Mystery, Alaska – Hockey at The Movies

Mystery, Alaska – Is an Underrated Gem

As hockey movies go, “Mystery, Alaska” doesn’t receive as much affection from hockey fans as do such classics of the genre like “Slap Shot,” “Miracle,” and more recently, “Goon.” I suspect that a fair amount of this fact can be attributed to the film’s rather unlikely premise, and that it had the misfortune to be released in the late 90s – a time where hockey’s popularity was starting to wane heading into the lost season of 2004-05. Add star Russell Crowe’s questionable skating ability to the mix, and you’ve got the recipe for a film that, fair or not, doesn’t often receive the credit it deserves.

Believe it or not, it’s actually a fun flick (which, yes, can be very different from “good”). Although I remember liking the film a lot when it first came out (I was twelve), my stance gradually shifted to a more guarded opinion, often couched by the great all-purpose modifier, “Yeah but…” As in, “Yeah but it’s no ‘Slap Shot.'” Or, “Yeah but the hockey in ‘Miracle’ is so much better.” Upon revisiting the film though, I’ve found that it’s quite enjoyable on its own merits. The characters are memorable and relatable, the situations they find themselves in manage to be both genuinely funny and rooted in a realism anchored by an identifiable, archetypally human quality – and hey, even the hockey is, for the most part, pretty good.

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Before we get too much further into it, the trailer:

What It’s About

The premise should be familiar to you. There’s a small town in Alaska that goes by the name Mystery, where hockey transcends mere sport and indeed exists as a way of life. The entire town shuts down on Saturday mornings to watch “The Saturday Game” – a pick-up game held between the best players in the area. It’s an honor to be invited to play in the Saturday Game, and competition is fierce – it may well be the single greatest thing anyone can accomplish in Mystery. It’s understandable then, that when town sheriff and long-time Saturday Game player John Biebe (Russell Crowe) is politely asked to step aside to make way for 17-year-old phenom Stevie Weeks, small town drama ensues.

But that’s nothing compared to the drama headed Mystery’s way. When local boy turned Sports Illustrated writer Charlie Danner (Hank Azaria) writes a piece on the Mystery boys in which he claims that “on skating ability and skill alone, they rival any team in the National Hockey League,” the NHL quickly takes notice and arranges to fly the New York Rangers to Mystery to hold an exhibition game during the All-Star break.

Much semi-unnecessary plot wrangling unfolds between the game being announced and it actually being played (including a grievance filed on behalf of the players by the NHLPA), but to Mystery the Broadway Blueshirts eventually do go, and play the locals they do, requisite media circus, and all. Will it be a farcical blood bath? Or can the boys prove that they can hold their own against some of the best players in the world?

Until you watch the film, the answer shall remain…a mystery. (Or something…)

Cast and Crew Info

Directed by: Jay Roach
Written by: David E. Kelley and Sean O’Byrne
Cinematography by: Peter Deming
Film Editing by: Jon Poll
Starring: Russell Crowe, Burt Reynolds, Hank Azaria

As a Film

Forgetting about the fact that it’s a hockey movie, “Mystery, Alaska” is an interesting film in its own right – which isn’t to say that it’s a good film in its own right. Because it’s a film that was made for a fairly sizable cost at the time ($28 million, per Wikipedia) and especially because it’s a film centered on a subject that, frankly speaking, is a niche interest and a sport that most people don’t really understand, screenwriters Kelley and O’Byrne and director Roach saw fit to mix in story elements not necessarily having anything to do with the main narrative thread of the film – can a bunch of nobody hockey players from Alaska compete with and beat the New York Rangers?

Mystery, AlaskaThat a story can contain multiple subplots specifically created to shade, inform, and ultimately help the main plot to breathe isn’t exactly a recent development in the world of narrative storytelling – especially in the slightly more mainstream storytelling arena. This, I’ve found, is especially true of the great sports films, and certainly the great hockey films.

Take the semi-recent great hockey film “Miracle,” for instance. On a purely superficial level, “Miracle” is a film about Herb Brooks, a determined, iconoclastic coach trying to reign in a ragtag group of college hockey players and drive them towards beating the greatest, most dominant hockey team in the world. Along the way though, as but one example of a perfect subplot, Brooks must tend to his relationship with his wife, who demands that he find a way to balance his coaching job with his familial duties.

The connection between this subplot and the main narrative drive of the film (beating those “commie bastards”) should be rather obvious: will Brooks be able to balance these two aspects of his life so as to allow himself to properly focus on the task at hand (again, beating those commie bastards). This ultimately helps to shade the rest of the film, such as when (spoiler alert!) the U.S. squad beats those commie bastards and Brooks and his wife share a moment together in the midst of the celebration – a moment that would have been significantly lacking had the two characters not first been tasked with crossing the threshold of marital strife.

One area where “Mystery, Alaska” struggles is in creating and sustaining interesting subplots that inform the rest of the film. Take, for example, two separate instances of relationship problems. In the first scenario, the local lothario “Skank” Martin (Ron Eldard) is having an affair with the Mystery’s mayor’s wife. The mayor finds out and is (understandably) upset…and that’s really about it. Martin’s affair with Mrs. Mayor doesn’t really, in any concrete way, endanger his ability to participate in the game against the Rangers.

In the second scenario, 17-year-old whiz kid Stevie Weeks is dating local girl Marla Burns – daughter of Judge Walter Burns (Burt Reynolds) and sister of teammate “Birdie” Burns (Scott Grimes). When Stevie finally makes the Saturday game, Marla decides to initiate sex only to find that Stevie is, ahem, a premature ejaculator. Aside from some initial embarrassment, and an admittedly funny callback – Stevie gets knocked out in his first Saturday game and when he comes to, woozily announces that, “[he’s] a premature ejaculator,” and then later tells Birdie that it was all caused by his sister’s perky breasts, to which Birdie responds with knuckle sandwich, knocking Stevie out yet again – this doesn’t do a whole lot to endanger the game against the Rangers either.

For this reason, I find “Mystery, Alaska” to be slightly unfocused – not the greatest sin, but certainly unfortunate and mostly avoidable.

One interesting thing to note though is the multitude of thematic similarities that “Mystery, Alaska” shares with “Slap Shot.” Consider that both Mystery and Charlestown are towns in need of an economic boost. Consider the general “band of misfits” quality to both the Mystery boys and the Chiefs, and consider the situations that Russell Crowe’s John Biebe and Paul Newman’s Reg Dunlop find themselves in – older, grizzled veterans desperately trying to hang on to their youth.

In this way, it succeeds as a sort of spiritual cousin with what is widely thought of as the greatest hockey movie of all time. Not bad company there.

As a Hockey Film

“Mystery, Alaska” may not be a great movie in and of itself, but one thing it succeeds at is in capturing a fairly realistic (and entertaining to those in the know) rendering of hockey culture. Simply put, acting like a hockey player isn’t something that most actors can easily fake, which is why the films that best capture hockey culture are the films that cast hockey players who can act, rather than actors who may be able to learn how to play hockey (maybe). According to the IMDb bios of almost every single player on the Mystery team, they are all Canadian and/or grew up playing hockey.

Ryan Northcott plays Stevie Weeks and was born and grew up in Calgary. Kevin Durand plays the gargantuan “Tree” Lane and grew up in Thunder Bay. Scott Grimes plays “Birdie” Burns and grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts where he apparently considered a career as a professional hockey player and continues to play in charity games to this day. Brent Strait plays Kevin Holt and grew up in The Pas, Manitoba. Cameron Bancroft plays “Tinker” Connolly and grew up in Winnipeg, where he was recruited to play for the Kamloops Blazers before a hiking accident put his career on hold. It goes on and on. Playing hockey isn’t something one just “picks up,” and as such when casting a hockey movie it’s important to try and cast people who more or less grew up on skates. Which brings me to Russell Crowe…

Poor, poor Russell Crowe. He tries. He really does. But no matter how intensely he grimaces when ‘making’ a strong breakout pass, or how perfectly he flips back his carefully crafted hockey hair before donning his helmet, he’s so painfully obviously clearly not a hockey player – not even that, he’s never, ever been around hockey. Now, don’t get me wrong, he does an admirable enough job of faking it, but again, behaving as a hockey player is not something someone can simply fake and truly “nail” it. And that’s fine – it’s awesome, even…unless this fakery in any way hinders one’s potential enjoyment of said hockey film. For a long time, this is how I felt about “Mystery, Alaska” – that Russell Crowe’s unconvincing skating ability ruined the film. I was a film snob then. Now, upon revisiting it, I see that while yes, Crowe’s lack of hockey acumen certainly distracts from the action, there are more than enough genuine ‘hockey moments’ that director Jay Roach and his actors absolutely do nail.

From the general locker room banter, to the specific syntax used in trying to explain the left wing lock, and from the way that the players walk, to the way they tie their skates – it’s all incredibly genuine and detailed enough and knowing enough, for lifelong hockey fans and players alike to recognize and appreciate the lengths to which the production crew went in attempting to realistically capture a culture as insulated and difficult to understand as hockey culture.

It’s also helpful that the actual hockey played in the movie is more or less a simulacrum for how hockey actually looks at ice level. Most of the skaters (Crowe notwithstanding) appear at ease on their edges, and make instinctually subtle plays, even in what were surely thoroughly choreographed game play sequences. Perhaps the most fun to be had though is in a handful of hockey-centric cameos. Barry Melrose and Phil Esposito play themselves – Melrose, as an analyst for ESPN, comments on the outrageousness of asking the Rangers to travel to Alaska to play a half-baked exhibition game during the All-Star break, and Esposito serves as the color commentator during the Mystery-New York game.

Meanwhile noted Canadian and hockey fan Mike Myers plays a version of Don Cherry to ham-fisted perfection. It’s wonderful – and once again, a more than subtle wink at knowing hockey fans.

Why It Is (Or Isn’t) Worth Your Time

This film could have very easily been a Hollywood bastardization of our game. For as beautifully simple as hockey is, its inherent complexity makes screwing it up on-screen incredibly easy. That the filmmakers made a conscious effort to accurately portray hockey culture for what it is – warts and all – is a major credit. As a hockey fan, you may have a hard time stomaching Russell Crowe’s attempts to skate believably, but that and ultimately pointless subplots aside, there’s more than enough here to capture your interest.

I say revisit it.