When director Tommy Haines made Pond Hockey in 2008, a documentary featuring NHL legends like Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby testifying to the importance of local rink hockey in the larger hockey industrial complex, ESPN declared it “the best hockey movie ever.” You could tell the subject matter was personal to Haines, who grew up playing hockey on the Iron Range before enrolling at the University of Minnesota to study film. In the decade plus since Pond Hockey, Haines and his Northland Films team, which includes his older brother JT and the producer Andrew Sherburne, have gone on to make several more well-crafted documentaries, one more hockey doc, 2009’s look back at the 1960 Olympic gold medal winning team’s Forgotten Miracle, followed by deep dives into subjects from farther afield, like 2013’s Gold Fever, an investigation on the impact of transnational gold mining on a small town in Guatemala, or 2017’s Saving Brinton, about an Iowa man’s quest to preserve rare 19th and 20th century film.
But this fall Haines finally returned to home ice with Hockeyland, a David and Goliath story focused on the 2020 Minnesota high school hockey season: there’s Eveleth, the formerly legendary program now suffering from such a precipitously dwindling enrollment that it was in danger of being merged into neighboring Virgina’s hockey program, and Hermantown, a once sleepy Duluth bedroom community turned perennial Class A hockey power. Hockeyland alludes to social and economic dynamics that are beyond the control of these young athletes, but by hewing closely to the details of their lives and the lives of their parents, it both grounds the movie in this unique area of the world and transcends its genre: this is more than a hockey movie, this is drama.
Watching these kids come of age game by game, dealing with their coaches and their parents and their hometown’s expectations, while finding time to blow it all off by whipping shitties on frozen country roads, it taps into the universal adolescent experience while remaining uniquely Minnesotan. Working from a $450,000 budget—“we just didn’t pay ourselves,” Haines explains when I reach him by phone from his home in Iowa City—this film was a clearly a passion project for him, a movie about a sport and a place with which he’s deeply connected, about people he wanted to represent fairly and engagingly. “It’s a story that we were so excited about that we just had to do it,” he says. “Regardless of funding.”
I’m curious to how you got these Iron Range hockey parents and hockey players to trust you. Because this is not a great time to be any kind of media in a small town. You grew up as a Ranger?
I lived in Mountain Iron until I was 11 or 12, and then moved on to the Twin Cities. So, yeah, I think that still qualifies as an Iron Ranger. I played all my hockey up there.
What’s the name of the town?
So literally a town built on iron.
All those towns are funny because a lot of them are based off minerals and mining elements. There’s Taconite and Coleraine. And Mountain Iron is a mining town with the big Mintek mine. I grew up swimming in the pits in the summer, and playing hockey in the winter.
When did you start working on this film?
Basically since Pond Hockey. I knew I wanted to do a high school hockey film, but it was just a concept—there wasn’t a story that I wanted to focus on. I don’t know if you’ve seen the show Friday Night Lights, but that series came out in 2007.
When did Pond Hockey come out?
Pond Hockey came out in 2008, right when I had my first kid. I was home with my firstborn, and I started binge-watching shows. I was watching Friday Night Lights. It was that show in combination with Hoop Dreams that influenced this project artistically, right? Hoop Dreams is about these kids with aspirations of playing pro basketball in inner city Chicago, and Friday Night Lights is about these football crazed towns in Texas. And Friday Night Lights was so dramatic and cinematic. I wanted to merge those two concepts into one thing. That’s when we started just looking at different Iron Range towns.
Did you get funding before you started filming?
We self-financed, just because when we heard that Eveleth was going to merge with Virginia—we didn’t know if it was going to be their last season, but we knew this story is happening now. There’s no time to raise funds, we have to just go.
I think there’s an important element about the timing of things when you do a film. Beyond the fact that Eveleth was consolidating, I was a father, right? I mean, I have a 13- and an 11-year-old now, but four years ago, I had these young kids. So in terms of trust, beyond being an Iron Ranger, just being a father and being able to talk to these parents from that perspective: you know, you’re giving up your teenager to me, and it’s something I realize is sensitive for you and trusting that is delicate.
You got so lucky with Eveleth’s Elliot Van Orsdel. Here’s this loving kid, with a chip on his shoulder and this dark mysterious past—something happened in his sophomore year that you vaguely reference. How many kids did you have to wade through in order to find your Tim Riggins?
We were popping into different Range schools and doing some exploratory shooting. The honest truth is when we got to the Hippodrome in Eveleth, it was Elliot’s junior year. We walked into the locker room, and he was cast instantly. He had this mop-top, and he’s yelling at other players where to be on the ice, and just kind of controlling the whole locker room. I knew when I first met him that he was going to be one of the guys.
We had our cameras in there and a lot of the kids are either looking at the camera, being bashful, or kind of showing off, and he was just being authentic from the start. There’s no falsity to any of his actions. So I knew he was in right away.
And Blake Biondi was in right away too, just because I knew Blake was going to have this epic potential Mr. Hockey campaign, and maybe getting a state title. So those two were pretty much cast early on. The other two guys, Indio and Will—we followed an additional eight guys and kind of found those two through that process.
And it was just basically a crew of two or three of you shooting up there?
Yeah, two or three, and oftentimes we’d split up. So, crews of one. So I’d be off with Blake Biondi and [my brother] JT would be with Elliot, and we’d just split up and go film with those guys for six hours, come back, and look at dailies and discuss what we should do the next day.
The Eveleth storyline is such a great Minnesota storyline. They have this high school hockey legacy going back to John Mayasich—the Golden Bears mean so much to our state hockey history, and now, here’s this historic program on the cusp of consolidation. But the Hermantown narrative occurred to you while you were reporting the Eveleth story.
It was on that exploratory shoot at the Hippodrome. Eveleth was playing Hermantown. I met Hermantown’s coach, Pat Andrews, that night. I met Blake and Indio that night as well. We just took those guys off to a side locker room and did some interviews. After that winter of exploratory shoots, we got back, and were digging through the footage. I think the original idea was just to do a Range town. not just the storied past of a Range town but just the kind of Iron Range grittiness that could come with that. I always wanted to do a nostalgic story like that. But Hermantown, it was like, let’s take on the challenge of doing something a little bit more nuanced—we’re not just rooting for Eveleth, but also, what’s it like to be Goliath in the David-Goliath story? What is that weight like? I think it’s often looked at in a very simple black-and-white way, but I was curious to see the pressures of what it was like to be a dynasty like Hermantown, and to see what those players are living with as well.
Hermantown is kind of this Duluth bedroom community that’s become this Class A hockey power. They ended up allowing you great access, but in a way, didn’t they have the most to lose? Did it take some time for Blake Biondi and Coach Andrews to kind of drop their guard a little bit?
It took a while with Pat and Blake. I had talks with both of those guys over the summertime, specifically Pat Andrews. Because, you’re right, why would they let a film crew in? They’re already doing really well and it kind of exposes them to possible storylines that may make their program look bad, right? So that was tricky. But I had some talks with Pat over the summertime and just said, “Hey, I’m going to give you guys an honest look. And if you’re honest with me, and authentic with cameras around, we’ll be respectful of your boundaries.” They had a rule with our camera crew: when the coaches bring kids into the coach’s room and the door is shut, no cameras. But at the same time, Pat was inviting me over to his house for dinner with his family. The same with the Biondis. And they started to realize, this might be a little bit more than just a hockey film. I think early on, in their heads, it was like I’d just be at practices and games and it’d be easy that way, but they start to realize I’m in their lives on a regular basis—at the high school in Hermantown, at their houses. I think it took a second for them to realize that this was something that’s going to be a deeper approach than just the standard sports film. So that honestly took about a month, until they got used to our style.
Luckily for us, there’s not a ton of drama that happens in the first month. They’re putting the team together, they’re playing their first couple of games. But it was kind of nice for all of us just to get to know each other when the stakes weren’t super high as a team.
Then we can kind of develop that relationship before things got serious. That way, when we get to the state tournament, I can be in the back of the bus next to Blake, and I’m not this weird guy that’s hopping in. By then, we’ve known each other for months.
Just to flash forward for a second, in Coach Andrews first speech, he calls his squad a bunch of dinks. He was upset at how he was portrayed at first wasn’t he?
You fielded an angry phone call.
Yeah. I like to watch the film with all the cast all together in one space. But it was going into festivals in the middle of COVID. So I sent him a link that he could watch privately on his own laptop. I told him wait till I get up there, let’s watch it together, so I can talk you through some of these decisions. He’s like, “Oh, the whole community has already seen it, I’m just going to watch it.” So he watches the first 20 minutes, turns it off, and calls me, and just is like, “Tommy, I’m furious with you. I can’t believe this is the film you’ve made.” I said, Pat, please just watch the rest of the film. Sleep on it tonight and then let’s call tomorrow have a talk about it. So that’s what he did.
He was pretty appreciative. I mean, to his credit, I can’t imagine being in a movie. I do this for my living—I go to these places and I turn the camera on them. But having the camera turned back on you? It’s tough. You’re vulnerable and they can take any kind of line they want from you. So I sympathize with that. So I said to Pat, I hope by the end you can see what we did—because honestly, Pat, even though this is a story about four boys, his arc is pretty prevalent in this film.
Absolutely. He kind of embodied this fulcrum of hockey history, playing at a time when Hermantown goes from being a joke to being a hockey power. And you have that in there. But you didn’t choose to include his entire backstory, nor the backstory of the program—he’s taking over from this legendary coach who had been his coach. I think you do portray him fairly, but it takes the entire movie to get there.
He’s seen it a few times now, and he’s very complimentary of the film and he’s excited that it’s a film that we made. We get people that, you know, it was tricky because we knew that a Minnesota high school hockey audience, and especially the people in Hermantown, they’re probably going to want more perspective of the history of both those towns.
Yes. You could have gone full on Ken Burns on all the lore.
That Bruce Plante legacy, and obviously, Eveleth’s history going back to John Mariucci and Mayasich. But from the start, this is where Friday Night Lights comes in, I always wanted this to be about the boys and their experience—and I wanted it to be a very present-day experience. That’s what the film’s goal was, and I wanted to just stick to that. That’s why we don’t get too much into Pat’s history of being coached by Bruce and all that, because it isn’t really Pat’s story, it’s really the four boy’s stories. So we just tried to stick to that narrative throughout.
In terms of keeping the focus on the kids, like I said, Elliot has this like black mark in his that you left mysterious. And there’s a scene where you see them all at a high school dance, and they’re all awkward teenagers. But you know that hockey players are kind of at the apex of power at these high schools? They’re the coolest kids in school, and sometimes they don’t handle that as gracefully as we’d like teenagers to handle that. And I get not seeing these kids crushing up xannys Euphoria-style, but I thought we’d at least see more vaping or something. So how conscious were you to avoid being judgmental in the way you told these kids’ stories? Was it hard getting enough access to make these minors three-dimensional characters?
That was a challenge from the start. Our approach was always going to be, look, this is going to be a hockey movie, and it’s going to be their experience with hockey, but we also want to show these coming-of-age stories where they’re still doing things like going to school dances, going on dates, pulling shitties in parking lots. We wanted to have moments of that, but we told those boys from the start, we’re going to come with you for the first hour of the dance, to show that you’re doing these things that teenagers are doing, because that’s honest. But we’re not going to stay out till 2:00 in the morning with them. And we’re not going to try to exploit them for doing all the things that maybe a 16- or 17-year-old hockey player might do. Although I will say, from what I saw up there, they were all pretty well-behaved during the hockey season. I’ll say that. Because they didn’t want to risk suspension. I know that there’s another guy on the Hermantown team that got suspended for the first couple of games. So those are just quick lessons that they learn and like, “Okay, we got to keep this tight.” Especially in Hermantown, “We’re going on a state run here, let’s not screw that up by doing excessive partying right now.” Maybe they do that in the offseason, sure. But hockey season, they’re really pretty good with all that stuff. And Elliot, like you see in the film, he learned that lesson as a sophomore, so he’s not taking any excessive risks during his senior season.
The other two things that I thought were handled in an interesting way was the hockey lifestyle in a mining town. I’m not sure what Elliot’s parents do for a living
His dad’s a miner.
But you didn’t make that explicit, you know? Is that because these hockey kids, even in Eveleth, are doing okay? They’re not like poor kids. Everybody had like a Jeep Cherokee or a Toyota pickup truck.
The first thing is, when we went into this project, we thought the Iron Range is going to be more of like lower middle class, that these families would be struggling more, and the Hermantown families would be the rich ones. That’s kind of what we were expecting going in.
But that’s where, as an observational filmmaker, you have to observe and pivot whenever the pivots are clear. The Dowd family in Hermantown was the one that was struggling financially, where Lori is not only dealing with cancer but she’s working three jobs and the dad’s working at Pizza Hut, and they don’t have a ton of money, and they’re doing anything they can to keep their kids playing hockey. Where, yeah, in Eveleth, Elliot’s dad’s a miner and they’re pretty well off. And the Troutwines, they lived on the lake and had some money as well. So the expectation was totally flipped when we got there.
The other thing that you handled cinematically was the glowing of the phones on the team bus, and the social media guidance counselor in the Hermantown locker room. Not that you filmed these developments like a horror movie or something, but you got the sense that these hockey players’ lives are more complicated than they used to be.
It’s the same as the dance stuff, this is where the mental health things came in—the tablets and iPhones. We didn’t want to make a movie about that, but we wanted to show the experience of these four boys. What are their dreams, but what are some of the challenges and adversities they’re dealing with? And there’s this influx of iPhones and iPads and TikTok and all these clips which, they’re very performative with, and that can affect things like depression and mental health for these boys. So we wanted to make sure that we touched on that, especially Pat Andrews bringing Mark Wick in to talk to his boys about that. I think we would have done even more of that if our four guys, Blake, Indio, Elliot and Will, would have been struggling and talking to us about their struggles with it. But it never really became a thing, just more like, “Oh, yeah, Pat’s bringing in this guy to talk about mental health, but this isn’t something we’re personally struggling with ourselves.” But I did want to at least throw a little nod to this is just another thing, especially with Blake who’s dealing with media and recruitment from college and pros, it’s also just like his own persona he has to have on Instagram, right?
Yeah. He seems like such a Type A Mr. Hockey dude, somebody who’s realized that “all eyes are on me” for a long time.
Yeah. So, you can say Blake’s just always being performative for us, but look, it’s hard to blame him, because he’s been dealing with this since he was 13-years-old. Putting his game face on, as a leader of his community. Obviously, in the film, you get Zach kind of poking fun at him a little bit for the cops pulling him over and not even giving him a ticket. But all that’s truthful, right? In some ways he gets away with some things, but in other ways, there’s a lot of weight on his shoulders to kind of uphold that persona for folks.
In the social media reality TV era, everybody has a camera in their pocket now. Did this make your job easier or harder?
I think it makes it harder, honestly, because everything that you normally get with Instagram or Facebook, TikTok, whatever it is, you’re curating that as the individual, and that’s your own curated version of your own reality. So when I’m around with the camera, I’m seeing everything, the good and the bad, right? So I think that was something where it actually took a second to get rid of the performative aspect of what social media has done to the mindset of some of these kids, and just get back to, hey, we’re just hanging out here, let’s just have a conversation, one on one.
So how has the film been received? You were the number one documentary in America for a couple of weekends there.
Yeah, until David Bowie hit the screen.
How has this impacted your subjects? Have they given you feedback on it?
Yeah. I think they’re all pretty stoked. I mean, Biondi is already kind of a celebrity. He’s a Division 1 hockey player in Duluth, right? So I don’t think it’s affected him too much. I don’t know. I don’t think the film has had that much national success where these guys are all of a sudden instant celebrities. But I think they’re all proud of the film. I mean, Elliot is talking about just capturing this moment in his life and how appreciative he is of that, that he’ll always have this going forward, something to look back on. And I think all four boys can relate to that and agree with Elliot there.
But most importantly, I got to know these kids really well, and they were kids when I met them, 16, 17 when I met them, and now they’re all 20, 21, and young men, and probably going to be lifetime—lifelong friendships with these four. That’s the beautiful thing of the whole project, is when you make these observational films, it really does become a relationship. You’re not only building trust, but you build friendships over time in the course of the filmmaking.