Playing out as a neat companion piece to films that have come to define hockey such as Slapshot and more recently Goon. Ice Guardians is an exercise in demystifying some common misconceptions about the role of ‘the enforcer’ in hockey, described as being ‘the most misunderstood position in all of sports’ The enforcer is the player who in each game engages in bare-knuckle fighting against the other team’s enforcer, the intention being to intimidate the opponents and protect teammates. The film itself plays out more like Rocky than hockey, with its focus being solely on the tactics, etiquette, history and future these bruisers. There are insights to the culture of hype toughness that was always present in hockey (it’s pointed out that the first ever organised game featured at least one fight) and that this culture reached its peak in the late eighties and nineties. Harold Bloom, one of the most prominent voices of the vast array of talking heads posits that “hockey is played on hormones, not just on ice.” Overall I found Ice Guardians to be similar to the superb ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries, but here we have the added kick of academic enquiry the form of Bloom and Victoria Silverwood. The director reached out to Silverwood over twitter in hopes of collaborating and helping give the film a more analytical backbone. This was a smart move as the academic insights that range from the psychological to the sociological give the film an edge over other sports docs that rely entirely on first-hand accounts of the sportsmen/women involved.
The film has been in production for over six years, with the director initially struggling to acquire access to archival fight footage. Hard work and patience in this regard has paid off. Looking back I was amazed at how the continuous footage of concussions, fights and missing teeth never lost their draw. The structure didn’t felt repetitive and, perhaps because I am a complete novice to the sport, all the footage and photos retained their ability to startle. Audible gasps were heard throughout the screening since there is no set piece, rather the director has pulled off the difficult feat of implementing footage in such a way that the film remains engaging from start to finish. The film is broken up into numerous neat subsections that help keep the slew of information manageable and digestible. Some of these include: The Beginning, History of Hockey and The Power of Intimidation.
There is an underlying etiquette to bare-knuckle violence. The very grown up decision to engage in fist fighting when one takes into account the ethical act of protecting your teammates. These are men who live by an unwritten code of loyalty and fair play that, when one considered each put their body on the line every game, appear like martyrs on the ice. By the finale the film approaches profound and its subjects are elevated to the level of martyrs on ice, a dying breed of men who fight out of love and loyalty. I was resoundingly won over by them and by the film itself. Titans of the sport like Gretzky, Semenko and a whole roaster of other toothless wonders who I had never even heard of before, I feel I understand just a little about the rich culture the operate within. When asked would you do it all again, an ex-enforcer is moved to tears. He holds them back however and after a long pauses answers ‘yes… and with a little more fire.’ Ice Guardians is a tale of fire and ice in this regard, a powerful and passionate documentary.
Dir: Brett Harvey
Scr: Scott Dodds, Brett Harvey
Featuring: Jay Baruchel, Chris Chelios, Kelly Chase
Prd: Darren Benning, Jhod Cardinal, Kelly Chase
DOP: Brett Harvey
Music: Alec Harrison
Run time: 108 mins
Ice Guardians is released on the 30th September.