Memorabilia Memories with Rick Ackerman
Growing up in University City within walking distance of the Varsity and Tivoli theatres on Delmar, I had the opportunity to watch a lot of movies and developed a life long affinity for the silver screen. Coupled with the many walks down into the Loop for Saturday matinees was my love for television Channel 11, which featured many, many movies, some hosted by Harry Fender, a performer for Flo Ziegfield on Broadway in New York, a former St. Louis police detective, as well as a radio personality on KMOX. The multi-talented Fender was better known as Captain 11, the host of Captain 11's Showboat, which introduced many a youngster growing up in St. Louis to the Three Stooges.
Even before I began collecting hockey memorabilia, I started collecting movies. At one point, I had over 10,000 films in my library, now pared down to a couple of thousand after my move from Ohio back to St. Louis. So, it was only natural that I would seek out those movies that dealt with hockey, thereby combining two deep-rooted and long-lasting affections. Here are five lesser known films in my collection that I consider my favorite movies about hockey.
Although it is rather dull and plods along, the 1937 production of Idol of the Crowds features a young John Wayne as Johnny Hanson, a chicken farmer who plays pro hockey to earn some money to enlarge his farm. Bribed by gangsters to throw the championship game, Wayne refuses and leads the New York Panthers to victory over the Wizards, even after the club's mascot, little Bobby, had been previously injured in a car wreck caused by the bad guys. A lot of stock footage from what appears to be Madison Square Garden is used, yet close-ups of Wayne skating and stick-handling are hilarious. This clunker is worth it just to see John Wayne score some goals, most on the back-hand, yet!
Another really bad film that nevertheless has some good hockey action is a Canadian film produced in 1971 by John F. Bassett and the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Harold Ballard. Winter Comes Early (aka Face-Off) features the story of a young rookie, Billy Duke, played by actor Art Hindle, who has an ill-fated romance with a hippie folk singer. Actual footage from Maple Leaf Gardens with real players is utilized throughout the film, featuring cameo speaking roles by Derek Sanderson, George Armstrong and Ballard as a team physician. Also easily recognizable in the movie are Darryl Sittler, Bob Baun, Ron Ellis, Paul Henderson, Pete Mahovlich and Jim McKenney (Hindle's stand-in for long shots of game action). This film is currently available on Netflix.
One of the wackiest and most bizarre hockey movies ever is Sudden Death, a 1995 American action flick starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Powers Boothe. Produced by Penguins owner Howard Baldwin, this thriller features an ex-Pittsburgh fireman now the fire marshal at the Civic Arena (the Igloo) portrayed by Van Damme, battling an assortment of villains, including one bad guy in the Penguins' mascot's costume. During game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Penguins and Blackhawks, Boothe and his cohorts kidnap a group of dignitaries, including the Vice President of the U.S., and it is up to Jean-Claude to save the day. Easily recognizable hockey personalities include Luc Robitaille, Markus Naslund and Pittsburgh announcer Mike Lange. (Spoiler alert) In an incredible, unbelievably dramatic climax, a helicopter falls through the retractable roof and explodes, crashing into the ice during overtime, scattering players and fans alike. Although Jean-Claude does indeed rescue the hostages and save the day, we never find out who won the Cup that season.
On a more serious note concerning violence and hockey is a 1977 made-for-television movie called The Deadliest Season. An average pro hockey defenseman, played by actor Michael Moriarty, is demoted to the minor leagues and quickly learns the only way back to the majors is by being more aggressive and violent. Back in the bigs, he plays dirty and fights, only to cause the death of an opposing player during a game. Arrested for manslaughter, Moriarty is confused and frustrated as he only gave everybody what they wanted. All the lead players, including Meryl Streep in her screen debut as Moriarty's wife, deliver standout performances, which, along with good hockey footage, provide a documentary-like feel to a thought-provoking film exploring violence in sports and the dehumanizing effect it has on both players and fans.
My favorite lesser-known hockey film is the 2005 Canadian production of Maurice Richard (aka The Rocket), a French language biopic dealing with the life and times of the legendary Montreal Canadien right winger. The dialogue and hockey scenes were produced to be as true to reality as possible as they were reviewed by Richard himself (before he passed away) and also by his wife, children and famed broadcaster Dick Irvin, Jr.'s written and recorded testimonies and memories about his father (legendary player and coach Dick Irvin, HHoF 1958) and reporters from the era. Starring Canadian actor Roy Dupuis, the film also features Mike Ricci as Elmer Lach, Vincent Lecavalier as Jean Beliveau, Ian Laperriere as Bernie Goeffrion and Sean Avery as tough guy Bob Dill. Not only an excellent history lesson, this is also an excellent portrayal of Richard's life in hockey.
There are better-known, more popular hockey movies including Slap Shot, Miracle, The Mighty Ducks and even Goon, yet serious hockey fans, for the most part, have already seen them. So, consider this an invitation to check out these acroamatic films.