Two huge gifts a documentary filmmaker can receive are access and good timing. "Hockeyland" director Tommy Haines had both.
During the 2019-20 season, Haines' crew gained intimate access to a pair of high school hockey rivals in the hunt for state titles, Eveleth-Gilbert and Hermantown, as well as the off-ice lives of some players, including Aydyn and Indio Dowd from Hermantown. As a result, "Hockeyland" achieves that fly-on-the-wall feeling that we're viewing and understanding things we wouldn't normally get to see.
Surprisingly, the best stuff isn't even hockey. Although the sport has the starring role, it's the Dowd family that is most compelling. The way the film is structured, spending more and more time with them, there's a sense Haines is discovering their complex dynamic as we do.
Mom Lori Dowd, grappling with both cancer and multiple sclerosis (she died last June), is the most charismatic person in "Hockeyland," somehow gathering the strength to hold her family together in between trips to the hospital. Her no-nonsense efficiency is moving, especially because her kids seem understandably unsure how to respond to her and everyone is committed to keeping their lives as "normal" as possible in the middle of catastrophic illness.
"Hockeyland" also offers a portrait of a changing community. Eveleth is a fascinating place, its tiny downtown — and historic hockey arena — perched on the edge of a vast taconite mine that once supported the town. The U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame is just outside Eveleth, all of which explains why there's a lot of concern in "Hockeyland" about the possibility the Eveleth-Gilbert team will merge with another school. So there's a dual meaning when someone says of this charged season, "This whole place was built for one way of life and that way of life is changing forever."
The hockey is compelling, too. Following the time-honored "Hoosiers" tradition, "Hockeyland" captures the David-vs.-Goliath battle by offering energetic glimpses of the contests that build both teams on the way to a hoped-for state title. Both on and off the ice, the players are candid as they split time between hockey dreams and figuring out what's next.
I'd like even more of them, in fact, and less coachspeak. Haines visits both teams' locker rooms and, while that's meant to depict the relationships between players and coaches, a little of it goes a long way, especially when the coaches babble cliches along the lines of "Go slay the dragon" or this uninspiring nonsequitur from Eveleth-Gilbert's Jeff Torrel, "I'm sick of talking about it. I love you guys."
To be fair, few speaking gigs seem harder than inventing locker-room inspiration for dozens of contests. And even the occasional verbal misstep adds to the nostalgic portrayal in this small piece of something that is a big piece of life on the Iron Range. Several players in the film have gone on to college or pro careers, following in the footsteps of the all-time greats who skated these same rinks. All of which speaks to a claim that "Hockeyland" justifies: "At one point, the best hockey in America was played here."
*** out of 4 stars
Rated: Unrated, but contains strong language.
Where: In theaters.