- Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.
Tears flowed in the locker room. Players hugged each other as high school teammates for the last time. Documentarian Tommy Haines was struck by the rawness of the emotions, even in a land where hockey is considered life.
“It was brutal. I felt for them,” Haines said, adding that his crew eventually put their cameras down to console the players. “Coming into this, we didn’t want to depict these kids as gladiators or expose all the stupid stuff they might do as teenagers. We wanted to show them as real people. Turn them into humans that the audience is rooting for.”
Haines is the director of “Hockeyland,” a new documentary that focuses on two Minnesota high school teams during the 2019-20 season. It’s 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 No. 1 documentary in the U.S. last weekend, playing on 64 screens in Minnesota. The 108-minute Northlands Films production goes wide on over 75 more screens the weekend of Sept. 16.
“Minnesota hockey is so big. It’s like football in Texas,” Haines said. “These guys are like local celebrities, in these towns where hockey is life to 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 five years old in Mountain Iron, Minnesota.
He was inspired by classic documentaries like “Hoop Dreams” and shows like “Friday Night Lights” that captured a community’s passion about a sport. He knew it existed in Minnesota with hockey, but hadn’t seen it depicted yet on screen. He was curious how players had changed since his days in the culture.
“We weren’t sure how the boys were growing up,” he said. “But they were still going out hunting, shoveling rooftops, digging their cars out of ditches. I’m not sure how longer it’s going to happen, but it was still happening. And hockey is the 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, a Montreal Canadiens draft pick featured in the film; and Eveleth, a legendary hockey program that won a string of Minnesota state titles while producing players for both the 1960 and 1980 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic men’s hockey teams.
“Everyone knows Eveleth. People know that’s where hockey started in the state. They’ve got the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame there,” Haines said. “But it’s trending like a lot of rural America. The population is declining. The mining jobs are down. We wanted to capture one of the final seasons for Eveleth, before the Golden Bears didn’t exist anymore.”
Sometimes the story of a high school team is a race against time, and that was true for Eveleth on the ice: 15 of their 20 players were set to graduate. But “Hockeyland” presents a different kind of ticking clock for that hockey program: Eveleth-Gilbert Senior High School was not going to exist for very much longer.
The school had agreed to merge with rival Virginia High School to create 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 one more season as separate teams in 2020-21. But when the Rock Ridge Wolverines boys’ hockey team debuted in 2021-22, it marked the end of Eveleth’s incredible legacy as a Minnesota hockey power.
In “Hockeyland,” Haines chronicled Eveleth’s last best chance for postseason 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 pissed. I think they sensed they can’t compete with other schools now,” he said. “They need the population to compete. I think some people in the community were irked, but the writing was on the wall.”
Haines’ first concept was to do a film specifically about Eveleth before it disappeared. During an exploratory shoot in 2018, Haines watched Eveleth take on Hermantown. He met some players as well as the coaching staff. Haines made the call to focus the documentary on the hockey power that was on the rise and the one whose best days were behind it. That became one of the strongest narratives of the film, right down to the moment when Eveleth’s ice resurfacing machine breaks down the day before its big game, leaving the team unable to practice.
“Some obvious differences there between the teams, but I didn’t want to focus solely on that,” Haines said. “I wanted to explore the commonalities between each town, like the passion both towns and coaches and players have for their programs.”
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 No. 109 overall by the Canadiens in 2020. He averaged 3.04 points per game as a senior in Hermantown and won the 2020 Minnesota Minute Men Mr. Hockey Award, an honor previously captured by the likes of Ryan McDonagh, Nick Leddy and Nick Bjugstad.
“It’s just up in my room,” Biondi said. “I don’t know if I should say this. I don’t want someone breaking in.”
Nothing says “Minnesota Hockey” more than treating your Mr. Hockey Award like it’s the crown jewels.
The 20-year-old center had watched ESPN’s 30 For 30 series and older hockey documentaries on players from the 1980s, but he wasn’t “super familiar” with the format. He first heard about the potential for “Hockeyland” a few years ago when he sat down for a preliminary interview, but was unsure if it would ever get off the ground.
“I didn’t know what to think coming in. It was my senior year, so I was focusing on trying to win a state championship and individual goals,” he said. “But then all of a sudden you’re mic’d up at the rink. Then you’re going to hang out with your buddies somewhere and they’re checking in to see where you’re going. That kind of got crazy. But after a couple of months, you didn’t really notice them.”
His hesitation about the project was more about how his team and town would be depicted, 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 poorly,” he said. “We were worried about it at the start, but once we got to know Tommy, we weren’t. And he obviously did a fantastic job with the movie.”
Personally, Biondi said he was self-aware about the filming process.
“Playing for Hermantown, it’s something you learn really early, at a young age. Eyes are always on you,” he said. “So as a senior, knowing these cameras are on you, it wasn’t my first time. I knew it was important to take care of how I’m acting and how others are acting.”
The documentary uses Biondi as a symbol for the mania that surrounds high school hockey in Minnesota. One scene shows him showing up to a youth hockey game and being treated like an NHL star by the young players, complete with autographs and photos.
“It’s kind of a good and bad thing,” Biondi said. “Hermantown hockey is idolized. I wanted to be guys that came before me, like [Winnipeg Jets defenseman] Neal Pionk and others. Everyone wants to be the next big thing. Sometimes, maybe you idolize a bit too much.”
Haines focuses on other players and the teams’ coaches as well. He follows them inside the rink and into their homes. “Hockeyland” is as much about the people as it is about the hockey.
It’s about seeing the players away from the rink, having philosophical conversations while the snow crunches under the tires of their trucks.
It’s about seeing parents in wood-paneled living rooms explaining the time they’ve put in to raising hockey players. That includes the late Lori Dowd, mother to Hermantown players Indio and Aydyn Dowd. Lori died of cancer, and receives a dedication at the film’s end.
It’s about Pat Andrews watching an old VHS tape of his days as a high school player, scoring a championship-winning goal for Hermantown, a team he’d eventually coach.
Surprisingly, it’s not about the hair.
Minnesota high school hockey has become synonymous with the salad found on the heads of players, to the point where pregame introduction videos from the state championships featuring helmet-less players go viral. Hats lose their battles against hockey hair in the film, yet it’s not a topic of conversation for the players.
“I think we would have covered it more if they talked about it more. But honestly, they didn’t mention it much,” Haines said.
That’s because as memorable as some of those hockey coifs are, they’re just part of the fabric of the hockey culture these families maintain. It’s something that might seem odd or extraordinary to an outsider, but that’s just another aspect of “Hockeyland” to a local, as Biondi explained.
“It starts with the dads that, once it’s dark, go out and flood the outdoor rinks until three in the morning and then go to work at 8 a.m.,” Biondi said. “It’s the youth programs. It’s the kids that leave middle school to go to the rink until it’s dark. Then you order pizza, that’s your dinner, and then you skate all night long.
“That’s hockey up here. It’s bred a lot of good players. And I don’t think it’s going to change any time soon.”
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