National Post (National Edition)
A hometown hockey film worth watching
Growing up in Thunder Bay, Ont., involved a lot of hockey. My brother, friends and I played or watched hockey every chance that we could. As I've previously written, it was basically a way of life for us.
I remember how excited we were when the city got a minor league team. The Thunder Bay Thunder Hawks (who became the Thunder Bay Senators and later the Thunder Bay Thunder Cats) were part of the Colonial Hockey League, which started as five-team league along the Great Lakes in 1991-92. It didn't last long — the league's name changed a couple of times before it disbanded in 2006-07 — and the hockey was quite a few steps removed from the NHL. But for a bunch of hockey-crazed kids hours away from the nearest NHL city, the Thunder Hawks were next best thing.
It helped that my grandpa worked at the elevators with the team's head coach, Bill McDonald, and the games had a lot — I mean, a lot — of fights. A Friday or Saturday night at the Fort William Gardens was, in our 10- or 12-year-old minds, the pinnacle of excitement and fun.
I hadn't thought much about those childhood nights at the rink until recently when a new, independent documentary about the Thunder Hawks' inaugural season was released. The film, Cup Confidential, co-produced by local filmmaker Ryan La Via and freelance journalist Kris Ketonen, draws on game footage and extensive interviews to tell the team's story of winning the league's first championship and then losing the Colonial Cup during the post-championship celebrations.
It's a compelling story and La Via and his co-producer do a great job telling it. The mythology of the lost cup, which turned up 27 years later when the team's president, Andy Morrow, died and his garage was cleaned out, was made for the big screen. So are many of the former players, including Everton Blackwin (who scored the overtime goal in the championship game), Pat Szturm and Tom Warden.
Unfamiliar audiences will learn about the “Thunder Bay flu” (which refers to the tendency of visiting players to suddenly get sick or injured in order to avoid playing the Thunder Hawks) and the antics of local superfan Gary Paulucci, who contributed to his share of fights in the stands. The entire film encapsulates a version of hockey and the broader culture that seem a bit out-ofplace in today's world.
It was impossible for me to watch the 43-minute film and not feel nostalgic. Although the main subject is the Thunder Hawks and their unique group of characters (including fan favourite Bruce (Rammer) Ramsey, it's ultimately a story about my hometown, its blue-collar ethos and the community's attachment to hockey.
I recently interviewed La Via (who I played little league with) about the film. I asked him about its emphasis on the city, its people and the culture. He said that it was deliberate. He didn't just want to document the mystery of the missing cup. The goal was to bring expression to the community through this “scrappy, semipro hockey team (that) won the hearts of the blue-collar city.”
The film's community orientation in part reflects La Via's own story. As a young film-school graduate, he was confronted with a choice: move to pursue his filmmaking ambitions in a major city or “stay put” in his hometown. La Via chose the latter.
He attributes his choice to stubbornness. “I wanted to show that I didn't need to leave the town that I love to do something that I love,” he explained.
La Via has produced about half a dozen films over the years. But none have been as ambitious as Cup Confidential, which involved
WE MUST DO BETTER BUT WE MUST
ALSO CEASE TO PORTRAY OURSELVES
AS A NATION OF RACISTS AND BIGOTS.
— CONRAD BLACK
ONE FILM REVIEWER HAS RIGHTLY CALLED IT `WELL MADE AND VERY IMPRESSIVE.'
over 20 hours of footage, a first-rate musical score by local musician Michael Kondakow and a major distribution plan including with local television provider TBayTel. This is a high-quality production. One film reviewer has rightly called it “well made and very impressive.”
La Via is optimistic that modern technology — including the ubiquity of online streaming — is creating new opportunities for independent filmmaking. Small-town filmmakers are no longer constrained by market size or distribution logistics. Cup Confidential can be rented for $5 directly from the film's website.
This could be a paradigmatic moment for who can tell stories and which stories can be told. It's a chance for talented filmmakers to “stay put” and tell stories about the people and places they love.
Readers should support this trend and rent Cup Confidential over the holiday season. The story of the Thunder Hawks, the missing cup and the community that supported them is certainly worth the price of admission.