Hockeyland: the Minnesota towns where high school players are stars
A new documentary looks at how entrenched the sport still is in a state where practically everything else has changed
Hockey is still such a big deal in the Iron Range town of Eveleth, Minnesota, that a 110ft, 10,000lbs stick can be found less than a mile from the US Hockey Hall of Fame over on Hat Trick Avenue. The big stick, a real wooden stick, sits in front of a big puck.
Between the stick and the hall is Eveleth-Gilbert Senior High School, home of the Golden Bears, who won five of the first seven Minnesota state hockey championships as Eveleth High. Both the 1960 and 1980 USA gold-medal Olympic hockey teams included players from Eveleth.
Because most high-grade natural iron ore has been taken from the Iron Range, however, the population of Eveleth is about half what it was before World War Two, and Eveleth-Gilbert High is merging with a neighboring rival school into Rock Ridge High, home of the Wolverines.
Hockeyland, a 140-minute Northlands Films production directed by Tommy Haines, an Iron Range native, takes a closer look at how entrenched the sport still is in Eveleth, the Iron Range and Minnesota, even though practically everything else has changed.
“Hockey is the glue for these towns,” Haines tells the Guardian about the film, which premiered earlier this month in New York. “They’re still coming out and packing these arenas, night in and night out.”
The film tells the story of the 2019-20 Golden Bears, a senior-laden team that had a good chance of going farther in the state playoffs than most Eveleth-Gilbert teams since 1998, when the Golden Bears won the state small-schools championship. They had not won a playoff game in 18 years.
As a contrast, the film also chronicles the 2019-20 Hermantown Hawks, from the suburbs of Duluth, an hour to the south of Eveleth. As Eveleth’s population dwindled, Hermantown’s got bigger, and, partly as a consequence, the Hawks became a hockey power.
The kids from the two schools, not surprisingly, turn out to have a lot in common: playing hurt, coping with family illnesses, figuring out what to do next, romance, teenage angst. With shaggy blond hair under backward baseball caps, the players even look like each other.
Along the way, the film hammers home the fact that it is mighty cold during hockey season in northern Minnesota, with plenty of overhead shots of remote woodland, with bare tree limbs black next to the fallen snow on the ground. Best to watch this film in front of a fire.
But the kids cope with the weather, like when they have to shovel out a buddy’s car that is stuck in the snow – or shovel off their roofs to prevent heavy snowfall from caving them in. They even thrive outdoors, taking time for snowmobiles, ice fishing and pond hockey.
Sometimes, the stories of the two teams get tangled: Wait, is that guy from Eveleth or Hermantown? But hockey is always the common thread. The Eveleth-Gilbert coach could be the Hermantown coach, or any other coach, when he tries to fire up his team before a playoff game by admitting, “I’m so jacked up right now, I wish I had a little eligibility left to get you guys going!”
Naturally, the two teams, who meet once in the regular season, are on a collision course in the playoffs (you won’t find any spoilers here). At season’s end, one player says, tearfully, “Hockey has been so good to me. I can’t express how passionate I am about the sport.”
Hoosiers, the film loosely based on a real-life basketball team in Indiana in the mid-1950s, pretty much set the standard for the high-school-sports-in-a-small-town coming-of-age subgenre when it came out in 1986. Hockeyland won’t be the last film to try to tell compelling stories about how a sport affects Americana, and vice versa.
Hockeyland completes a Northland Films hockey trilogy. The first, Pond Hockey, focusing on youth hockey, was recognized by ESPN as “the best and purest hockey movie ever.” The second, Forgotten Miracle, chronicles the 1960 US gold-medal team, now largely overshadowed by the 1980 Miracle on Ice.
Of Eveleth-Gilbert, Haines says, “I’d been looking for a story to follow. That they were going away was a big reason for doing it.”
Focusing simply on Eveleth-Gilbert in the documentary might have been cleaner, but the parallel story of Hermantown gave Haines a chance to develop a subplot: What happens to the Hawks’ gifted center, Blake Biondi, who passed up a chance to play junior hockey, the smoothest route to the NHL, so he could spend his senior year in Hermantown.
Haines acknowledges that he – not to mention hundreds of high school hockey players in the State of Hockey – was extremely fortunate, because the state championships, held at the Minnesota Wild’s arena in St Paul, were decided on 7 March 2020, only a few days before the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports for months.
High school hockey in Minnesota is only returning to normal now. But Eveleth-Gilbert played its final season in 2020-21. The Rock Ridge Wolverines are scheduled to open their season on 30 November. A gorgeous new arena will be the team’s home instead of the ancient and venerable Eveleth Hippodrome, “the Hipp,” which played host to its first hockey game in 1922.
It won’t be quite the same, but certain parts of the sport, and sports’ role in American culture, are likely to never change. “By the end of the film, you’re rooting for them to succeed at life,” Haines says of the 2019-20 teams. But he could have been talking about players from any Minnesota high school hockey team.