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REVIEW: Sports documentary 'Hockeyland' covers plenty of ice in telling towns' stories

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Movie critic Bruce Miller says “Hockeyland” helps us understand why hockey dominates in Minnesota. It’s one of those documentaries that sets the bar for others.

Director Tommy Haines shoots and scores with “Hockeyland,” a compelling look at two teams in Minnesota’s high school hockey world.

Filmed during the 2019-20 season, the documentary leans into the sacrifice, the heart and the drive that propels the athletes.

In Eveleth (where there’s the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame), it’s a do-or-die proposition. After the season, it’s likely Eveleth-Gilbert will merge with another school.

In Hermantown, it’s about dominance. Star Blake Biondi has chosen to stay in town to see his hockey journey through. Because he’s such a strong player, he could have gone on to the junior hockey world and secured his future. The bonds, though, are strong.

You see the boys supporting each other in all aspects of life. While they might be halting in the dating pool, they’re extremely confident on ice.

To start the season, Hermantown faces Eveleth-Gilbert and the battle is on.

Haines gets all of the game action, then leans into the personal lives.

In Hermantown, the ice is a sanctuary for players Aydyn and Indio Dowd. Their mother, Lori, is battling cancer and multiple sclerosis. The prognosis isn’t good but Lori is just as determined as her sons. At games, she’s leading cheers and focusing other parents’ attention.

Indio, meanwhile, has back problems that should have been addressed with surgery. Instead, he doesn’t want to miss the season. Hockey has defined his life and given his family something other than illness to discuss.

Haines also dives into others in the two communities and reveals how hockey affects them. Like “Friday Night Lights,” “Hockeyland” shows it’s an all-in proposition.

As the season ticks down to the state finals, we can feel the pressure and see how Hermantown and Eveleth residents react. The film captures quiet moments – dates, practices, Christmas – and offers enough background (and tape) to see how the players are so committed.

They open up to Haines and give their all on the ice.

More off-ice moments would have been better, but photographers capture the action so well you can’t help fall in line.

Biondi, meanwhile, is everything you’d want in a hero. He’s in line to be nominated for “Mr. Hockey” in Minnesota and, true to form, he says the only reason he’s first on the list is because his name comes alphabetically before the others.

To choose one team over another is really wrong; in “Hockeyland,” everyone wins. That big game – and the banquet for “Mr. Hockey” – play out, however, and we get to learn what happened to the film’s key players. Some of the next steps will surprise you, but all bear the imprint a sport can have.

Haines could have done a film like this on two basketball teams, two football teams, two baseball teams. It’s that universal -- a "Hoosiers” story that never fails to work. But his love for the game helps lift it onto its own plain.

When several of the boys cry when they talk about the game, it hits the heart and never misses. 

"Hockeyland" will make you a fan.

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