Hollywood loves to make sports movies because they have built-in, inherent drama – it’s like a cheat code for screenwriters. Hollywood doesn’t, however, seem to love hockey movies because they haven’t made nearly enough of them. Despite the fact that the sport has intensity, camaraderie, dramatic highs and lows, heroes and villains just like any sport, it’s been largely disrespected and forgotten in film. Luckily for us, there are some good ones. Here are the most essential:
In terms of the filmmaking, Miracle is a pretty cut-and-dry underdog story (director Gavin O’Connor would go on to direct two other excellent sports movies, Warrior and The Way Back). But since it’s about one of the most iconic moments in the sport, the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” United States Hockey team that beat the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics, it’s an essential hockey movie.
Back when professional hockey players couldn’t compete in the Olympics, Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), the US Coach, scrapped together a team of college kids and inexperienced amateurs to compete against a Soviet team full of international play veterans and some of the world’s best players.
Which means the movie is about the come-up. From tryouts to grueling practices to the disastrous loss that teaches them how to be a team and, of course, the iconic motivational speech. That speech is so iconic, in fact, that it was supercut into one of YouTube’s earliest viral videos, “40 Inspirational Speeches in 2 Minutes,” where Brooks’ line, “This is YOUR time!” joins the likes of Braveheart, Rudy, Lord of the Rings, and the St Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, cementing itself as one of cinema’s great rallying cries. And what’s a formualic sports movie without an inspirational speech?
Well, it also needs a great, picture-perfect ending. And you can’t get any better than Al Michaels yelling, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
The Mighty Ducks (1992)
The Mighty Ducks, a film about a misfit peewee hockey team led by their recovering alcoholic (and former hockey protégé) coach, is as ’90s Disney as Disney ever got in the ’90s. It feels just like a Little Giants or a Sandlot, and doesn’t particularly distinguish itself from the pack in that regard. It’s about hockey fundamentals, the importance of teamwork, and how Ducks Never Say Die.
But, perhaps most importantly, it is the only movie to spawn an actual professional sports franchise in any major North American league. Long before Disney made their mint in almost exclusively repackaging recognizable brands and intellectual property for nostalgia bait, their bread and butter was expansion: sequels, reboots, television, Broadway, theme parks, games, cruises, and yes, even sports. The more places you could find The Mouse, the happier The Walt Disney Company was.
The Mighty Ducks grossed $50 million at the box office and earned nearly the same in video rentals. When they realized that they had an “in” with the sports world, they took it.
“Disney’s reaction was two-fold,” said the film’s producer, Jordan Kerner. “One was to immediately order the sequel, and two was to immediately clandestinely start negotiating for an NHL franchise.”
Two months after the film’s release, Disney was awarded an NHL franchise. Three months after that, Disney announced the name, The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (which is still, somehow, a better name than The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.) Disney tried their best to field a real hockey team and show that it wasn’t a gimmick, but in their first twelve seasons, the Mighty Ducks only made the playoffs four times.
Before the 2006-2007 season, Disney sold the team. They were renamed the Anaheim Ducks and, if you can believe it, won the Stanley Cup that next season. Fans of the team probably felt towards Disney like how the original film’s villain, Coach Reilly, felt towards Emilio Estevez’s coach character when he said, “You’re not a has-been, you’re a never was.” They were a non-player in the sports world.
Over the years, sports fans have complained that the Big Four sports leagues have gotten “softer.” Draymond Green plays basketball like the NBA never left the ’90s, which has led to a lengthy resume of suspensions. Because of the NFL’s focus on concussion protocol, you can’t purposefully headbutt another player anymore. And in baseball, thanks to Buster Posey, you can no longer run into a catcher blocking home plate and you sure as hell can’t bean that guy in the head if he does do it.
Hockey seems to be the only sport that still allows fighting. Even then, the days of fisticuffs are dwindling – the amount of fights in the NHL, for example, has decreased dramatically over the years.
Gone too are the days of the “enforcer” or “goon” on a team. That’s the guy whose job it is to suck at hockey, but be really great at fighting, both protecting their guys and beating the hell out of the other team. The titular goon in Goon is Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott, playing a character based on a real-life guy named Doug Smith), a good-for-nothing bar bouncer with no direction in life until the local minor league team realizes his ability to punch people really hard in the face might be useful to them.
As you might expect, he turns the team around, gets the girl, and finds his purpose in life. That also means that the climactic moment of the film isn’t a game-winning goal or a championship run, it’s, you guessed it, a fight.
Those were the days, when one could quip, “I went to a fight – and a hockey game broke out!”
Slap Shot (1977)
Albeit occasionally ridiculous, a lot of Slap Shot is about the life of a professional athlete, particularly one in the minor leagues. From the seen-it-all veteran to the most immature of rookies, winning streaks to losing streaks, dealing with reporters, nights at the bar after a game, puck bunnies, long bus rides, getting scouted by the majors, and the feeling that there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.
And all of it in the glory days of the ’70s, when they didn’t even wear helmets!
Does it matter if they win? “We’re so bad that we’re disbanding,” quips Paul Newman’s character. They do end up doing some winning, cause, you know, it’s a movie, but that’s not what the movie’s about.
As you can guess, it’s a hoot and a holler. So much so, in fact, that Newman called it his favorite movie in his filmography. Audiences agreed, it did well at the box office and became so beloved that a sequel was ordered 25 years later, Slap Shot 2: Breaking the Ice, starring a Newman lookalike: Stephen Baldwin.
Sudden Death (1993)
Listen, the pickings are slim when it comes to hockey movies. But this movie is awesome and since I included “Die Hard with Santa Claus” in Silent Night on my 5 Essential Christmas Action Movies list, I’ll include “Die Hard at a hockey game” for the final spot on this list.
And it delivers on everything that premise promises: Terrorists hold the Vice President for ransom, their plan takes place during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, and there’s plenty of hockey footage featuring minor leaguers and ex-players skating as Penguins and Blackhawks. The police, SWAT, and news start to gather outside. Jean-Claude Van Damme has to rescue his daughter, abandoning his son at the game. He kicks ass. The end.
But wait, there’s more: bad guys dressed up in mascot costumes, dead guys driving Zambonis, and the line “IT’S SUDDEN DEATH!”*
*Please don’t forget that the movie is called Sudden Death.