I have seen but the premise is very familiar and goes something like this….

Billy Duke is a young up-and-coming ice hockey player in Toronto, meets and falls in love with a hippy-type singer called Sherry Nelson and although they love each other the differences in their lifestyles cause clashes and tensions. Can love conquer all? Will Billy still be able to smash faces in whilst his girl sings about the flowers and birds in the trees? How can this seventies fare/mush be on so many lists?

It features a fair few shots of the now defunct Maple Leaf Gardens and other stadia from the ‘golden days’ of hockey. The film also features cameos from players such as Frank Mahovlich, Darryl Sittler, Jaques Plante, Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and so forth. So if you love these old-timey players then it is the film for you.

Reading reviews from people who have seen it the hockey action is supposed to be fairly flat and dull, our hero, Billy, is not even seen scoring a goal and it appears most of the on-ice action appears to be skating around.
The film itself is described as dreadful and turgid, even as a 70s love story. Maybe it is worth a peek just to see those old NHL stars in their prime but I can’t see too many fans in the UK seeking this out.

Title: Winter Comes Early [alternative title Face-Off]
Year: 1971
Director: George McCowan
Starring: Art Hindle, Trudy Young, Eric Cryderman


Trudy’s folk version of ‘Oh Canada’ did
not have the desired effect.

Six years later and we arrive at 1977 and the film we must all have seen. Yup, Paul Newman is ‘Reggie Dunlop’, apparently this was the character he portrayed that he was most like in his whole career. World-weary, foul mouthed and stuck on the last place, losing, Charlestown Chiefs, the actor and the role came together in perfect harmony. It can only be Slap Shot.

A perfect mix of bawdy, vulgar comedy, social commentary [violence draws ‘em in], and well filmed on-ice action. This film is cartoonish, very rude and very well acted and made. Too many lines are quotable and even though many players are there for comic relief, particularly the opposition, they all seem too real to me and for hockey players, especially in the minor leagues in North America at the time, this was probably closer, rather than further, from the truth.

The shady actions of the owners and press are probably not too far from 21st-century sports management and reporting, and the influencing of younger, impressionable, players, well…..

A lot of the hockey action and locker-room scenes were improvised by the minor league players who took part and David Hanson, who played Jack Hanson, has said that much of the Hanson brothers’ on screen antics were unscripted. For example the toys i, the hotel room were the Carlson brothers’ [who played Jeff and Steve] own toys.

Having all the actors do their own skating and clearly taking notes from those minor league players involved was a master stroke and with the actors clearly relishing every crude and rude line, every violent and over-the-top hockey moment, Slap Shot worked and continues to work nearly 40 years later.

Even with the crazy 70s clothing and dated looks and everyone being massively over-exposed to this film it is still a great film. Not just a great sports film but just a great film. It certainly is up in my top five favourite films I have ever seen to date [I do watch a lot of films].
If you really love hockey, you will really love this film. Otherwise I will be putting on the foil…you have been warned.

Title: Slap Shot
Year: 1977
Director: George Roy Hill
Starring: Paul Newman, Michael Ontkean, Strother Martin


He said he’d rather watch Youngblood on the
coach home.

My favourite quote is, “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!”

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