‘Hockeyland’ at FilmScene documents high school ice hockey culture of small-town Minnesota

Directed by University of Iowa alum Tommy Haines, the ‘Hockeyland’ documentary debuted at FilmScene this week, exemplifying the sentimentality and masculinity of ice hockey culture in small-town Minnesota.


Matt Sindt

Film Scene is seen in downtown Iowa City on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022.

Stella Shipman, Arts Reporter

The documentary sports film “Hockeyland” came to FilmScence at The Chauncey this week.

Directed by University of Iowa alum Tommy Haines and co-produced by FilmScene director Andrew Sherburne, this film explores the lives of Minnesotan teenage hockey players as they take on the final championship of their high school careers.

Tommy Haines graduated in 2005 from the UI’s Cinema Program. He met Andrew Sherburne in Minneapolis through mutual friends after college, and they have worked together ever since. In 2005, Haines, Sherburne, and Haines’s brother JT Haines formed the Northland Films independent documentary film production company.

“Hockeyland” is the third project of its kind that Northland Films has produced but has become one of its biggest releases, premiering in 150 theaters within a one-week span.

Haines conceptualized “Hockeyland” about a decade ago, but he did not start pursuing the project until 2018 when he and his team began exploratory shoots in Minnesota. Minnesotans themselves, Haines and Sherburne wanted to capture the culture of ice hockey they grew up with.

“We all just grew up playing outside, and it’s really, really cold,” said Haines. “I mean, when you say negative 30 out, that’s not even the wind chill — that’s actually the air temperature. So, it’s cold and gritty and there’s something about that that I think we wanted to capture here that’s different from any other sport — even other winter sports.”

The film primarily follows four players from two rivaling hockey teams, the Eveleth Golden Bears and the Hermantown Hawks. These boys grapple with the prospect of life after high school on top of the challenges brewing in their personal lives.

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For example, one of Hermantown’s captains, Indio, struggles with his own health issues and his mothers in everyday life. For each player, hockey was a strong support system.

“As we saw with those two teams, those coaches, those communities, and those teams provided a lot of guidance and character-building opportunities for those kids, and I just think it can be so valuable,” said Sherburne.

Eveleth attracted Haines because it reminded him of his hometown, the home of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, and because Eveleth High School was planning to consolidate with a neighboring high school.

Haines noticed Hermantown when they played Eveleth during an exploratory shoot in 2018. At the time, Hermantown was a growing community. Meanwhile, Eveleth was declining in population and mining jobs. This gave Haines the idea to pursue the journeys of two schools instead of one.

“We could show both a team that’s kind of struggling and on the way down and on the decline and then also a team that was on the rise and kind of a dynasty now,” Haines said. “And we could show not only the differences but also the commonalities between the two schools.”

The film balances serious, emotional moments of human connection with immersive action shots across the ice.

Any documentary faces the challenge of establishing trust between the documentary team and the subjects. This film accomplishes that relationship and allows the boys, their families, and their coaches to open up in their most vulnerable moments. The most honest shots are those that naturally capture these moments as they unfold.

People like UI freshman Ava Nollenn don’t have to be hockey lovers to enjoy the film.

“I don’t like sports, but I really liked that,” she said after viewing the film on Saturday. “I don’t know much about hockey, but I was pretty interested the whole time, especially in their private lives.”

This effect is just what Haines and Sherburne were hoping for. They wanted to reach a larger audience by showing how there’s more to hockey than winning.

“I think, really, when it comes down to it, and what you see in this film is that most people aren’t going to win the last game of the season, the last game of their careers, or the last game with that team,” Sherburne said. “I think it is about those friendships that you make, the mentorship relationship you make with your coaches, the lessons they can impart on you, and that feeling of community support and belonging.”