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The Puck Stops Here

For David E. Kelley's hockey story, stars Burt Reynolds and Russell Crowe couldn't just skate by.

April 05, 1998|Valerie Fortney | Valerie Fortney is a writer based in Calgary

CALGARY, Canada — So you want to stage an authentic, gritty drama about a town's obsession with the sport of hockey. Then why hire four lead actors--Burt Reynolds, Russell Crowe, Ron Eldard and Hank Azaria--whose on-ice prowess more resembles that of Bambi than Paul Kariya?

OK, maybe you have a different game strategy. For this film--billed as a story about "a drinking town with a hockey problem"--the first line of attack comes from your team co-captain, a real-life captain of a Los Angeles recreational league team who also happens to be an award-winning writer-producer (David E. Kelley). Then you match him up with another hockey fanatic, this one the current owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins (Howard Baldwin), the other co-producer.

And to ensure the authenticity of your script, nothing beats having a Canadian on your hockey roster: Co-screenwriter Sean O'Byrne regularly hits the boards with Kelley in Los Angeles; he also grew up in Edmonton, the city where Wayne Gretzky quickly went from being the Good One to the Great One.

You also need a good hockey town, where the game is more a religion than a sport. In the Canadian Rocky Mountain town of Canmore, you can't throw a puck without hitting a guy who grew up sucking tooth guards instead of pacifiers. The majority of the cast of extras and bit players, drawn from nearby communities, have spent their youths playing in junior leagues, some eventually moving on to the semipro and pro levels. They're the kind of guys that know the language of the game (five hole, offside) and the tough-talking vernacular of the locker room.

But that still leaves you with the icy issue of what to do about the actors. The basic premise of Hollywood Pictures' "Mystery, Alaska"--the early 1999 release is described by many on the set as "Northern Exposure" meets "The Longest Yard"--is that the inhabitants of a remote Alaskan town are so obsessed with the game they leave the streets frozen so they can skate down them. They're so good at the game played on the town pond, in fact, that they end up being challenged to play an exhibition game against the New York Rangers. And unless all the actors are able to float like butterflies on ice, the illusion won't work.

Enter hockey coordinator Craig Yeaton, a Los Angeles-based power skating instructor. To get cast members like Crowe and Eldard into credible hockey playing form, Yeaton has been putting the actors through a grueling training schedule that included a two-week, pre-shooting hockey camp consisting of five hours on the ice each day, then 2 1/2 hours a day during filming.

Reynolds, who plays the town judge and hockey coach, needed only to learn how to skate for his role (when he was approached to star in the film, his response to learning that he would have to skate: "I lied--I said I could skate like a 22-year-old, like the wind"). The creative Azaria, meanwhile, convinced director Jay Roach that his outcast character, Charlie Danner, would be more credible if he was the only guy in town who didn't know his way around a rink.

Yeaton, a compact, hyped-as-a-cheerleader type who bounces around the set in a black track suit, is more than optimistic that he'll be successful in pulling off the illusion.

"I think we can take them. I think we can give them a run for the money," Yeaton says excitedly of the semipro and pro-level players that will be filling in as Ranger players (the real Rangers will be busy in midseason during the shooting of the game scenes). Then, in a moment of unrestrained enthusiasm that runs rampant on the testosterone-laden set, Yeaton gets a little carried away: "Get Wayne Gretzky on the phone right now. Tell him to bring that team because we can take the real Rangers."

The skeptical, Yeaton says, need only look at the success of actors like Crowe for proof of his claims. (On the day Yeaton gave his interview, Crowe was in a scene that required him to fall down with two children on the pond while skating, so we'll have to take his word for it.)

The New Zealand-born Crowe, who had never skated before and began training with Yeaton a month before shooting, has taken a "Raging Bull" approach to his role, determined to make his ice skating believable, even to the extent of doing some of his own cross-checking stunts.

"This is the hardest sport I've ever tried," he says. "I love it and hate it at the same time."

For most of the cast and crew, "love" isn't a strong enough word to describe their passion for the game. On the set, conversations abound about Sunday's regular pickup game on the pond. Director Roach ("Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery") walks around pressing an ice pack against his right shoulder, an injury he incurred at the last game. The 40-year-old director prepared for his job by watching videos like "Legends of Hockey" and laced up his first pair of skates back in August.

"I have the novice's love and lust for the sport," he says. "The crew has bonded by skating together."

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