Tears started flowing in the locker room. The players hugged each other for the last time as high school teammates. Documentaries were struck by the rawness of Tommy Haines emotion, even in a country where hockey is considered life.
“It was brutal. I felt for them,” Haines said, as his crew eventually put down their cameras to console the players. “Coming into this, we didn’t want to portray these kids as gladiators or expose all the stupid stuff they did as teenagers. We wanted to show them as real people. Turn them into humans that the audience would do.” are contained for.”
Haines is the director of “Hockeyland,” a new documentary that focuses on two Minnesota high school teams during the 2019-20 season. It is about wins and losses, players and their families, and the rich hockey traditions in “Minnesota’s unforgiving north country,” as the film describes it.
“Hockeyland” opened as the #1 documentary in the US last weekend, playing on 64 screens in Minnesota. The 108-minute Northland Films production airs on over 75 screens over the weekend of 16 September.
“Minnesota hockey is so big. It’s like football in Texas,” Haynes said. “These guys are like local celebrities, in these cities where hockey is life for them.”
Haines directed the 2008 documentary “Pond Hockey”. He was drawn to this culture because he was literally born from it, putting on his first pair of skates at the age of five in Mountain Iron, Minnesota.
He was inspired by classic documentaries like “Whoop Dreams” and shows like “Friday Night Lights” that captured a community’s obsession about a sport. He knew it existed in Minnesota with hockey, but had not yet seen it portrayed on screen. He was curious how players have changed since his days in the culture.
“We weren’t sure how the boys were growing up,” he said. “But they were still going hunting, digging up roofs, digging their cars out of a ditch. I’m not sure how long it’s going to be, but it was still happening. And hockey that tie that binds those communities together.”
His focus was on two schools in the 2019-20 season: Hermantown, a perennial state championship favorite that churned out NHL prospects like Blake Biondi, the Montreal Canadiens draft pick portrayed in the film; and Eveleth, a well-known hockey event that won Minnesota state titles, producing players for both the 1960 and 1980 gold medal-winning US Olympic men’s hockey teams.
“Everybody knows Eveleth. People know that’s where hockey started in the state. He’s got the US Hockey Hall of Fame there,” Haynes said. “But it’s the trend like a lot of rural America. The population is dwindling. Mining operations are decreasing. We wanted to capture one of the final seasons of Eveleth, before the Golden Bears didn’t exist.”
Sometimes the story of a high school team is a race against time, and the same was true for Eveleth on the ice: 15 of his 20 players were ready to graduate. But “Hockeyland” presented a different kind of ticking clock to that hockey program: Eveleth-Gilbert Senior High School was not going to exist for very long.
The school had agreed to merge with rival Virginia High School to form the new Rock Ridge High School, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2023. The consolidation of their hockey programs was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Eveleth and Virginia played another season as separate teams in 2020-21. But when the Rock Ridge Wolverine boys’ hockey team debuted in 2021-22, it marked the end of Eveleth’s incredible legacy as a Minnesota hockey powerhouse.
In “Hockeyland,” Haines described Eveleth’s last best chance for post-season success—the Bears hadn’t won a playoff game in decades—and how the community reacted to the merger.
“I don’t know if they were offended. I think they felt they couldn’t compete with other schools anymore,” he said. “They need a population to compete. I think some people in the community were upset, but the writing was on the wall.”
Haines’s first concept was to do a film specifically about Eveleth before she disappeared. During an exploratory shoot in 2018, Haines followed Eveleth to Hermantown. He also met some of the players as well as the coaching staff. Haines called for the documentary to focus on the power of hockey, which was on the rise and had its best days behind it. It became one of the film’s strongest narratives, right up to the point when Eveleth’s ice resurfacing machine breaks down the day before their big game, leaving the team unable to practice.
“There are some obvious differences between the teams, but I didn’t want to focus on just that,” Haines said. “I wanted to explore the similarities between each city, such as the towns and the passion for their programs in both the coaches and the players.”
One of those players is Biondi, an NHL prospect who had some initial concerns about participating in the film.
Now playing for the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Biondi was a high school star. He was drafted number 109 overall by the Canadiens in 2020. He averaged 3.04 points per game as a senior at Hermanntown and won the 2020 Minnesota Minute Men Mr. Hockey Award, previously received by the likes of Ryan McDonagh, Nick Lady and. Nick Bjugstad.
“It’s in my room right now,” Biondi said. “I don’t know if I should say that or not. I don’t want anyone to come in.”
Nothing says “Minnesota Hockey” more than treating your Mr. Hockey Award like the Crown Jewels.
Kendra, 20, had watched ESPN’s 30-for-30 series and old hockey documentaries on players from the 1980s, but was not “super familiar” with the format. He first heard about the prospect of “Hockeyland” a few years ago when he sat down for an initial interview, but was unsure whether it would ever land.
He said, “I didn’t know what to think about what was to come. It was my senior year, so I was focused on trying to win a state championship and individual goals.” “But then all of a sudden you’re doing the mic at the rink. Then you’re going to hang out with your friends somewhere and they’re checking to see where you’re going. That kind of got crazy. But a few months After that, you didn’t really pay attention to them.”
His hesitation about the project was more about how his team and the city would be portrayed rather than himself.
“As a community, we wanted to make sure it was done properly. We didn’t want the perception of Hermantown Hockey to look bad,” he said. “We were worried about it in the beginning, but once we got to know Tommy, we weren’t. And he clearly did a fantastic job with the film.”
Personally, Biondi said he was self-conscious about the filming process.
“Playing for Hermantown, it’s something you learn very quickly at a young age. All eyes are always on you,” he added. “So as a senior, knowing that these cameras are on you, this wasn’t my first time. I knew it was important to pay attention to how I was acting and how others were acting.”
The documentary uses Biondi as a symbol of the frenzy that surrounds high school hockey in Minnesota. One scene shows him playing a youth hockey game and being treated like an NHL star by young players, complete with autographs and photographs.
“That’s a good and a bad thing,” Biondi said. “Hermantown hockey is considered a role model. I wanted to be the guy who came before me, like [Winnipeg Jets defenseman] Neil Pionak and others. Everyone wants to be the next big thing. Sometimes, you might end up idolizing a little too much.”
Haines also focuses on other players and coaches of teams. He follows them inside the rink and into their homes. “Hockeyland” is as much about the people as it is about the hockey itself.
It’s about players watching away from the rink, having philosophical conversations while snow falls under the tires of their trucks.
It’s about watching parents in a wood-paneled living room explain the time it takes to raise hockey players. This includes the late Lori Dowd, Indio and Aydin Dowd, mother of Hermantown players. Lori dies of cancer, and receives a dedication at the end of the film.
It’s about Pat Andrews watching an old VHS tape from his days as a high school player, scoring a championship-winning goal for Hermantown, a team he would eventually coach.
Surprisingly, it’s not about the hair.
Minnesota has become synonymous with the salad found on the heads of high school hockey players, where helmetless players go viral in a pregame introduction video for the state championship. In the film the Hats lose their battle against Hawkeye’s hair, yet this is not a topic of conversation for the players.
“I think if they talked about it more we would have covered it more. But honestly, they didn’t mention it much,” Haynes said.
This is because few of them are as memorable as hockey coffees, they are part of the fabric of hockey culture that these families maintain. It’s something that might seem strange or extraordinary to an outsider, but it’s just another aspect of “Hockeyland” to a local, as Biondi explained.
“It starts with dads that, once it’s dark, go outside and fill the outdoor rink with water by three in the morning and then go to work at 8 in the morning,” Biondi said. “It’s the youth program. It’s the kids who leave middle school to go to the rink until it’s dark. Then you order pizza, that’s your dinner, and then you go skating all night.”
“That’s hockey here. It’s produced a lot of good players. And I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.”