Review: High School Sports Doc Hockeyland Profiles Friendship, Community and Competition on Ice

Directed by Tommy Haines, the documentary Hockeyland is about exactly what the title implies: a place where all things seem to revolve around high school hockey, whether you be player, coach, family member, or avid fan. And that place is a handful of rival towns in northern Minnesota. The dream of many of the boys who play is to eventually move on to the NHL, but the reality is that in this entire movie, there’s only one kid (maybe two if you squint) who seems destined to live out this dream. But Hockeyland isn’t just about the players; it’s about the location and the two teams in very different places during the 2019-20 season (just before COVID-19 moved in).

It certainly helps that director Haines picked exactly the right season to follow these two teams. Eveleth-Gilbert is going into its final season before the high school merges with another one and the entire dynamic of the team will change. They used to be the pinnacle of high school play, but the times are tough and the team doesn’t win like they used to. There’s something about the last season that sparks some of their best play in years. Meanwhile, Hermantown has one of the best teams in the state (perhaps even the nation), and their path to the state finals seems paved before them, thanks in large part to their star player Blake Biondi, who is in his senior year and needs to make the showing of a lifetime in order to have a shot at playing professionally.

The film digs about as deep as it can into the lives of everyone on the team, those coaching the team, and others impacted by the team, especially the players’ parents whose entire lives are upended for the sake of the game (including one mother who is going through a particularly rough chemotherapy treatment that does not seem to be helping her much). Especially for the seniors, this last season is mostly about becoming local legends. When they leave high school, they may never play at this level again, and they seem to know that, even if they haven’t quite accepted it yet. As the season goes on, emotions become elevated, and the filmmakers are given the level of access that is so important for a film like this. They keep a professional distance from their subjects, but you can’t help but feel their passion for the lives of those they are profiling.

The biggest issue the filmmakers have to deal with is that their subjects are teenage boys who have been taught since a young age that expression any type of emotion is somehow not masculine. As a result, we get a lot of monotone interviews with limited vocabularies about anything outside of hockey. More frustrating are bits of information that come up about some of the players with troubled pasts that no one wants to talk about in any detail, resulting in a very “Boys will be boys” filter on the entire movie that is mildly disturbing and makes us less connected to certain players. But these incidents hang over a great deal of Hockeyland and leave too many unanswered questions. And I’m not blaming the filmmakers for this shortcoming; it’s more a reflection of the communities where the film takes place.

Still, the rawness and devotion to capturing the nuances of North Country living is both impressive and tells us something we may or may not want to know about pockets of America where sports rule the day. But for true hockey fans, director Haines also centers on coaching techniques and impresses upon us the importance of a fiery motivation locker room speech. Hell, even I was ready to skate for these coaches.

Perhaps above all else, Hockeyland is a profile of friendship, community, and young people being passionate about something other than social media and video games (although we see these players on their phones all the damn time; they are teenagers). It’s near impossible not to get caught up on the fervor of it all, and we’re simply observers; imagine living this life—that’s what this movie does.

Hockeyland is now playin in select theaters around Chicago and arrives on VOD on October 18.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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