Hockeyland follows the ups and downs of Hermantown and Eveleth-Gilbert during the 2019-20 season.
The notion of seeing yourself — larger than life — on the big screen can be intoxicating.
And, for Pat Andrews, flat out scary.
“It wasn’t an instant yes,” Andrews, Hermantown’s fifth-year coach, said about his response to the sales pitch that filmmakers would spend an entire season — in the locker room, on the bus and in the homes of players and coaches — documenting the Hawks’ every move.
“I was honored that he approached us,” Andrews said about Tommy Haines of Northland Films, director of the documentary feature film Hockeyland that premiered in November at a film festival in New York and is set for a series of regional screenings starting today in Duluth. “But letting someone into our inner circle, letting them film that, and trusting that it will be done in a truthful way. …”
The wary Andrews, after some deep thought, eventually acquiesced. The decision wasn’t so difficult for Eveleth-Gilbert coach Jeff Torrel, who had already developed a relationship with Haines through the creation of the Northland Films photo book “Pond Hockey Frozen Moments.”
“They were up in Eveleth doing photos shoots and I got to know them,” Torrel said. “I trusted their vision for the movie.”
Haines and the Northland Films crew had been scouting potential northern Minnesota locations and teams for the movie for several years, shooting footage from Ely to Grand Rapids to Warroad and Roseau and all points in between.
“Once we heard Eveleth was at some point going to consolidate with neighboring school Virginia, we knew that was the team we wanted to follow,” Haines said. “You have this historic program in a neighboring town from where I grew up, and it wasn’t going to be around any longer. At least not in the same form.”
Having finally settled on a town and team, Haines said the Northland Films crew decided to double down on their idea of documenting, “high school hockey on its own merits, the culture of what northern Minnesota hockey was all about.”
“We thought, 'Let’s film two teams and see what happens,' ” Haines said.
As the search for a second team began in earnest, Hermantown, a northern Minnesota powerhouse team akin to what Evelelth was as a dynasty program in the 1940s and ’50s, happened to be playing in Eveleth. Haines and crew attended the game and talked to Andrews and several Hermantown players.
“It was almost like a a casting process,” Haines said.
The Hawks, who have appeared in 14 state tournaments and won three Class 1A titles in the 2000s, are a polarizing team and program. Hermantown is respected by many for its rise from an average-at-best program to one that annually competes with — and beats — the elite teams in the state, no matter the school size. Others criticize Hermantown for not moving up a class and competing with many of those same big-school teams in the playoffs.
“Hermantown was always kind of the big, bad bears up north,” Haines said. “We wanted to show what makes their program so good, what makes them unique.
“A lot of kids grow up on the local rink there. There’s a lot of parent involvement, a lot of local volunteers. We thought there’s just a lot of overlap with these two towns.”
This is the part where a dubious Andrews needed reassurance.
“I was really concerned,” he said. “I told (Haines) we’ve had a lot of success and in some people’s minds we’re the evil empire. And then you have the pull-on-your-heartstrings story of the Eveleth Golden Bears.”
Footage from a Hermantown practice being gathered for the movie Hockeyland. Photos by David Greedy, David Greedy Photography
Hockeyland is being screened at several Minnesota theaters this week before its nationwide release in the fall. Here's the schedule:
Haines, who along with producer and longtime collaborator Andrew Sherburne, cut his teeth on filmmaking — and making films about hockey — with the acclaimed 2008 documentary Pond Hockey, had no intention of inventing or emphasizing story lines that strayed outside the film’s primary objective. He wanted to show the unique culture of high school hockey in Minnesota and how it becomes a community focal point during northern Minnesota winters.
“How are the youth are being raised today?” Haines said. “Hopefully this film shows the importance of coaches and their relationships with their players. The lessons of hockey and the lessons of life. Of the importance of helping others. Hopefully that sense of community is very evident.”
Haines and his brother J.T. were part of the camera crews that documented the 2019-20 seasons for Eveleth-Gilbert (which has since merged with Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl to form the new Rock Ridge program) and Hermantown. They gathered an estimated 250 to 300 hours of footage, with as many as 10 people involved in the filming at different times. Haines said they spend time with multiple families, eventually focusing on two from each team, and often had to split up when games and other events were happening simultaneously in the two towns.
Film crews eventually were pared down to one or two people at the most in an effort to be the least intrusive as possible.
“Somethings you would even forget they are there, and that’s terrifying,” Andrews said.
Added Torrel: “It would get to the point where the mic is on you and you forget the mic is on you. There were some definite, ‘What-did-I-just-say moments.”
Haines said he knew they had selected the right two teams, and that gathering captivating footage wouldn’t be a problem, when they filmed Hermantown playing Eveleth-Gilbert to start the season.
“From the coaches’ speeches in the locker room, to everything that happened on the ice, the fights,” Haines said. “We could have made a 60-minute feature film from that night alone.”
Ultimately, for both Andrews and Torrel, the film delivered on the promises Haines made.
“It’s an honest look at what we live through each winter, with hockey kind of being the center and heartbeat of that in a lot of communities,” Andrews said.
“They were true to their word with everything they said,” Torrel said. “It was a great opportunity for our boys to be part of. They’ll have those memories from that season, and be able to watch it in a movie, for the rest of their lives.”