'Hockeyland': Players, filmmakers talk about inside look at a northern Minnesota high school season
The documentary, which follows the Hermantown Hawks and Eveleth-Gilbert Golden Bears through the 2019-20 season, hits movie theaters on Friday.
DULUTH — "Look at the flow, boys!" exclaimed Tommy Haines, popping into a Zoom meeting last week. "I love the flow happening there."
The filmmaker was reuniting virtually with Indio Dowd and Will Troutwine, two of the players featured in his new documentary "Hockeyland."
"You should have seen me a week back," said Dowd, a backward ball cap hardly hiding his magnificent head of hair. "I cut 4 inches off, almost."
Haines and his colleagues, including his brother and co-producer J.T. Haines, got to know the young men well during the 2019-20 filming of "Hockeyland," when the players were seniors in high school.
"We really were grateful for the trust that folks put in us," said J.T. Haines, noting that the filmmakers were present with players "in their homes, with their families at dinner, before and after practice. Lots of really important personal moments, so it's something that we did not take lightly."
"You got to know the guys," said Dowd about the filmmakers. "It made it feel like they wanted the best of you. They didn't want to just take the bad parts and make a movie of you; they wanted to make a movie with you."
"At first it was a little different," said Troutwine about having cameras present during his daily life. "As it went along, I got used to it. (The filmmakers) were all really nice. They made it really easy just to hang out and be yourself."
The 109-minute documentary, which follows the Hermantown Hawks and the Eveleth-Gilbert Golden Bears through a complete season, has been making the rounds of film festivals and is now receiving a release that begins on Friday at several dozen Minnesota theaters. Eventually, the release will expand to over 125 screens nationwide.
"This is by far a record for Northland Films," said J.T. Haines, referring to the Midwest-based production company he and his brother run with co-founder Andrew Sherburne. The filmmakers are calling "Hockeyland" the third film in a "hockey film trilogy" that previously included features on pond hockey and Olympic hockey.
Tommy Haines, who directed "Hockeyland," said he was hoping to portray "the true Minnesota hockey experience, through the eyes of the players that live it."
"The whole public school hockey program," added J.T. Haines, "is a really unique thing and people have very, very strong feelings about it. I think that's one of the things we especially wanted to capture."
As a high school sports story, "Hockeyland" has been compared to "Friday Night Lights" and "Hoosiers." As a documentary, though, the film finds its drama in its quieter moments — rather than the exaggerated histrionics familiar from fictional portrayals.
"It's not like 'Friday Night Lights,' where the coach is trying to get a kid who's injured on the ice, even if he blows his knee out," said Minnesota sportswriter Loren Nelson, an expert on prep hockey. "A lot of times, for drama purposes, you'll have the evil coach. ... I guess that makes for good entertainment, but I thought this movie was pretty accurate in that regard."
In "Hockeyland," both Hermantown coach Pat Andrews and Eveleth-Gilbert coach Jeff Torrel come across as supportive and empathetic. The film portrays both as closely connected to their communities, with Andrews returning to coach the same team he played on as an adolescent.
"These guys want to come back," said Nelson, who noted that in the 2022 Minnesota state hockey tournament, fully half of the 16 Class 1A and 2A head coaches were leading teams they once played for. "A lot of them have had good high school experiences, and they want to give back."
That loyalty starts early. It led Hermantown star Blake Biondi to stick with his school despite offers to leave and play for pro development teams.
"I would never change that in a million years," said Biondi, who now plays for the University of Minnesota Duluth and has been drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. He's also an athlete ambassador representing The Rink Live for Forum Communication Co. this upcoming season.
"I hope kids in Minnesota still know, if you're good enough, (pro teams) are going to find you. You can't get those years back, in your life."
Despite the similarities between the two programs featured in "Hockeyland," there are significant contrasts between them. For a long stretch in the 20th century, Eveleth was at the heart of Minnesota's — and America's — hockey country, reliably producing championship contenders. It's home to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
In recent decades, as the Iron Range has struggled to retain residents and resources, the tables have turned. By 2019, said Nelson, Eveleth-Gilbert weren't just underdogs: it was an outright "David versus Goliath setup" with Hermantown the near-unstoppable "juggernaut."
Turning out one of their strongest teams in years, the Golden Bears had to count it as a victory just to be competitive with the Hawks. At the end of the film, Eveleth-Gilbert's hockey program is shown merging with Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl to form the Rock Ridge Wolverines.
Some of the film's most evocative scenes feature ordinary life during a northern Minnesota winter. "You have kids shoveling rooftops," noted Tommy Haines. "You've got Indio and his brother riding four-wheelers in the middle of winter, or Will's (car is) getting pulled out of the snowbank (by) friends. They're figuring out how to do it on their own, as 16, 17 year olds."
The film has proved a window into the young players' lives even for their parents, Tommy Haines added. "We had some special screenings in Hermantown and in Hibbing earlier last year. Parents (were) coming up and saying that they're really glad to be able to see a little peek into the world of their kids," said Haines. "What that really looked like, to be in the locker room or to be on the ice."
"Hockeyland" also explores the players' relationships with their families. It's "dedicated to the spirit and memory of Lori Dowd," devoted mother of Indio and his brother Aydyn, both of whom played for Hermantown. In the film, Lori Dowd describes her treatment for cancer; she died in June 2022.
"Something that was always huge to her was promoting me and my brother's success," said Indio Dowd. "You can see in the movie how much effort she put into the two of us, and the team as well ... having that little piece of memory with her towards the end, something that will be there forever to remember her, is something that I can't thank enough about."
"You'll see that in both these towns," said Tommy Haines, "the parents are helping out with the concession stands or helping out doing parent nights and flooding the rinks at nights. So much community involvement by the parents and the people in those communities."
While mothers and fathers appear at length in "Hockeyland," the young women who are peers to the boys on ice appear only around the edges of the story, as cheerleaders and friends.
"Girls' hockey is huge in Minnesota," said J.T. Haines. "That would be an amazing story in itself. I think it's right to ask the question, should there be a story like this about girls' hockey? And I think the next question for us would be, could we have a role in supporting that?"
The film also doesn't address the fact that the hockey teams highlighted onscreen are overwhelmingly white. Tommy Haines said that in framing the story, he was conscious of his role as a filmmaker and the stories he was equipped to tell.
"In this case, J.T. and I felt like, we're from the Iron Range originally. This is a story that we know really well, and this is a story we feel like we can tell. The communities can trust us, not being outsiders coming in and just exploiting these towns or these stories."
Minnesota prep hockey, said Nelson, does not tend toward self-reflection regarding such topics. "I don't hear a lot of conversations about gender or race, and I don't know if that's an indictment or if it's just that it isn't really an issue that people around high school hockey are thinking about," Nelson said. "It's not something that I hear brought up in hockey circles very often. It's usually about the hockey, and really not a lot else."
"The thread that was always keeping us in line," said Tommy Haines, "was, what is (these players') experience? What are they dealing with? What are their challenges? What are their successes? What are their aspirations for the future?"
Tommy Haines said the future of "Hockeyland," as a film, will depend in large part on how well it does in Minnesota theaters. "Our distributor, Greenwich Entertainment, and we discussed, hey, let's not show it on the coasts first. Let's show it in Minnesota first. This is what this film is about, it's who it's for."
If the film does well in Minnesota, explained Tommy Haines, that could inspire more theaters nationally to book the movie. "For a small documentary outlet like Northland Films, this is a dream, for sure," he said. "We're competing against big Marvel films and massive budget films. We're up against those big guys now, so we'll see how it goes."
Whatever audience "Hockeyland" reaches, viewers who know Minnesota hockey agree that it stands as a true depiction of the teams and families onscreen. Those viewers include the players themselves.
Biondi, of Hermantown, said it was eye-opening to watch the finished film and learn more about the experiences of the players from Eveleth-Gilbert. "You definitely forget about stuff like that. You just don't even think about it, because you're in your own world and you're just trying to beat those guys," he said. "There's so much history between (Hermantown and Eveleth). It was cool to have them both featured."
Troutwine, of Eveleth-Gilbert, said people in his community have been pleased with the film. "I thought (the filmmakers) did a good job showing all the effort that everyone puts in," said Troutwine. "I thought it was portrayed well onscreen."
"We were all pleasantly surprised," said Dowd, of Hermantown. "We're all so tight-knit with our hockey group, and we all just care so much about that strong sense of community that we have." The film, said Dowd, "really showed why we're successful, why we're so close."
"In Minnesota, if you play high school hockey, you're playing, generally speaking, with the kid next door," said Nelson. "These guys all grew up together playing, and they're playing for their town. They're not just playing for two random team names. They're playing for their community."
For information on "Hockeyland" screenings, and appearances by people involved with the film, see hockeylandmovie.com.