True fans know hockey involves more than a 60-minute game. From fictional movies about the sport to highlight reels online, hockey can be found in multiple forms. A number of fascinating documentaries take fans behind the scenes and provide the players with a voice, which helps situate the sport in the broader social, political, and cultural fabric of the time. Below is a list of documentaries that communicate the impact that hockey has and its relevance to the era being examined.
The Russian Five (2019)
If you started following hockey in the mid-1990s or later, you may not believe me when I tell you the Detroit Red Wings were basically the laughingstock of the NHL in the 1970s. From 1966 to 1983, the Red Wings made the playoffs just twice in 17 seasons. Gordie Howe’s unbelievably long career was coming to an end (for a few years), and the team’s core as a whole was coming to the end of their careers. With this downward trajectory set to continue for years to come, it would take something new for the Red Wings to finally right the ship.
‘The Russian Five’ highlights how the Red Wings looked overseas to help end their Stanley Cup drought. Although there was a wealth of talent in Russia, getting these players to the United States would prove to be a challenge that would take creative politics and some espionage to solve. (from ‘Russian Five: How Konstantinov faked cancer to join Detroit Red Wings,’ Detroit Free Press, 05/26/2018) Overall, this film analyzes how bringing Soviet hockey players from behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL changed the Red Wings franchise and the style of play in the NHL forever.
Ice Guardians (2016)
Brett Harvey offers a measured meditation on the role of the slowest guys on the ice. His documentary “Ice Guardians” had a successful opening and received positive reviews. Fighting and the role of the enforcer in hockey have been under close watch by the NHL, media, and fans, due to raised awareness of concussions and their impact on life after hockey. While the game of hockey and the role of enforcers has changed drastically over the years, ‘Ice Guardians’ details how the existence of fighting may mitigate other, more violent acts in hockey.
Watching players recount their experiences, it is hard not to conclude that they enjoyed every minute and view it as essential to professional hockey. Even those who dislike fighting may have their opinions swayed after watching this film.
‘Ice Guardians’ is available on Netflix.
29 Forever (2019)
One of the saddest stories in hockey history, ’29 Forever’ pays tribute to the 16 lives lost and 13 injured in the tragic April 6, 2018, Humboldt Broncos bus crash. (from ‘Humboldt Broncos families to quietly mark anniversary of Saskatchewan bus crash,’ The Star, 04/05/2020) This was an unimaginable tragedy that gripped the entire world, as hockey players everywhere who have made countless bus trips over the years sent their prayers and thought about how precious life truly is. The hockey community rallied around all those impacted and resulted in a heartwarming show of support globally.
The Sports Network (TSN) looks back at these tragic events and outlines the journey of mourning and healing. The caring, strength, and togetherness of the hockey community really comes through in this film. It will make anyone who watches this film proud to be part of something so special and remind you to take an extra second to send a little extra love to those closest to you. Although it’s a tough story to look back on, it’s one that everyone (hockey fan or not) should watch.
’29 Forever’ can be watched on TSN.ca.
Of Miracles and Men (2015)
As part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 docuseries, this is the precursor to the documentary ‘Red Army’. Directed by Jonathan Hock, it considers the story of one of the greatest upsets in sports history. Pretty much any hockey fan has seen the unlikely yet triumphant American team that stunned the Soviet national team in the 1980 Winter Olympics. This film takes a different approach, as it focuses on the Soviet side of the famous “Miracle On Ice.”
While the American perspective has been examined many times, this film features an in-depth breakdown of the Miracle on Ice through interviews with Russian players, who recall every painstaking memory of the famous upset.
‘Of Miracles and Men’ is available with ESPN+.
The Last Gladiators (2011)
In this documentary, Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney dives into the history of the enforcer in hockey, with the central figure being former Montreal Canadiens’ tough guy Chris “Knuckles” Nilan. He bears the scars of broken knuckles, lost teeth, torn ligaments, and multiple finger surgeries from his time as an NHL enforcer.
Throughout his career, Nilan struggled with addiction to drugs and the guilt that comes from harming the people closest to him. In this film, he speaks freely about how those demons overcame him and what it took to overcome them. Aside from Nilan, interviews with NHL tough guys like Tony Twist, Marty McSorley, and Donald Brashear help explore what it means to enforce the unwritten rules of the NHL.
This film is available to watch on Amazon Prime.
Kings Ransom (2009)
On August 9, 1988, one of the biggest transactions in NHL history took place. The Edmonton Oilers agreed to send “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky, Marty McSorley, and Mike Krushelnyski to the Los Angeles Kings for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, three first-round picks, and $15 million. Gretzky was just 27 at the time of the trade and was already the NHL’s all-time assists leader with 1,086.
This deal shocked the hockey world and the entire country of Canada, as the Canadian icon was sent south of the border. Another ESPN 30 for 30 film, ‘Kings Ransom’ looks at the result of this deal that took the Kings from being an underperforming, overlooked organization to a thriving, successful team overnight.
‘Kings Ransom’ can be viewed on ESPN+.
Punched Out: The Rise and Fall of Derek Boogaard (2014)
This documentary on Derek Boogaard focuses on his path to the NHL and the circumstances surrounding his tragic death. The documentary features an emotional interview with Boogard’s family and dives into entries from his own personal journal. This emotional documentary examines what happened to cause a professional hockey player to go down a path of drugs and alcohol before he passed away from a tragic accidental drug overdose at the age of 28.
This film also takes a dive into the world of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (or CTE), and the role it played in Derek Boogard’s life. CTE is a medical diagnosis caused by repeated blows to the head. It has been a big topic in sports media and has been cited as the killer of many athletes. The movie ‘Concussion’ featuring Will Smith gives an in-depth look at the backstory and discovery of this disease, while ‘Punched Out’ analyzes the effects it had on one of hockey’s toughest players.
Red Army (2014)
‘Red Army’ tells the story of the Soviet Union national ice hockey team through the eyes of team captain Slava Fetisov, focusing on the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. For decades after World War II, the Soviet international hockey team ruled the hockey world alongside Canada. Names like Fetisov, Sergei Federov, Igor Larionov, and Vladislav Tretiak were part of the machine that was Soviet ice hockey.
This film focuses on how the Red Army’s veteran coach Anatoli Tarasov taught his players a fluid artistry of play with a specific focus on the famed five-man unit known as “The Russian Five.” The film details the link between sports and politics, and the way that the overarching political system of a nation can impact the smaller institutions within it. The film also presents the process by which players were wooed by National Hockey League scouts and eventually flooded NHL rosters.
Leaving the Ice (2012)
In 2011, the hockey world was shaken by the tragic loss of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team. The KHL team was headed to play Dinamo Minsk in Belarus when their plane crashed during takeoff. The documentary “Leaving the Ice” examines the crash and its impact it had on the city of Yaroslavl.
The film includes interviews with some of the current Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team members and focuses on how the community is rebuilding itself after the accident. The impact the loss of the team had on those who were to follow in their footsteps onto the ice is emphasized throughout the film, and overall it is an emotional tribute to the lives that were lost on September 7, 2011.
Becoming Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby was born on Aug. 7, 1987, in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. He lived for hockey growing up and became one of the most highly touted prospects on the planet. Crosby played two years in the QMJHL before the Pittsburgh Penguins selected him first overall in the 2005 NHL Draft.
Two years later the club made the 20-year-old the youngest team captain in NHL history. This program details the life of Stanley Cup champion and future Hall of Famer Sidney Crosby both on and off the ice.
Broad Street Bullies
‘Broad Street Bullies’ is not just for fans of the Philadelphia Flyers. It chronicles the team from their start as an NHL expansion team in 1967 to their Stanley Cup finals appearance in 1976. The film shows what it’s like to bring a new NHL team into a city that wasn’t sure it wanted one.
Over the course of the film, the Flyers decide to add some significant muscle to their team. Through this addition of key players and the overall change to their style of play, they created a team known as the “Broad Street Bullies.” This fascinating look at the famous Philly bruisers is both entertaining and informative.
Drop the Gloves (2016)
This Vice Sports television feature focuses on the Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (North American Hockey League). Considered one of the toughest in the world, LNAH audiences are treated to more than four fights per game.
Although just under 25 minutes, this film does a good job of chronicling the pressure to reduce fighting in the LNAH. Players confront what will this mean for a league whose identity and brand revolved around violence for nearly two decades. VICE followed the Laval Prédateurs during the playoffs, as the team struggled to deliver fights while trying to step up their game at the same time.
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