Youth hockey is a big deal in small-town Minnesota, at least for the boys who play it and a substantial section of the non-playing population. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing could be a subject for debate, but there’s no question in the mind of director Tommy Haines, a native of Northern Minnesota, that’s it’s a Very Good Thing Indeed. If you agree with him, you’ll probably enjoy his documentary Hockeyland. If you don’t, this film is probably not for you, because Hockeyland does not so much examine or analyze hockey culture as it assumes and celebrates it, an approach that will quickly become tiresome if you’re not already on the bandwagon.
Hockeyland focuses on the 2019-20 season for two high school teams, both of whom think they have a shot at winning the state championship. One is the Golden Bears of Eveleth-Gilbert Senior High, located in the home of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, for whom the season is particularly poignant since it’s the last before the high school merges with nearby Rock Ridge High. In a bit of backstory that could have been explored more, Eveleth was built because of iron ore deposits which have now mostly been mined out, so the town’s (and high school’s) population has dropped drastically. The other team is the Hermantown Hawks, from a suburb of Duluth, whose population has grown as Eveleth’s has fallen, and whose hockey fortunes have risen concurrently.
Hockeyland is an OK film, enjoyable enough to watch if you have an interest in the subject, but it’s certainly no Hoop Dreams or Friday Night Lights. It’s enjoyable enough if you’re happy with a film that stays resolutely on the surface of its story and sticks to the tried-and-true sports movie playbook, but don’t come looking for anything you haven’t seen before. Tension is generated by the teams’ progress through the season, with variety added by little sidebars about the players and their families (of course somebody’s Mom has cancer, and the players differ in terms of their abilities on and off the rink). Haines also salts in shots of the players doing non-hockey boy stuff (much of which involves large motorized vehicles) and of the snow-covered countryside.
Nothing you see in Hockeyland will surprise you, and the film has no interest in asking any difficult questions. Instead, it embraces the Minnesota Nice vibe wholeheartedly, and seldom does anything make it on screen which is not strictly wholesome (with the possible exception of a few bad words and an on-ice brawl aside). OK, I understand that it’s meant to be a family-friendly film, but one can celebrate a culture and still ask questions about it. Such as: is it a good idea for a teenage boy whose back troubles are exacerbated by playing hockey to continue in the sport? And a few others: do girls play hockey, are concussions a concern, and how much do the schools in question spend on hockey as compared to other aspects of their educational mission?
We don’t get to know anyone well in Hockeyland, with the result that you may find yourself wondering which shaggy-haired kid you’re seeing on screen at the moment, and which team he plays for. The focus on one team, then another, is motivated primarily by the course of the season, and it’s clear that the film had to switch focus after the story it wanted to tell was not going to happen. But don’t let that worry you—if you’ve made it that far, you’re already in, and the best way to enjoy Hockeyland is just to go along with its amiable vibe and not sweat the details. | Sarah Boslaugh
Hockeyland is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The only extra on the disc are the trailers for this and four other films.