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From Hollywood Hockey to Puck Rock

Pop Culture Cross-Pollenization: Hockey on Film, Television and Disc

Near the end of Jacques Plante's career, the ex-Canadiens legend was hired to appear in an action sequence in the movie Face-off. The script called for him to allow a goal on a breakaway, but as he stood before 5,000 extras at Maple Leaf Gardens, the proud Plante stopped the puck shot by a skater in a Vancouver Canucks uniform. The cameras rolled for a second take and again the goaltender wouldn't permit himself to let the puck pass. The filmmakers, growing impatient, shot a third take, and still the shooter couldn't score. An announcement was made over the Gardens' public-address system: "Ladies and gentlemen, the story calls for Vancouver to score a goal and Mr. Plante is going to permit it." The scene was shot a fourth time and finally Plante allowed a goal.

Hockey and the movies have always been just such an uneasy mix. Boxing and baseball have been the subject of more than their share of memorable films, from Body and Soul and Bang the Drum Slowly to Raging Bull and Field of Dreams. But hockey has long been regarded as too marginal a sport to warrant much Hollywood attention. It's only been with NHL expansion and the increased influence of Canadians in Hollywood that hockey's profile has been raised enough to feature it with some frequency in movies and television. Meanwhile in Canada, where hockey's mythology rivals Hollywood's south of the border, a "puck rock" genre of pop music is also flourishing.

Early attempts at capturing the sport on film were low-budget productions made primarily to cash in on an interest in all things ice-related that grew out of Sonja Henie's immense popularity in the late 1930s. Henie arrived in Hollywood after winning the gold medal for figure skating at the 1936 Winter Olympics and she skated her way through a series of feature films. Perhaps because of hockey's rough-and-tumble nature, the handful of pictures made about it had simple plots that often involved gangsters, romance and the heroes overcoming adversity to win the big game. The Game That Kills (1937) starred Rita Hayworth as a trainer's daugher. In Idol of the Crowds (1937), John Wayne left the family farm to play hockey and tangle with hoodlums. It's a Pleasure (1945) featured Henie romancing a hockey star.

The first hockey movie, The King of Hockey, was the prototype for these early efforts. Made by Warner Brothers in 1936 for about $125,000, it grossed between $400,000 and $600,000 according to producer Bryan Foy. Foy got the idea for the film after visiting a skating rink behind the old Warner lot on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

The movie, whose rather nondescript working title was The Shrinking Violet, starred Wayne Morris—who would go on to leading roles in Warner Brothers' "A" pictures such as Kid Galahad—and Dick Purcell.

"We signed some hockey players from either UCLA or [the University of] Southern California," Foy recalled. "Purcell and Morris didn't need much help in the hockey scenes. They were good skaters." The screen writer could have used some help with the dialogue, though, as the script was littered with such groaners as "We're down two points," and references to "fouls" and the "penalty cage." The plot follows Gabby Dugan (played by Purcell) as he moves from college ranks to the pros. Along the way there are rumors of involvement with gamblers, on-ice fisticuffs, an injury which practically blinds Gabby, and in the end rehabilitation and victory. The King of Hockey made a minor comeback in the 1950s and 1960 when it was part of a package of old Warner movies sold to television.

After this initial flirtation with Hollywood, hockey would virtually disappear from theater screens for more than three decades. Sportswriter Oscar Madison (played by Walter Matthau) made a passing reference in 1968's The Odd Couple, when he tells his friend Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon): "You think you're impossible to live with. For our tenth wedding anniversary I took Blanche to the New York Rangers-Detroit Red Wings hockey game. She got hit by a puck. I still can't figure out why she left me. That's how impossible I am." (The game also got a mention in Matthau's 1973 film The Laughing Policeman.) And the massive 1970 hit Love Story, directed by Canadian Arthur Hiller, saw Ali McGraw in love with a Harvard hockey player portrayed by Ryan O'Neal.

The game itself didn't take center ice until the following year, with the first Canadian attempt at a hockey feature. Based on a book by Scott Young, Face-off told the story of a top Toronto Maple Leaf draft choice (played by Art Hindle) who falls for a pop singer, gets a swelled head and runs into problems with referees and his coach. Real NHL players George Armstrong and Derek Sanderson made acting cameos, while others such as Bobby Hull and Jacques Plante appeared in action sequences.

Face-off was followed by another Canadian feature, Paperback Hero (1973), in which hockey player (Keir Dullea) winds up in a Wild West gunfight with police. That same year, Frank Mahovlich made a cameo appearance as himself in Enuff s Enuff, a Quebec-made film about a family that takes to the road.

The game got its big cinematic break in 1977. Slap Shot reunited actor Paul Newman with director George Roy Hill (they had teamed to make Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting). The film succeeds largely due to the charismatic and athletic Newman, who had previously played a boxer (in Somebody Up There Likes Me), a pool shark (The Hustler) and a race-car driver (Winning). Newman convincingly portrayed the internal tensions of aging Reggie Dunlop, the playing coach of the Charlestown Chiefs. a minor-league team based on the Johnstown Jets of the North American Hockey League.

Partially because there have been few other hockey films that compare with Slap Shot's production values, the bawby comedy has become a part of sport's lore. To this day fans recite bits of dialogue and revel in the antics of the battling Hanson brothers, who continue to make personal appearances at hockey rins more than 20 years later. However, at the time the movie was criticized by hockey fans, and fans of Paul Newman, for the large helpings of violence and profanity that were in fact accutrate reflections of the gritty life in minor-league hockey.

"Well, that has to be their problem," the actor woulf respond years later. "Hey, it was advertised as a locker-room picture and it was a locker-room picture and it was true to its origins. What I don't like is gratuitions language thrown into a film to make it rakish. When George Roy Hill gave me the script, he thought I would worry about the writing. And I said, 'Are you kidding? It's the most original thing I've read in I can't think how long. Of course I'll do it.'"

Slap Shot's popularity hardly unleashed torrent of hockey movies. Ice Castles, released in 1979, starred Robby Benson in a melodramatic tale about a hockey player's relationship with a figure skater who is blinded in a accident. A couple of notable Canadian efforts came out in the early 1980s: The Hounds of Notre Dame (1980) about a championship hockey team at a Saskatchewan high school, and The Sweater (1981), an animated short—made by the National Film Board and based on the short stay by Quebec novelist Roch Carrier—about what happens to a boy in small-town Quebec in the 1940s when his mother sends to Eaton's department store for a Canadiens sweater, but a jersey of the hated Toronto Maple Leafs arrives in the mail.

In 1985, the cinematic depicton of hockey reached its nadir with Youngblood. Based on the dubious notion that skilled players must become goons to survive in hockey, the film starred Rob Lowe as Dean Youngblood, who comes from upstate New York to play junior hockey in the city of Hamilton, Ontario. Depressed because "It's been pretty hard to meet people I can talk to up here," he spends most of his time in the town's one movie theater before returning home, where his father (played by ex-Leaf and Blackhawk Eric Nesterenko) teaches him how to fight. Then he's back to Canada, a better player because he's now a pugilist. The film also starred Patrick Sqayze and Keanu Reeves, in his movie debut. The following year saw the release of Touch and Go, a romantic comedy starring Michael Keaton as a hockey player.

By the 1990s, the NHL was spreading its wings across the continent and puck-related productions became more commonplace. An independent Canadian feature called Perfectly Normal (1990) featured a goalie on a brewery's industrial-league team. At mid decade, the action-adventure genre hooked up with hockey in Sudden Death, a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle about a hostage-taking during a Stanley Cup final series game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins. The Cutting Edge, released in 1992, used the well-worn premise of a romance between a figure skater (Moira Kelly) and a hockey player (D.B. Sweeney).

As the 1990s went on, the hockey jersey struck a new pop-culture chord as rap performers and hiphop fans began wearing them. Meanwhile, following in the tradition of SCTV alumni Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas (Strange Brew) and John Candy (Canadian Bacon), Toronto-raised comedian Mike Myers parlayed his Saturday Night Live sketch character, Wayne Campbell, into a pair of successful films, Wayne's World and Wayne's World 2, both of which featured hockey prominently. Myer's character, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Aurora, Illinois, wears Chicago Blackhawks boxer shorts, hangs out at Stan Mikita's Donuts and plays street hockey with his sidekick, Garth (played by Dana Carvey).

Myers often dons a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey when he appears on U.S. talk shows. "I'm definitely a shameless homer," he said after the 1993 playoffs. "I cried when the Leafs got knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs. I literally bawled my eyes out like a child. And when they scored in overtime to beat Detroit I took my flags out of the closet and waved them from the windows of my L.A. house."

The 1997 movie Les Boys, a comedy about garage-league hockey, set a box-office record for Quebec-made films. This movie is included in the English language filmography that follows and accompanies this article there is a popular dubbed version. A sequel is in the works. Proof of hockey's increased profile is the number of passing references in such films as Batman and Robin (1997), in which the Dynamic Duo confronts Mr. Freeze's "hockey team from Hell"; 1992s Lethal Weapon 3, in which Mel Gibson disrupts a Los Angeles Kings game in pursuit of a criminal; and The Last Selection (1994), in which Linda Fiorentino plots murder with a pick-up hockey player.

Woody Allen's 1994 comedy Manhattan Murder Mystery opens at a New York Ranger game. "I've done a number of basketball things over the years because whenever I think of going to [Madison Square] Garden I think of basketball," Allen said. "I changed it once to a hockey game . . . just to get a little bit of variation." In a later Allen picture, 1996's Everyone Says I Love You, Alan Alda, Goldie Hawn and Drew Barrymore debate personal matters in their Manhattan apartment while family members play hockey around them.

The Disney studio was responsible for the most popular hockey movie since Slap Shot with The Mighty Ducks in 1992. Emilio Estevez played the reluctant coach of a motley youth team in a story reminiscet of the old Bad News Bears baseball movies. Like the original Bad News Bears, The Mighty Ducks spawned a pair of sequels. In 1993-94, the Disney corporation was granted an NHL franchise, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

A detail that made The Mighty Ducks pictures stand out from others of the genre was their artful casting. Traditional celluloid hockey teams were composed largely of English-speaking Canadians, with a few Americans and Quenecois thrown in for good measure. In Disney's world, players come in a range of sizes, shapes, ethnic backgrounds—and genders (the Mighty Ducks team included female players).

Woman have primarily played minor roles in hockey movies, usually as a player's romantic interest. Another Disney movie, Freaky Friday (1976) had Jodie Foster as a member of her school's field hockey team. The 1984 Canadian movie, Hockey Night, starred Megan Follows as a girl who makes in onto a boys' ice hockey team as a goalie. With the recent boom in women's hockey, it may only be a matter of time before the game gets its answer to A League of Their Own, the Penny Marshall-directed film about women baseball players.

In 1998, Burt Reynolds starred in Mystery Alaska as the coach of a small-town hockey team that plays an exhibition game against the New York Rangers. A new CTV series called Power Play is set to air during the 1998-99 season. It's set in Hamilton, Ontario and deals with a small-market team's struggles to survive in big-time hockey.

Hockey's small-screen heritage goes back to 1952 when "Hockey Night in Canada" debuted on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, telecasting games from Maple Leaf Gardens and the Montreal Forum. Canadian comedy team Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster performed their hockey sketch for an American audience on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958. The bit involved brawling, yet highbrow, hockey players, and it ended with four players pulling out musical instruments to form a string quartet in the penalty box.

Wayne and Shuster had been lampooning on-ice action on their weekly CBC radio show as far back as the 1940s. Once a year the Mimico Mice, a two-player team, would face-off against Toronto Maple Leafs, complete with authentic sound efforts from Maple Leaf Gardens and Foster Hewitt calling the play-by-play, using the names of actual Maple Leaf players of the era.

"He'd go, 'Wayne passes to Shuster, and Shuster goes down the ice.' We'd lose about 110-0. Sometimes we got one goal for neatness," Shuster said. "I still bump into people who say, 'How are the Mimico Mice doing?'"

"We loved hockey anyway," Shuster says. "I played pickup games and sold Eskimo Pies at Maple Leaf Gardens when I was in high school. Johnny was a regular at the games. He considered himself the number one Maple Leaf fan."

Wayne Gretzky has hosted "Saturday Night Live" and appeared on The Young and the Restless. Jay Thomas had a recurring role on Cheers as an ex-Boston Bruin goaltender named Eddie LeBec and Matt LeBlanc's character on Friends has frequently expressed devotion to the New York Rangers. Canadian actor Michael J. Fox grew up playing hockey and in his sitcom Spin City his character drinks from a Rangers mug and frequently carries a hockey stick. Perhaps basking in the afterglow on the Rangers' 1994 Cup championship, a club pennant was prominently displayed in the detective squadroom of NYPD Blue for several seasons.

Hockey's finest moment in a U.S. sitcom came in a Seinfield episode "The Face Painter." In this episode, Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) re-evaluates her relationship with a New Jersey Devils fan because he insists on painting his face in the Devils' colors when he goes to games.

The first made-for TV movie to involve hockey was also Meryl Streep's film debut. The Deadliest Season (1977) starred Michael Moriarty (who would later star in the series Law and Order) as a defenseman who is charged with manslaughter after an on-ice incident.

The most ambitious project ever produced for CBC television was the 13-part series He Shoots, He Scores! which arrived in 1986 to much fanfare. A bilingual cast shot scenes in both English and French. The soap opera-like storyline followed a young Quebeçois hockey player from junior hockey to the major-league Quebec Nationals. True to the minieseries pattern, the series featured a cast array of characters, and hockey action blended liberally with sexual intrigue and double-dealing. The action sequences were filmed meticulously. "The hockey scenes must be perfect," said director Jean-Guy Lord. "We have a public to whom we cannot pass off peanuts as cashews." The Nationals' uniforms also looked an awful lot like those of the NHL's Quebec Nordiques, so real-life footage could be intercut with the staged sequences.

Three TV films took their stories from real-life events. ABS television's Miracle On Ice (1981) starred Karl Malden as Herb Brooks, coach of the gold medal-winning 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Canada's CBC presented Net Worth during its 1995-96 season. Based on the book by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths, it told of the ill-fated attempt in 1957-58 to establish an NHL players' association. Aiden Devine and Kevin Connelly starredas Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe, while veteran actor Al Waxman (Cagney and Lacey, King of Kensington) played Red Wings general manager Jack Adams. Director Atom Egoyan (Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter) teamed up with writer Paul Gross (Due South) to dramatize the troubled life story of Brian "Spinner" Spencer in Gross Misconduct, a made for-TV movie originally broadcast in 1992.

Canadian pop music has found hockey to be a rich source of material. The earliest example was the Secrets' 1966 recording, "Clear the Track, Here Comes Shack," about Toronto Maple Leafs favorite Eddie Shack. Songs have also been written about Bill Barilko (the Tragically Hip's "Fifty Mission Cap"), Wayne Gretzky ("Gretzky Rocks" by The Pursuit of Happiness) and Wendal Clark ("Ballard of Wendal Clark", parts I and II, by the Rheostatics).

Canadian celebrities have produced novelty recordings (Bruno Gerussi's "Signin' with the NHL" and Alan Thicke's Wondrous Bobby) but more polished efforts by "Hockey", Tom Cochrane's "Big League" and Tommy Hunter's "Pandemonium." In 1974's "Raised on Robbery," Joni Mitchell describes a barfly "sitting on the lounge of the Empire Hotel" who had "a little money riding on the Maple Leafs." The song goes on to proclaim, "Look at those jokers / Glued to that damn hockey game." Stompin' Tom Connors' "The Hockey Song" is particularly well-known to fans: "Oh, the good old hockey game / Is the best game you can name / And the best game you can name / Is the good old hockey game."

Vancouver's venerable DOA, Canada's best-known punk band, has often combined hockey and music, both in song ("Overtime," "Beat 'Em Bust 'Em," "Give 'Em the Lumber") and in the video of their cover of the old-Bachman-Turner Overdrive somg "Takin' Care of Business," which features the band playing hockey with a team of suit-wearing businessmen. DOA even travels with street-hockey gear, taking on all challengers.

In "Give 'Em the Lumber," DOA mourns the state of the Canadian game: "Quebec and Winnipeg are gone / Canadian hockey hits the swan song."

Sometimes the band's hockey obsession gets in the way of less pleasant pursuits, such as rehearsing. "We had a table hockey set where we practiced," says DOA's Joe Keighley. "Sometimes we were supposed to start practice at 4 o'clock, but we wouldn't start until 6 or 7. We'd start a table hockey tournament."

The band also ices a hockey team, DOA Murder Squad, which sports a 14-2 record playing food-bank benefit games against radio-station teams and others in the Vancouver area. "When we started doing the hockey team people started saying DOA has gone from punk rock to puck rock," says Keighley, noting that the term "puck rock" now is the basis of a fanzine and two compilation albums called Puck Rock Classics. The compilations include such tracks as "Gump Worsley's Lament" (Huevos Rancheros), "What's Wrong with Lumme" (Glenn Ford and the Piers), "Of Orange Pucks and Mighty Ducks" (Mr. Nobody), "I'm Gonna Play Hockey" (Hanson Brothers), "Ode to Gino" (JP5) and "Our Stanley Cup" (the Smugglers).

Other bands have also formed hockey teams and the Vancouver group NoMeansNo created the Hanson Brothers—names after the Slap Shot characters—who have released two albums containing several hockey songs with titles like Gross Misconduct and Sudden Death.

The most famous piece of hockey music was written by a Vancouver-born, classically trained musician named Dolores Claman, who fell into commercial jingle writing because of a lack of "legitimate" work. In 1968, the CBC commissioned her to write a new theme song for Hockey Night in Canada.

"I was given this message: Make it like the theme to an adventure show," she recalls. "And that's what I had in mind, I was thinking about how great people feel when a goal is scored, rather than something to march along with, which is [the sort of tune] they used to have. It was kind of goose-pimple raising, something to raise your spirit, and it worked."

The tune was been recorded by pop bands such as the Shuffle Demons and even included in opera.

"The more the merrier," Claman says. "I think it's great." She adds that she's pleased to know French- and English-speaking Canadians share an enthusiasm for the song. "In Canada, hockey is a kind of link. The song wasn't regional. It was for all of Canada."

"It was a job. But it seemed to be just right. It wears well, but I never knew it would last this long."

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