Canadian Blood on the Ice: Hockey on celluloid from Face Off to Goon
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
This is a true story.
I was conceived in Detroit, Michigan.
My father was property of the famed National Hockey League (NHL) team the Detroit Red Wings. For a couple of years, Dad played for a variety of their ‘farm teams’ in Northern Michigan, which meant he was almost always on the road, carted along icy highways in rickety buses across several states.
Once he was brought into the fold of the team itself, Mom and Dad were nicely ensconced in the birthplace of Motown. Dad was the backup goalie to the legendary Terry Sawchuck. All his teammates referred to him as ‘The Little Uke’ and Sawchuck as ‘The Big Uke’ â€“ two generations of Ukrainian goaltenders rubbing elbows with the very best players in what is still considered the golden age of professional hockey within the original Six Team League of the NHL.
Given that he was backing up the greatest goalie who ever lived, Dad only played one NHL game. It’s still in the record books. Detroit was playing against the New York Rangers and they did not have a backup goaltender. Their goalie, Gump Worsley, had taken ill and was unable to play. Rather than cancel the game, Detroit’s wily general manager Jack Adams offered my Dad to take Gump’s place.
After that season, like all professional hockey players at the time, Dad went back home with Mom so he could get a job. This was before a players’ union existed and even the biggest stars needed to work in the off season â€“ selling cars, working construction or, as in my Dad’s case, performing general labour for my uncle’s plumbing company.
Mom and Dad never went back to Detroit. Dad broke his ankle and was laid up. Jack Adams offered a friendly ‘Tough break, kid’ and when Dad recovered, he needed to support his family, so he became a cop. He did play for Canada’s national hockey team in the 60s, and in the late 70s he became a beer salesman and quickly worked his way up the brewery’s ladder. He became a sales promotions supervisor, using his hockey connections to sponsor numerous World Cup hockey events and back several World Hockey Association (WHA) teams with sponsorship.
It is, however, those days in Detroit that I’m especially sentimental about. During the late 50s, I was swimming about in my mother’s belly as she carried my added girth around Motor City. Being a hockey wife is a lonely existence, and as detailed in numerous films about hockey, hockey wives seek the company and comfort of other hockey wives.
OK, granted I was still in my mother’s womb, but I am convinced (as is she) that my love for movies began in Detroit. One night, when the men were on the road, she accepted an invitation from another hockey wife to go to the movies. Mom didn’t pick the movie, nor did she pick the venue, nor did she agree that walking home after the movie was the best idea â€“ this was, after all, downtown Detroit. And though it probably wasn’t quite as dangerous after dark as it is now â€“ a blasted-out war zone â€“ it was still DOWNTOWN DETROIT.
Do the math on that, folks.
So, there I was, floating ever so gently in Mom’s womb as she and the other hockey wife attended a re-release of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers â€“ a movie that’s plenty chilling even today, but during the hysteria of Cold War America it scared the living bejesus out of her.
After the movie, the other hockey wife insisted they walk home. My Mom still gets gooseflesh of the creepiest kind when she thinks about seeing that movie then walking along the dirty, dark, downtown Detroit streets â€“ grizzled barkers outside ‘gentlemen’s clubs’, rollies dangling from their lower lips while huckstering the womanly delights within, trench-coat-adorned bachelors ogling any female worth ogling, sidewalk-hugging tramps reeking of urine, their lips and chins encrusted with dry vomit, roving bands of malcontent youth malevolently taunting anyone passing by, cheaply plumed hookers zealously guarding their turf as they eyeballed the environs for potential clientele, and several dark, empty blocks save for an occasional flash of a Zippo flash or mysterious cough from pitch-black Jacques-Tourneur-styled shadows â€“ with me nestled in her belly, umbilically soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of the city I desperately craved to be born unto.
I reiterate â€“ DO THE MATH!!!
Mom noticed my obsession with movies when I was only three years old. Long after everyone was asleep, I’d sneak into the living room, turn on the television set and watch late-night movies. She’d catch me sitting in front of the TV, not unlike the little blond girl in Poltergeist. Some nights she even found me staring at the old ‘Indian Head’ test pattern long after the late shows were over.
I was conceived in Detroit.
So too was my lifelong love affair with the movies.
* * *
It takes a lot of courage to watch a man out there night after night. I know the players get most of the glory, but I think the women who wait at home for them at night deserve most of the credit. They must have to love the game as much as the man does.
â€“ Toronto Maple Leafs owner to the young singer in love with the team’s star player in the classic 70s Canadian hockey movie Face Off.
I first saw the movie Face Off with my Dad when it played in Winnipeg first-run in a huge, packed-to-the-rafters old downtown picture palace. Even as a kid the aforementioned speech was not lost on me â€“ I’d heard many stories from my Mom about life as a ‘hockey wife’. Oddly, I heard more stories from her about those days than from my Dad. I enjoyed hockey, but if anything, I think it was more the world of hockey that appealed to me.
I loved, for example, the old Winnipeg Arena â€“ referred even back then as ‘The Barn’. It held 10,000 people and on big game nights, the smoke was so thick from cigars and cigarettes, it looked like the fields of battle I recall watching on the battered 16mm film prints of the National Film Board of Canada’s (NFB) Canada at War series â€“ prints that I happily still own and occasionally un-spool upon my Bell and Howell Autoload projector.
On game nights, Dad would take me in through the media entrance guarded by Jimmy, a kindly, grizzled old hockey player with a wooden leg, then lead me to the northwest corner where the craggy sportswriters were assembled â€“ smoking butts and trading quips. We’d stop for a pre-game horse-piss in the legendary Winnipeg Arena washrooms, which, rather than urinals, had open troughs to expunge one’s geysers of urine.
Most games, I sat way up high. Dad would deposit me in a seat near a staircase that led to the ‘Barn’s’ heavenly heights and I’d watch him eventually mount a rickety catwalk as he proceeded to a press box high above the ice and even higher than the worn portrait of Queen Elizabeth and the score cube emblazoned with the logo of Export ‘A’ cigarettes.
Once ensconced in the press box, he’d ply all the sportswriters with free Carling-O’Keefe beer, just to make sure they’d mention his brewery’s hospitality and support in their articles and broadcasts. (I remember one sports writer referring to Dad in an article as ‘Big Julie from that great Oriental beer company â€œCar Lingâ€’.)
Halfway through the final period of every game, it was my solemn duty to go back to the car and start it. Dad liked getting into a warm car â€“ especially in 50-below weather. I’d sit there, burning gas, turn on the radio, listen to the end of the game, then proudly hear Dad on the post-game analysis â€“ picking the three stars and, more often than not, getting a few plugs in for his beer.
On a few rare occasions, I’d get the opportunity to sit in the players’ bench â€“ usually of opposing teams. Dad loved nothing more than to say ‘hello’ to old pals now living in cities all over the continent and, invariably, they’d invite his ‘little shaver’ to enjoy the game from the coolest vantage point in town. This once afforded me the distinct pleasure of witnessing one of the bloodiest bench-clearing brawls in hockey history between the Quebec Nordiques and the Winnipeg Jets at ice level.
Perhaps even more thrilling were the eye-level views of soapy genitalia in the dressing room after the game â€“ a delight also shared by my future friend, filmmaker Guy Maddin. Though we eventually met as young adults and roomed together, and I eventually produced his first three features, Guy and I inexplicably did not meet in childhood, in spite of the fact that our hockey dads were mutual friends and, most notably, that we shared often identical childhood memories of the ‘Barn’.
As kids in the 60s, when our dads were touring together through Europe during national championships, we eventually reminisced about the eerie trans-Atlantic cable calls we’d respectively get from Chas (Guy’s Dad) and ‘Big Julie’ (my Dad).
Do the math.
Detroit + exposure to Don Siegel in the womb + Winnipeg + Hockey + soapy genitals = Movies.
Hockey is, of course, as Canadian as maple syrup, peameal bacon, geese, moose, beavers, pouding chÃ´meur, poutine, national inferiority complexes and Norman Jewison. As such, one can only wonder why the most Canadian movie NEVER made by a Canadian in the Dominion of Canada was Slap Shot, George Roy Hill’s hilarious hockey satire with Paul Newman.
That said, many years before everyone’s favourite salad dressing magnate and the Hanson Brothers cracked heads like so many eggs, yielding runny crimson yolk matter upon the fresh, white ice, Canada did indeed generate a terrific piss-and-vinegar hockey picture: Face Off.
Written by George Robertson (based on material by Neil Young’s dad, sports writer Scott Young), directed by stalwart TV helmer George McCowan (who would happily go on to direct the utterly insane 70s horror thriller Frogs) and starring a very handsome Art Hindle (who went on to scare the shit out of movie audiences as Brooke Adams’s pod-victim hubby in Phil Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake) and the delectable Trudy Young (former child star and every young Canadian boy’s wet dream from the long-running kids show Razzle Dazzle), Face Off blazed onto Canadian screens in 1971.
This was truly a movie by Canadians for Canadians. They embraced it wholeheartedly â€“ not just because it was a genuinely good picture, but for the amazing on-ice action. Face Off is historically significant for a number of reasons, but most importantly, it contains the only existing 35mm film footage of actual NHL hockey action.
In spite of this, the original elements to generate new prints went missing, and it’s suspected the negative had been thrown out by mistake after producer John F. Bassett’s untimely death from brain cancer in 1985. With one decent existing print left in the whole world, the Toronto International Film Festival’s Film Reference Library (TIFF) and the visionary Canadian home entertainment company Video Service Corporation (VSC) undertook the painstaking, expensive and worthwhile toil of restoring the film â€“ frame by frame â€“ to high definition.
The movie straddles the best of both worlds: it is part of that amazing early period of Canuck features that not only reflected English Canadian culture, but did so with the distinctive 70s darkness so prevalent in the work of Canada’s neighbours south of the 49th parallel.
On the surface, Face Off is a simple, oft-told tale of star-crossed lovers, doomed from the start. The movie is all the more melancholy as we experience WHY they should be together, but also get a God’s-eye perspective of WHY they won’t be together. As the narrative un-spools, we hope things will work out for the best, but anyone who knows and loves the best 70s movies will guess that the relationship will be thwarted.
The emphasis on darkness was not only the 70s way, but the Canadian way. Canuck pictures from this period shared the tone so apparent in the work of Scorsese, Schrader, Toback, Lumet and others. Where the two countries differed was in ‘production value’. Naturally lower budgets plus the National Film Board’s influence resulted in Canadian films that blended traditional, classical storytelling with an almost neo-realist approach â€“ less razzle-dazzle, more dour-dazzle.
As a kid, Face Off was a revelation. For someone living in a country inundated with American popular culture, yet feeling you were, as a Canadian, not American, it was a movie that captured the essence of living in the Dominion, but unlike most Canadian culture broadcast on television â€“ happy fiddlers and trilling Irish tenors from the Maritimes, game shows where the grand prizes were pen and pencil sets, kids’ shows with visibly drunk ventriloquists or adventure shows always set in the wilderness â€“ Face Off was cool. Why wouldn’t it be? It had a hunky hero; a former kids TV starlet, great hockey action with cameos from the greatest NHL stars and globs of blood spilling on the ice.
Of course, the movie captured so much of what I had already experienced in the world of hockey â€“ the locker room camaraderie, the wood-paneled smoky taverns, the cheap suits adorning the men, clutches of sports reporters and the parties.
Most resonantly, Face Off captured the place of women in this world of gladiators on the ice and the players’ masters in the back rooms â€“ something that was not lost on me even as a kid. At one point in the film, the coach, played by the late, great Canadian character actor John Vernon (the evil prison warden in Chained Heat, Clint Eastwood’s nemesis in The Outlaw Josey Wales, the slimy San Francisco mayor in Dirty Harry, Dean Wormer in Animal House and the malevolent Mr Kapital in Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie) has a chilling conversation with star player Billy where he imparts the following advice: ‘Kid, everything in life has to be in its proper place. Even the wife, eh.’ Billy regards this with a mixture of scepticism and acceptance. Poker-faced, he responds with: ‘Something to think about.’ The Coach delivers the final knockout verbal blow: ‘Just don’t think about it. DECIDE!!!’
For Billy, it IS a tough decision. He’s not only being seduced by the game, his teammates, his bosses, but by fame itself. At one point, Billy and his folk-singing girlfriend Sherri clash when he gloats over his ‘bad boy’ press in the sports pages. When she accuses him of being ‘just like the rest of them’ (the patriarchal world that has attempted to put HER in her place), Billy responds, ‘No, I’m not’. Billy brashly, directly and romantically takes the bull by the horns, looks Sherri in the eyes and says, ‘I’m younger, stronger and tougher and that’s why you dig me. You know that’s right. We both know it, eh’.
And here, for me, the Canuck clincher comes when Billy adds: ‘So dry your eyes and put on something warm. I think we both could use some fresh air’.
Ah, young love in Canada.
A stroll through sub-zero winter snow and all will be well.
* * *
If you could read my mind love, what a tale my thoughts could tell.
Just like an old time movie, about a ghost from a wishing well.
In a castle dark, or a fortress strong, with chains upon my feet.
You know that ghost is me. And I will never be set free,
as long as I’m a ghost that you can see.
If I could read your mind love, what a tale your thoughts could tell.
Just like a paperback novel, the kind the drugstore sells.
When you reach the part where the heartaches come,
the hero would be me,
and heroes often fail.
And you won’t read that book again
because the ending’s just to hard to take.
â€“ ‘If You Could Read My Mind’, theme song as sung by Gordon Lightfoot in the 1973 Canadian hockey picture Paperback Hero.
Like Face Off, Peter Pearson’s Paperback Hero indelibly captures hockey and its relationship to Canadian culture, but most importantly, how American culture had such a strong influence upon those who lived even in isolation. Starring Keir Dullea (Dave Bowman from 2001: A Space Odyssey) as Rick Dylan, a hard-drinking, brawling, womanising small-town hockey player on the flat prairies surrounding Delisle, Saskatchewan, it’s also typical of 70s Canadian cinema. Blending elements of the documentary tradition it combines an almost neo-realist approach to the drama with considerable darkness and cynicism.
Curiously and coincidentally, both Face Off and Paperback Hero were both produced by John F. Bassett. I not only first saw both movies with my Dad, but Bassett had married into the family that ran the mighty brewing empire my Dad worked for. Bassett’s daughter, the eventual famed tennis pro Carling Bassett, was even named after the company Dad orchestrated hockey promotional tie-ins for.
Then again, it’s a small world that Paperback Hero is all about.
In addition to Bassett, the key creative team included director Peter Pearson who came from a television news background while cinematographer Donald Wilder, who shot Face Off and eventually one of Canada’s highest grossing hits, Meatballs, spent a good portion of his career as a documentary shooter. Pearson and Wilder not only excelled in the area of the hockey practices and matches â€“ again, full of rough and tumble action as well as the bloody fisticuffs on ice â€“ but also captured the details of small-town Canadian prairie life more distinctively than pretty much any Canadian film.
A ramshackle community centre and arena, the local bar smelling of decades worth of beer suds soaked into the floors, greasy diners, wide streets under a jet blue sky, flat yellow fields of wheat and mustard seed as Gordon Lightfoot mournfully crooned on the soundtrack â€“ all this and more were indelibly rendered by Pearson and Wilder.
Rick Dylan is also the quintessential Canadian hero of the period. His whole world exists in Delisle â€“ he’s a big fish that subsidizes his low-paying hockey career as a laborer. His off hours are spent drinking and carousing with his best friend, the restless, unhappily married Pov (John Beck â€“ who played James Caan’s second banana ‘Moonpie’ in Norman Jewison’s Rollerball). Dylan has a caring fuck-buddy in the local barmaid Loretta (Elizabeth Ashley, a TV veteran and 70s male-angst cinema’s go-to gal for pictures like Frank Perry’s Rancho Deluxe and Thomas McGuane’s 92 in the Shade), but his real designs are on the college-educated Joanna (Dayle Haydon, model, Playboy bunny and star of Quebecois/Euro-trash soft-core delights such as Spermula and The Girls of Madame Claude), daughter of the hockey team’s owner Big Ed (Canadian TV stalwart Franz Russell).
Rick, like all good Canadian heroes, has not grown up. He considers himself a superb marksman and dons the garb of a cowboy, encouraging people to call him ‘Marshall’ Dylan (after James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon from TV’s long-running Gunsmoke series). Rick’s primary nemesis (aside from himself) is the town’s local law enforcement official, Burdock (George R. Robertson), who’s itching for an excuse â€“ any excuse â€“ to put an end to Rick’s shenanigans.
For me, Rick has always been a fascinating character. Again, I first saw the movie as a kid first-run on a big screen. Living in a prairie city like Winnipeg, surrounded by yahoos with the same kind of small-town mentality, and indeed, living in a city bordered by similar topography and a multitude of tiny hamlets just like Delisle, there’s this weird sense â€“ especially if you’re even vaguely outside of the norm â€“ of feeling like you don’t belong where you are, but that you can’t belong anywhere else.
Hockey is really the only thing that roots Rick (plus the minor celebrity status that fuels his ego). He’s the ultimate outsider. He doesn’t really care about anyone else. He uses the women in his life as receptacles for his man-seed, and his journey is essentially that of a man who begins with a delusion that intensifies to the point that he’s a threat â€“ not only to those around him, but frankly, to himself.
Thankfully, some of us living on the prairies found the movies.
The rest were like Rick Dylan. They were the ghosts who could never be free so long as those who might inexplicably care about them could see them â€“ the wannabe heroes who, by virtue of their delusions, always lost.
* * *
Ooh and it’s alright and it’s coming on
We gotta get right back to where we started from
Love is good, love can be strong
We gotta get right back to where we started from
-Maxine Nightingale singing ‘Right Back Where We Started From’ on the soundtrack to Slap Shot
1977 saw the momentous release of what is still the greatest hockey picture of all time. In her rave review of Slap Shot, Pauline Kael in the New Yorker noted that ‘George Roy Hill, who directed â€¦ two of the ten biggest money-makers of all time, will probably have a third’ with the raucous satire of minor league hockey violence. Anyone who saw the picture â€“ whether they cared about hockey or not â€“ might have wholeheartedly agreed with this prediction.
From a truly great script by Nancy Dowd, who spent a year on the road with her minor league hockey-playing brother Ned Dowd, director Hill generated a grand underdog tale of the cellar-dwelling Charlestown Chiefs and their rise to glory when foul-mouthed, irascible player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) transforms them overnight into pop-culture sensations, inspiring them to crack open as many heads as score goals.
Hill, a critically underrated filmmaker who churned out a whole mess of hit movies (including The World of Henry Orient, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting), directed this picture with the kind of fervor and aplomb that yielded one magnificent comic set piece after another. He seemed to be on some kind of crazed overdrive â€“ making the movie as if it might be his last.
Dowd’s screenplay is utter perfection. Not only does she capture a world that seemed familiar to me from all those seminal years of experiencing many aspects of it from the inside, but I have spoken with players from all levels of the business (including my Dad), who all give high marks to the film for capturing so many details that rang incredibly true. (And yes, they all acknowledged it was ‘Hollywood-ized’, but to a considerably lesser degree than they expected.)
Dowd created a great collection of characters â€“ right from the leads down to the tiniest roles â€“ and the dialogue she had barking out of their mouths is right up there with the best comic dialogue in movie history. She deftly balanced the machismo of the world with the lives of all the women in it and created several indelible portraits of ‘hockey wives’ â€“ most notably Jennifer Warren as Reggie’s ex-wife, whom he keeps, almost stalker-like, trying to get back, and Lindsay Crouse as the neglected alcoholic wife of a player who cares more for his slobbery dog than for her.
In spite of Kael’s prognostication, Slap Shot was a flop â€“ everywhere except in the Dominion of Canada. Above the 49th parallel, Hill’s violent comic masterpiece was a blockbuster â€“ not only upon its initial release, but also for many years afterwards.
In the late 70s and early 80s, it could take forever for major studio releases to make it to broadcast television and since this was prior to the home video boom, theatrical re-releases were extremely common. Pictures could do very well in re-release (most notably Gone with the Wind and classic Disney titles), but in Canada, Slap Shot had three MAJOR re-releases in a period of about five years following the first theatrical release.
Universal Pictures backed these reissues with substantial TV and print ad-buys, which yielded grosses to more than justify the expenditures. By this point, I was working as a programmer and film buyer for independent cinemas across three major provincial territories and the grosses for my theatres were astounding.
The bottom line is this: Canadians love their hockey and Slap Shot delivered the goods. That it took a major American studio picture about the subject to achieve blockbuster status (if only in Canada) has been a thorn in the side of Canadian cinema. Don’t get me wrong, though. Face Off and Paperback Hero both did excellent business in Canada, though in the rest of the world they died without a trace. In fact, both pictures were weirdly and respectively re-titled for American release as Winter Comes Early and The Last of the Big Guns.
In the post-Slap Shot period, The Hounds of Notre Dame, a sadly unheralded Canadian hockey picture directed by Zale Dalen, was a lovely 1980 ode to the famed Saskatchewan kids’ hockey coach Father Athol ‘Pere’ Murray. Played by the legendary Canadian character actor Thomas Peacocke, the movie focused on the Boys Town-styled school for wayward youth Murray built in the middle of Nowhere, Saskatchewan.
The good Father was a hard drinking, two-fisted son of a bitch who whipped his bad boys into shape by inspiring them academically through the glories of hockey. Murray used hockey like a big-stick metaphor for success in all things, and in fact, he churned out many of Canada’s captains of industry and politics with this no-nonsense approach. In fact, the school went on to receive most of its funding to keep its doors open from former students who went on to unparalleled financial success.
One of the most memorable sequences in the picture is Murray ignoring a blinding snowstorm, which on the Canadian prairies is usually not the best idea. He bundles the boys in their hockey gear, shoves them all into a ramshackle old bus, gets them to the big game and back to the school â€“ all in one piece and in weather where exposed skin will freeze in less than 30 seconds.
It’s a lovely picture. Although it was released theatrically across Canada, it came and went with little fanfare and is forgotten by all except those lucky enough to have seen it.
After The Hounds of Notre Dame, the big question in the Dominion was: ‘Where, pray tell, is the Great Canadian Hockey Movie?
Canadian TV movies in the 90s briefly flirted with hockey. Atom Egoyan’s still pungent Gross Misconduct, told the true story of Canadian hockey player Brian ‘Spinner’ Spencer (brilliantly played by Daniel Kash), driven by his mean, two-fisted dad (Peter MacNeill) to use his fists to get him to the top.
Egoyan superbly renders this violent biopic, which is punctuated with a steady stream of ironic inter-titles to announce every perverse episode in Spinner’s out-of-control ascension in the NHL and his eventual downfall. Egoyan uses his cold, observational approach to capture every vicious blow on the ice, Spinner’s addiction to crack cocaine, his consorting with prostitutes and a variety of lowlifes and the murder rap he beat by the skin of his teeth.
One of the more harrowing sequences involves Spinner’s drunken dad taking a TV station hostage when one of his son’s earliest games was blacked out in his home province by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. While Spinner plays his heart out, RCMP officers open fire on the armed elder Spencer, blowing him tidily away. Equally harrowing is a similar moment at the end of Spinner’s tragic life.
Jerry Ciccoritti’s superb Net Worth, dealt with the struggle for a players’ union in the NHL and, according to my Dad, was not only a fine rendering of the period, but featured a brilliant performance by Al Waxman, who, he said, captured Detroit manager Jack Adams to perfection. Dad would know. In spite of being cited by the legendary goalie Ken Dryden as a personal hero in his book The Game, Dad (as mentioned above) was subsequently booted by Adams after he broke his ankle. For me, it was especially cool to see Wings players I’d actually met over the years through Dad rendered as characters in a movie.
Both of these 90s TV flicks were decidedly revisionist takes on the sport, and as such, they most deservedly earned consideration in the pantheon of our fair Dominion’s finer cinematic hockey efforts.
Other than Egoyan, Ciccoritti, Pearson, Dalen and McCowan’s pictures, and yes, George Roy Hill’s immortal Slap Shot â€“ which of course, is not Canadian, but feels like it could have been, or at the very least is one of the few non-Canadian movies that somehow captures the ethos of Canadian hockey â€“ the Dominion’s cinematic output has been pretty spotty.
Canada did manage to yield a few utterly dreadful blips on the cinematic hockey radar; Charles Biname’s lame by-the-numbers 2005 biopic of Maurice Richard, The Rocket, a loathsome comedy about South-East Asian players in Canada called Breakaway, and last and certainly the least, the utterly inept Score: The Hockey Musical.
But again, where, oh where, was the truly Great Canadian Hockey Movie?
Would I, in my lifetime as a member of this great Dominion ever see a hockey picture sprung from our collective colonial loins that I could truly call . . . my own?
Would the bitch goddess ‘Success’ never again bless us with a homegrown hockey picture to be proud of?
As the great Peggy Lee once crooned, ‘Is that all there is?’
* * *
Kid, you’ve got this thing. The shit. The stuff. The fuckin’ grit. You got it, like me. But like me, that’s ALL you fuckin’ got. And like me, you’re no good to anyone doin’ anything else. Don’t go tryin’ to be a hockey player. You’ll get your fuckin’ heart ripped out.
-Liev Schreiber as Ross Rhena, the toughest enforcer in hockey, imparting advice to the sweet young brawler Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) whom he’ll eventually be squaring off with in Michael Dowse’s Goon.
The wait is over!
The Second Coming is here!
Call it The Rapture, if you will.
Based upon Doug Smith and Adam Frattasio’s novel Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey and with a screenplay co-written by everyone’s favourite Canuck comic geniuses Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg (Superbad), director Michael Dowse offers the Great Canadian Hockey Movie:
Etching the tender tale of the kindly, but brick-shit-house-for-brains bouncer Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott), who is recruited to a cellar-dweller hockey team in Halifax to protect the once-promising forward Xavier Laflamme (Marc-AndrÃ© Grondin), Dowse captures the sweaty, blood-spurting, bone-crunching and tooth-spitting circus of minor league hockey with utter perfection.
The camaraderie, the endless bus trips, the squalid motels, the brain-dead fans, the piss-and-vinegar coaches, the craggy play-by-play sportscasters, the bars reeking of beer and vomit and, of course, Pogo Sticks (those delicious deep-fried wieners on a stick surrounded by corn meal batter) â€“ it’s all here and then some.
Goon delivers laughs, fisticuffs, and mayhem, and yes, even a dash of romance in a tidy package of good, old-fashioned underdog styling.
Comparisons to Slap Shot, however, are inevitable.
George Roy Hill’s untouchable classic features a variety of near-BuÃ±uelian set pieces:
Can anyone ever forget the interview with the Quebecois goalie when he describes what it’s like to be in the penalty box? ‘You sit dere,’ he says in his thick joual accent. ‘You feel shame’.
Or Paul Newman taunting an opposing team member about his wife going ‘dyke’ with the mantra, ‘She’s a lesbian, a lesbian, a lesbian’.
Or the foul-minded Moe Wanchuk (the late character actor who played Nick Nolte’s utterly reprehensible father in The Prince of Tides), releasing a steady stream of gems, like when Killer Carlson (Jerry Houser, the sexual braggart teen from Summer of 42) must spend a night in jail and he’s advised of his right to one phone call and Moe kindly suggests: ‘Why don’t you call a massage parlour?’
Or college boy Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean), who refuses to fight during a bench clearing brawl, and instead, skates out onto the ice to perform a strip-tease.
Or the coach (Strother Martin), who tenderly reminisces about an inveterate masturbator who’d commit vicious acts of violence on the ice to whack off in the penalty box.
Or, finally, can any hockey movie â€“ even a Great CANADIAN Hockey Movie like Goon â€“ ever top Slap Shot‘s Hanson Brothers (the immortal triplets adorned with glasses sporting coke bottle lenses and played by genuine World Hockey Association goons).
From ‘putting on the foil’ (making their knuckles super-lethal by affixing plenty of Alcan to them) to manhandling the drink machine (‘Took my fuckin’ quarter!’), to skating in formation like deadly Marx Brothers, to smacking the helmets of the opposing team in their bench, to a Hanson berating a disrespectful referee admonishing them during the national anthem (‘I’m listening to the fuckin’ SONG!’) or the immortal slap shot that sends a puck sailing into the side of the organist’s head, and last, but not least, Paul Newman’s observation upon first seeing the Hanson Brothers in their hotel room (‘These guys are retards! They brought their fuckin’ TOYS with them!’): hockey has never seemed so real and surreal all at once.
Well, Dowse and his team are smart. They know you don’t fuck with the Citizen Kane of hockey movies and instead try to move in a more, shall we say, esoteric direction.
While Goon might not have individual set pieces on a par with Slap Shot, it more than makes up for this with an emotional core that Dowse’s previous comedies were also endowed with. Both his Fubar movies presented the adventures of two mega-heavy-metal Alberta hosers who, on a comedy scale, far exceeded the considerable laugh count generated by SCTV’s Bob and Doug McKenzie and Dowse’s own extraordinary It’s All Gone Pete Tong, a melancholy, though very funny mockumentary about a deaf DJ that has the mythic qualities of genuine tragedy. Dowse might well be one of the greatest filmmakers in the Dominion who successfully blends artistry of the highest order with commercial appeal.
One of the things Goon does very well is bring Dowse’s humanist qualities to material that on the surface might seem anything but human. Baruchel and Goldberg’s screenplay seems almost tailored to Dowse in so far as it’s impossible to imagine anyone else bringing the film so successfully to the big screen.
A perfect example, and one that places Goon in its own sphere outside of George Roy Hill’s classic, is the difference in how both films treat the key villain. Slap Shot provided the legend of Ogie Ogilthorpe (played by Ned Dowd), the worst goon in hockey history. Goon goes a step further and utilises a fabulous Ogilthorpe-styled character that is all flesh and blood.
Ross Rhena (Liev Schreiber) is the goon to end all goons. (Uh, yeah. Liev ‘FUCKING’ Schreiber! This is one great actor and he delivers one of his best performances here.) Rhena is, in effect, a goon’s goon. And what Dowse and team do here is perfect. They create a character with a bit of sentimental, old-guard flavour.
In one tremendously moving scene, Doug and Ross meet face to face in a squalid diner and engage in a conversation worthy of every great sports picture that ever featured the grand old man and the eager young up-and-comer.
In this scene, Dowse one-ups Slap Shot by imbuing this indelible scene with truly elegiac qualities and adds far more resonance to the final punch-out in the film. In contrast, Nancy Dowd’s screenplay uses Ogilthorpe as someone we hear about often enough, but when he finally appears, the film doesn’t really exploit his legendary status in an active way, nor is he really tied into a central conflict. Baruchel and Goldberg’s screenplay really delivers the goods here.
The other cool element of their script is placing Glatt within the context of his family as well as providing a more contemporary view of homosexuality. Glatt comes from a strangely dysfunctional Jewish family where Dad (Eugene Levy) explains that one of their sons is brainless and that the other is gay by tossing out the excuse that the boys are ‘adopted’. This is funny, but it also hurts. It’s a deep cut that resembles some of the domestic issues dealt with in Dowd’s screenplay.
However, where Slap Shot realistically, given the time period and world, is replete with any number of homophobic references (the funny line where one of the players wonders if the fact that a guy’s wife has gone dyke automatically makes him ‘a fag’ springs to mind), Goon presents two gay characters who are not only comfortable with their sexuality, but in the case of Glatt’s brother-in-law (hilariously played by Baruchel himself), brashly proud and irreverently delightful. With him the movie delivers a gay character who gets an opportunity to balance the still homophobic attitudes within both traditional families and the world of hockey.
Right across the board the casting and performances in Goon are first rate, but the revelation here is Seann William Scott as Glatt. His sweet, goofy, still-boyish appeal is so infectious, you actually enjoy seeing this happy-go-lucky lug doing what God intended him to do â€“ bust heads. Based upon his great performance here, I suspect Mr Scott can finally add Glatt to his American Pie laurels as the immortal Stifler. From now on le canon de l’homme qui est Stifler can simply be le canon de Seann William Scott.
Another astounding achievement is that you will never â€“ in your life â€“ see so much man-on-man carnage on the ice as you will in Goon, and it’s not just a matter of quantity â€“ the quality of the carnage is pure, exquisite bravura pulverising.
It is a beautiful thing!
If Slap Shot is the Citizen Kane of hockey movies, Goon is The Magnificent Ambersons of hockey movies â€“ only here, imagine a work that rekindles the butchered glory of Orson Welles’s masterpiece (with a few Touch of Evil dollops) on the blood-spattered hockey rinks of Canada!
It is a beautiful thing!
And fuck it â€“ let’s stretch the Orson Welles metaphor further. A great director needs a great editor. Welles had Robert Wise (an editor with the soul of a director). Dowse is blessed with Reginald Harkema (an editor with the soul of a director, ‘natch!). Harkema’s earlier films as a director include the brilliantly anarchic ode to Toronto Kensington Market activists Monkey Warfare and the utterly insane biopic of Manson’s deadly paramour Miss Van Houten, Leslie, My Name Is Evil.
As an editor, he has delivered the goods for such Canadian filmmaking icons as Guy Maddin, Bruce McDonald, Don McKellar and Malcolm Ingram and if there are better editors in Canada than Reginald Harkema, I frankly have no idea who they are. The cutting in this film is utter perfection. Harkema slices and dices both comedy and action with equal aplomb.
Now granted, a director had to get the proper coverage for an editor to work such magic, but I was utterly floored by the cutting of the sequences on the ice. The sense of pace and geography is impeccable. Though Dowse has chosen a cuttier mise en scÃ¨ne than George Roy Hill, this doesn’t result in the sort of horrible mish-mash of cutty confusion in virtually every other contemporary action sequence. Harkema makes every cut a DRAMATIC beat and this is finally what contributes to Goon being endowed with both drive and emotional resonance.
It is, indeed, a beautiful thing!
The Dominion of Canada finally has its very own Great Canadian Hockey Movie.
Slap Shot generated huge box office in Canada, and Goon is following in these footsteps proudly. Its opening weekend made it the highest grossing movie in the entire Dominion.
* * *
Thinking about all these great Canadian hockey pictures, I can’t really put my Dad out of my head. Other than Goon, we saw all of these films together, or at least had opportunities to discuss them at length. Sadly, in 1999, (and ironically on the night I was acting in a boxing picture), I got a call on my cell phone from Mom. Dad had suffered a major stroke and was not expected to live. I boarded the first available flight to Winnipeg and spent the next week at his side in the hospital.
I was tremendously moved by the constant flow of visitors to his room â€“ old hockey players, coaches and sports reporters. What really choked me up, though, was the parade of sweet-faced young men from a local minor league hockey team called the Manitoba Moose.
Years earlier, Winnipeg lost its major hockey franchise the Winnipeg Jets, but this didn’t seem to faze my Dad at all â€“ in fact, the new minor league team was the highlight of his retirement. He volunteered his services on a number of fronts. Firstly, he was the guy who met all the new players at the bus depot, took them to their quarters and settled them into their new team and home. Secondly, he went to every practice, helped the guys out in the locker room and imparted sage advice. Thirdly, and amazingly, he’d don his goalie equipment â€“ the same equipment he’d kept and maintained from the days he played in the NHL for the Detroit Red Wings â€“ and this 66-year-old man would get on the ice and in the net and let 18-year-old kids fire slap shots at him. One of the guys who came to visit in the hospital told me that ‘Big Julie’ almost never let a goal in the net.
In fact, the day before his stroke, he was on the ice, strong as an ox and taking shots from all these young lads in the old Winnipeg Arena. (Then again, in the early days of hockey, when goalie masks were being developed, Dad would moonlight as the guy who stood in the net, taking slap shots to his face to test mask prototypes. He was a tough customer!) Though the doctors were strongly suggesting he be taken off life support, Mom refused. A day later, he was conscious.
He’s still alive. During the years after his stroke, he was in no shape to get on the ice anymore, but the Manitoba Moose team treated him like one of its own. He got season tickets to the games, a pass to the VIP room and even a special parking pass that allowed my cousins (who all took turns driving him to the games) the opportunity to park right by the VIP entrance. He should have been using a walker, but often refused to do so, and being parked near the entrance allowed him to proudly walk into the arena â€“ slowly, but without having to suffer the sub-zero temperatures for too long.
Even more moving than anything to me is when the team annually gave out an award in his name to some sweet young hockey player who’d demonstrated the highest level of community service.
These days, the Manitoba Moose are gone. The NHL and the Winnipeg Jets have returned. He listens to their games on the radio â€“ the same station he used to do post-game analysis in the early years of the Jets. Like so many old hockey players, he’s gone back to a certain obscurity â€“ the tickets and passes have gone the way of both the original Winnipeg Jets and the Moose.
That said, hockey is still his life and I hope, on my next trip back home, I can watch Goon with him on DVD. Somehow I think this would add a necessary full-circle closure to our mutual experience of enjoying all the Great Canadian Hockey Movies together.
But until then . . .
. . . from the Dominion of Canada on the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula, I bid you a hearty ‘Bon Cinema!’