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1 review, 6 user ratings

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Ice Kings
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by Jay Seaver

"Friday Night Ice."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 BOSTON FILM FESTIVAL: Sometimes, when producing a documentary about sustained greatness and achievement, it's necessary to wait a while, in order to have a proper ending. Every time "Ice Kings" pushed forward a few years with a montage of Mount St. Charles Academy winning state championship after state championship, I imagined filmmaker Craig Shapiro gritting his teeth, wishing they'd lose so his film could have a final act.

It probably didn't happen that way, but it could have; "The Mount" won twenty-six consecutive Rhode Island state hockey championships from 1978 to 2003, making that program the most successful high school athletic program in the country. A streak that long, and the history leading up to it, provides Shapiro with an excellent framework with which to examine R.I. high school hockey - and its fandom - in general.

And why not? After all, its popularity rivals football in Texas. Ah, you might say, but Texas is a region of the country unto itself, while geographers are currently considering reclassifying Rhode Island as a "dwarf state". In some ways, that makes what it has produced even more impressive; when one high school finals features a half-dozen future pros, that's got to count for something.

The film spends some time at the start giving the audience a little background on the state's general history, quirks, and accent (you're in for eighty minutes of it) before starting to focus on hockey. Starting with the enormously popular minor league Rhode Island Reds (just a notch below the NHL's Original Six at the time, before "minor league" and "farm system" were synonymous), we see Rhode Island's hockey mania and large number of French-Canadian immigrants feed on each other, as Reds players settle in mill towns like Mount St. Charles's Woonsocket and help create the next generation of fans and players. This provides a nice segue to Mount St. Charles's first dynasty, built on the backs of players imported from Quebec as ringers.

One story of a legendary student athlete who chose not to go pro later, the film is ready to focus on the Mount's quarter-century on top. Much as the story of a high school dynasty must, Ice Kings focuses less on the players (after all, the team roster turns completely over six to eight times over the course of the run) than on the coaches and opponents who would try to topple them. The coach is a personable enough character - Bill Belisle played for the Mount as a teenager, and after a stint in the army worked a series of blue-collar jobs that culminated in his position as the Academy's rink manager. Made coach after a last-place finish, he institutes a rigorous practice schedule that emphasizes quality skating (his own forte as a player). Despite perhaps coming off as a harsh taskmaster in the interviews with former players, the impression he leaves is of a serious but low-key instructor, a tough old french guy who seems about a decade younger than his seventy-five years. We also meet his son, Dave, who took over temporarily after Bill took a puck to the head and has been his assistant (Bill running practices, Dave running games) for the twenty years since.

The challengers are interesting stories themselves; we meet Don Armstrong, who was the coach of another hockey powerhouse, Bishop Hendricken, during the eighties, and Sarah Costa, the female goalie (and future Olympian) whose Toll Gate High Titans team nearly ended the streak in '95. Star players from Mount St. Charles are also represented, including Brian Lawton, the first American ever to be an NHL #1 draft pick.

One of the things Shapiro does very well is to pull threads that don't necessarily seem to have anything to do with the main story and tie them in; the "and they got married and had many children..." ending to the segment about Joe Cavanagh opting not to turn pro initially seems like bloat but is, in fact, important later on. He also does a very good job of keeping the Mount from becoming villains of the piece - aside from being obvious overdogs, the film hints that they exploit a real home-rink advantage in underhanded ways (caroms only they know about, overheating the visiting locker-room). The film also avoids explicit mention of whether Mount St. Charles is public, private, or parochial, although mention is made for the other schools - that the Titans are a public school is considered a special victory when they play the Mounties. It's also sometimes difficult to tell what relationship the person currently being interviewed has to Mount St. Charles; a lot of ex-hockey players are interviewed, and a caption stating someone was on the San Jose Sharks from 1992 to 1994 isn't always helpful if you don't remember how that guy was introduced a half-hour earlier.

One thing that is a lot of fun to see is several decades of hockey footage, from the early years of the Reds to the present. There's a lot of talking heads, and that breaks it up nicely. Very little else looks like old sports footage, and even the more recent clips, being locally-produced broadcasts of high school games, don't have the slick, over-produced look of many professional sportscasts. The archival footage is also in great condition.

I'm not much of a hockey fan - baseball and basketball have tended to rule in Seaver households - so a lot of the hockey-specific details may have flown right past me. It's a nifty story, though, even for non-fans, and I expect hockey fans may appreciate it even more.

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originally posted: 09/12/06 12:59:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Boston Film Festival For more in the 2006 Boston Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/03/08 Mike L Lived much of this film first-hand as a RI hockey player - very well done 4 stars
12/04/06 Marc Cabana Great! 5 stars
9/29/06 Doug How can I see this film 5 stars
9/13/06 veronique :D 3 stars
9/13/06 Edward Connell Follow the plot in this one for eventual historical refference. 3 stars
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  N/A (NR)



Directed by
  Craig E. Shapiro

Written by

  Jim Lampley

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