The Ultimate Ranking of the Best Hockey Films Ever
Great hockey movies are out there. It's just time to reconsider the rankings.
Assets via Wikipedia Commons, art by Noel Ransome/VICE
Great hockey movies are hard to come by.
There's what first comes to mind: Slap Shot and Goon and Miracle. Though there's more bad than good: The Love Guru, MVP, or the boring-as-sin Sudden Death.
One thing that's fairly certain is that hockey movies tend to represent the experience of the wealthy white and male demographic, the one that also populates the sport itself.
The NHL says that "hockey is for everyone," and yet many believe that official motto to be one of the league's myths. Fines for on-ice gay slurs are pocket change for the privileged. Ice Girls' bodies are still exploited for a male audience. Social change within the hockey community is diminished yet commodified into sloganeering. And while the NHL was one of the first pro leagues to partner with the You Can Play project, many feel hockey's rate of change to be glacial. Commonplace hockey myths suggests NHL owners don't make much money off the game or that enforcers are necessary to police on-ice behaviour, exactly the kind of myths that are reinforced in hockey movies.
Some of the best hockey films are lesser known yet they question our assumptions about the game. Like the assumption that Russian players are "enigmatic" or that men are inherently better and more entertaining on the ice than women, or that hockey is a unifying force in communities or across a nation.
Should Slap Shot and Goon stand as the best of the best if they reinforce hockey's monoculture? Are Miracle and Youngblood and Mystery, Alaska just reselling the myths we've been buying?
Great hockey movies are out there. It's just time to reconsider the rankings.
1. RED ARMY (2014)
Gabe Polsky's Red Army does what few if any films have done: provide a real glimpse at the life of Soviet hockey players inside the Iron Curtain. It comes across as the most honest portrayal of the Soviet Union's relationship to hockey, and depicts how dramatically Russian-style hockey changed the sport.
The documentary succeeds as the best hockey film on this list because it weaves together sports and politics, it asks its audience to challenge their assumptions about certain hockey myths, and it expertly uses hockey footage and commentary to tell a compelling story.
Polsky, through intimate interviews with the famed Russian Five and goalie Vladislav Tretiak, captures such a personal account of the players that audiences feel they've learned something about the players of the historically tight-fisted Soviet organization. Whereas hockey myth-making has portrayed Russian players as robotic, or as self-interested divas, Red Army does well in illustrating the Russian Five and their goaltender as sympathetic individuals with six different points of view.
Vladislav Fetisov, the first Soviet player to play in the NHL, is a star in the film, and Polsky's dynamic with him on camera is a big part of what makes Fetisov's scenes work so well. The director asks Fetisov questions and often the player will not initially answer but only react with a facial expression—moments Polsky uses to splice in visuals and recordings to provide an answer to what Fetisov doesn't say. When he asks Fetisov about the Soviets' disappointing loss to the United States in the 1980 "Miracle On Ice," for instance, no words are necessary. The best moments are when it's "show" rather than "tell."
Red Army illustrates the conflicting approaches to coaching between Anatoly Tarasov and Viktor Tikhonov, the varied personal politics of the players, and it highlights the politics that drive hockey-related decisions in nation-building. Its use of historical footage and ability to tell a compelling, real-life story is unmatched in hockey films.
2. CANADA-RUSSIA '72 (2006)
The second-best hockey film is one in which Canadians are finally self-effacing about one of their greatest on- and off-ice triumphs embarrassments. In Canada-Russia '72, the CBC dramatization relives the famed Summit Series of 1972 when for the first time Canada's best professional hockey players took on the powerhouse Soviets.
Released in 2006, the three-hour film casts a critical eye on the resentful, obnoxious, and violent behaviour of the Canadian exhibition team that eked out a victory in the eight-game series. The historical event is understood by many Canadians as an affirmation of the country's dominance in hockey. But Canada-Russia '72 paints everyone from Alan Eagleson to Harry Sinden to Phil Esposito as petulant and crude in their pursuit of beating the surprising Soviets. What was supposed to be a walk in the park turned into a national identity crisis. But rather than portray the Canadian victory as a case of underdogs exhibiting perseverance—and free-market capitalism defeating communism—Team Canada is viewed here as the Apollo Creed to the Russians' Rocky. They win the contest but the victory feels empty.
"You know Ms. Fournier, the average Canadian might never forgive us if we lose this series," says head coach Harry Sinden to the fictional media relations character. "But the rest of you intellectuals? You'll never forgive us if we win, will ya?"
The hockey in the film is terrific to watch. Entire sequences are reproduced from documentary footage that seem natural rather than staged. Recognizable beats maintain a degree of tension regardless of the fact that we know the outcome. The audience is privy to a great deal of dramatized behind-the-scenes moments that provide new context.
In one of the film’s most effective (and probably exaggerated) examples of the Canadians' arrogance, a young Soviet boy offers Esposito a Lenin pin in exchange for his hockey stick. Esposito instead offers him a stick of gum. The boy says in Russian, which Esposito doesn't understand, "You cheap son of a bitch."
When Sinden gives his big speech in the dressing room ahead of Game 8—a moment typical of sports dramas, intended to rile the players and the audience—he says, "We win this game, we win the series. We vindicate ourselves and everything we stand for." That line might be heard as inspiring in a straight-forward sports drama. Instead, it sounds like what Canadians "stand for" in hockey is upholding the assumption that Canadians are the best at it.
Canada's victory celebration in the film is muted. It's more relief than national pride. As Canadians, we've been buying the line Sinden voiced, that we were vindicated by the win. But the film succeeds because it throws that myth in the trash.
3. NET WORTH (1995)
There is one scene in this film that stuck with me since 1995 despite only watching the CBC television miniseries the one time. Detroit Red Wings general manager Jack Adams is negotiating with Gordie Howe over the star's one-year contract. Howe's wife Colleen had just prompted her husband to ask for an extra $2,000 over last season rather than his usual ask of a $1,000 raise. Howe is manipulated by Adams and folds. Adams smiles and tosses the signed contract in the drawer.
Based on the book by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths, Net Worth describes the beginnings of the formation of the NHL Players' Association in the face of tyrannical owners who exploit the players and bust their attempt to form a union.
In one of the best scenes in the film, the Association's first lawyer spells out, one by one, the popular myths that the NHL sells—like Randy in Scream listing the rules of the horror genre. To all of them, the lawyer Milton Mound says, "Bull. Shit. When you sniff around a pile of money and the other side clams up, they are hiding something."
What's particularly memorable is the contrast between the PA's first leader, Ted Lindsay, and his Red Wings teammate Howe. Lindsay takes the first cautious steps toward achieving fairness with the league but Howe, the most recognizable hockey player across the US and Canada at the time, decides again and again not to use his influence to better the players' position. Howe's character effectively shows that NHL players themselves become indoctrinated by the myths of the game rather than demand the rights and the money they deserve. Hockey is for fun, after all. It's a boy's dream. At least that's what owners have been selling to everyone.
The film isn't afraid to make players and owners alike look bad in the eyes of the viewer. It challenges some of the great assumptions of the NHL, like the heroism of a star player or the father-knows-best style of management. Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe is even represented as using racist language three times in the movie, the last of which the Jewish lawyer Mound responds with, "Smythe, it's hard to believe you fought against the Nazis."
Once you've seen Net Worth, you won't forget it.
4. INDIAN HORSE (2017)
No list of the best hockey films can be complete or accountable to the sport's troubled history without acknowledging its exclusionary and abusive nature. And no hockey film does this better than 2017's Indian Horse.
Situated within Canadian residential schools that abused and neglected Indigenous children, the film based on Richard Wagamese's book of the same name centres around the young boy Saul Indian Horse who is ripped from his family but attempts to lift himself out of the residential school life by teaching himself to play hockey.
"The rink became my escape," says Saul in narration. "The ice my obsession. The game my survival."
What the Canadian film does so well is illustrate how hockey has, since its inception, been a tool to help enforce white cultural dominance and nationhood. While Saul is eventually able to leave the school for a foster family, his new hockey team made up of fellow Indigenous players experiences the same kind of subjugation and violence at the hands of Canadians in the rinks and in the towns they visit. As the teachers at those schools tried to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian culture, hockey players and coaches did the same on the ice—only "assimilate" is too kind a word for what took place.
Indian Horse's best hockey sequence is a montage in which Saul's Indigenous team defeats a local white team while Stompin' Tom Connor's song "Sudbury Saturday Night" plays on the film's soundtrack. Connor's music, most notably "The Hockey Song" which is ubiquitous in hockey and was recently inducted into the Canadian Song Writers' Hall of Fame, typically signifies to English Canada a sense of nationhood intended to unify people. Instead, the way the music is used signifies that neither the sport nor the country's identity can be appropriated by just one people. Saul and his teammates stake their own claim to the land and the game by playing skilled, virtuous hockey in the face of intolerance.
Indian Horse is not a story about a resilient "other" who succeeds despite the odds. Saul quits hockey despite pleas from his coach who appeals to Saul by pointing to the success of Indigenous NHLer Reggie Leach. The film reminds us the stories of the Saul Indian Horses are as important to see as the Reggie Leaches.
As Brett Pardy notes in his review, "This story makes it clear hockey is more often an extension of Canadian racism than a unifying force." This chapter of hockey's history, and Canada's, is as important as any other.
5. SLAP SHOT (1977)
The throne for best hockey movie has been Slap Shot's to lose for years, and yet it's trotted out again and again on best-of lists like it's a geriatric honouree at a Montreal Canadiens pregame ceremony. Its iconography and cultural impact is irrefutable but it's time to cede the throne to more inclusive films.
The movie's casual sexism and homophobia hits you like a brick when you watch now. Women are cast as wives and girlfriends only, portrayed as drunk hangers-on who complain while their partner lives out his extended childhood. One hockey wife is said to have slept with another woman and that prompts some players to wonder if that makes her husband gay. Paul Newman's character even exploits that information on the ice to manipulate the husband into giving up a goal against.
Women and their bodies are referred to with deplorable name-calling—and the thing is, that's kind of the point: to paint an accurate picture of men's pro hockey in the 1970s. Written by Nancy Dowd, whose brother played this level of hockey at the time, the film is a satire of commodified hockey culture and its spectacle of violence. And it gets major credit for that. But in revealing such naked truths about the game—like its casual intolerance—it reinforces to subsequent generations that hockey normalizes exclusionary behaviour. When Slap Shot has a chance in the end to say something progressive about women's roles in the story, it suggests that if only a hockey wife got a salon makeover, she'd forget her troubles.
But the film does have its transgressive points, allowing it to still survive among the top five. It's a sports movie about the economic malaise and widening rich-poor gap of the 70s, the resulting cultural frustration that leads to a blood thirst for violent entertainment, and makes a fairly bold statement with the Ned Braden striptease scene by criticizing the pandering to fans by the sport through the commodification of athletes and their bodies. The ambiguous ending, when the Chiefs win the championship while their jobs remain tenuous, even flips the standard sports drama narrative by questioning how we evaluate success and heroism.
But it's the fact that you can't watch Slap Shot without wincing or even turning off the film part way that pushes it down this list. Time is no friend of this film.
6. THE MIGHTY DUCKS (1992)
Despite The Mighty Ducks being pretty typical Disney fare, it was the hockey movie for a generation of young hockey fans who'd never seen The Bad News Bears. A championship game that didn't consummate with a fight but instead a skilled play. A coach who tells his player, "I believe in you, Charlie. Win or Lose."
The Mighty Ducks condemns the win-at-all-costs attitude of many hockey films while a team of lower-middle class kids beat the rich kids. It's one of the few to include non-white and non-male players on the featured team, and gives on- and off-ice screen time to just about every character.
The movie has a lot to do with classism in hockey, albeit in a sanitized way: The Ducks resent that their coach was once a (rich) Hawks player, one Duck calls his teammate and former Hawk Adam Banks a "cake-eater," and yet coach Bombay (Emilio Estevez) uses sponsorship dollars from his wealthy law firm to pay for necessary jerseys and equipment. In The Mighty Ducks, success in hockey still comes at the expense of your wallet.
It's a Disney-fied, contradictory mess but I'm still crying at that "I believe in you, Charlie" line.
7. THE ROCKET
Another film taking aim at Canada's national politics intersecting with hockey, The Rocket stands above the average hockey biopic by portraying Canadiens legend Maurice Richard as the tip of the Quebecois cultural spear during a time of division between French and English Canada.
Richard's personality in the film is an idealized portrait of French resistance in the face of English cultural dominance. The NHL referee who holds Richard's arms while a Boston Bruins player hits him with two free punches represents the English bias of NHL management who handcuff their French players. The Richard Riots—a politicized event often linked to Quebec's Quiet Revolution of the 1960s—bookend the film, couching the player's biography within the province's socio-political history.
When Canadiens coach Dick Irvin says to his team, "I need players who hate to lose," he's using a common sports maxim in reference to Richard. But those words could also describe how Richard embodies the attitudes of many Quebecers toward English rivals in politics and in the NHL.
The Rocket's sensitive approach to the story is seen too in the filming of the hockey scenes. The low-lighting of 1950s hockey arenas, the helmet-less players, and the cool colour tones give us a sense that Richard is alone in the cold of the rink.
Points go to any hockey movie that features a grown man crying in front of his teammates in a dressing room. The film hits the dramatic a little too heavily at times but is another in the genre that flips the standard sports drama finale by not concluding with the hero's team winning the ultimate game. This movie's about the NHL taking one step forward and two back.
8. THE GAME OF HER LIFE (1998)
Documenting the lead-up to the first women's Olympic ice hockey tournament in 1998, The Game of Her Life provides a rare and unique look at one of the most significant chapters in women's hockey history from the Canadian perspective.
Produced by the National Film Board and directed by Lyn Wright, the film charts Team Canada's ascent to its first Olympic Games and its disappointing loss to Team USA. These were the first Olympic matches between two of hockey's fiercest rivals, and the very real tension between the teams is set up well.
Among the best sequences is when coach Shannon Miller is meeting with players to tell them whether or not they made the team. Miller told me in an interview earlier this year that she relied on her experience as a police officer to prepare for the following day's roster cuts by recalling having to tell victim's families their relative had died. The elation and sorrow in that sequence is the heart of the documentary, and one of those roster cuts includes future Hall of Famer Angela James.
Though the documentary isn't beloved by all the Canadian players. Cassie Campbell, interviewed for the same story as Miller, told me she didn't appreciate the film's portrayal of her supposed modelling career (she took one class at age 16). "I was such a team player and yet I could feel the attention going to a small amount of us," said Campbell.
The rare glimpse into the women's game, the coverage of one of sport's most exciting rivalries, and the stark differences apparent between the men's and women's games makes The Game of Her Life a standout.
9. GOON (2011)
Another movie that may appear to rank too low on this list. But Goon, like Slap Shot, isn't standing the test of time well.
A fun story about a dim-witted Doug Glatt (Sean William Scott) who can't skate but can fight and protect the skilled players by intimidation, the independent Canadian film wants to sell the myth of the self-aware goon who violently avenges his teammates because the game is inevitably violent. It succeeds as fun and entertaining, as Doug is probably the nicest hockey player ever on screen, but its glorification of fighting and lack of attention toward the consequences of fighting just don't hold up, and it's only 2019.
The hockey scenes, though, are maybe the best in the industry—Liev Schreiber elevates everyone's game with his acting—and who doesn't shed a tear when Xavier Laflamme is set loose to score once Doug has punched out Schreiber's Ross Rhea? There's just too much cementing of boys hockey culture here, particularly with the casual homophobia. If you don't think the satire in Slap Shot helps normalize intolerance in the hockey dressing room, sit back and watch a group of actors riff on gay jokes for extended sequences while an implied gay character listens nearby.
Still, for a movie with questionable material, it has a lot of good writing and performances, and it's a satisfying experience where hockey fans get to interrogate their fandom and the role of violence in the sport.
It's hard to fill out a roster of great hockey movies, and Miracle just makes the cut. There are better films, like Inside Out, that are hockey-adjacent. There are better films that few have seen, like Swift Current, which documents Sheldon Kennedy's experience of sexual abuse in junior hockey. And although Miracle has its charms, it embodies what's stale about hockey films.
Miracle is guilty of the most hockey movie clichés on this list. A group of underdog players beat the unbeatable team in improbable fashion. The players are bag-skated until they learn a valuable lesson. The coach dismisses the odds and relies on instincts and trust. The name on the front of the sweater is more important than the one on the back. A dressing-room speech inspires victory.
A great hockey film should do more than arouse national pride. It should relate to everyone in the audience, not just the high achievers and Type-A's. "This cannot be a team of common men," says Kurt Russell's Herb Brooks to the 1980 American Olympic team. "Because common men go nowhere. You have to be uncommon."
Canada-Russia '72 does everything well that this movie does but does it while questioning how history was recorded and how Canadians remember the events. Still, Miracle is among the best there is.
The Sweater: This National Film Board short is a time capsule of 1950s French Canada, and in that context it's a staple in the hockey canon.
Swift Current: A hockey film only in part, the Canadian-made documentary on former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy charts his sexual abuse at the hands of the former junior hockey coach Graham James with startling detail. You won't be able to unsee this underside of hockey's history.
Inside Out: The Pixar-animated film touches briefly on the main character's relationship with hockey but it becomes a significant element to a beautiful story. If you need a good cry, sob heavily to this movie.
Blades and Brass: This 1967 NFB short combines NHL highlights with Tijuana Brass-style music. Why haven't you clicked through yet?
Goofy–Hockey Homicide: Almost 100 years ago, Disney thought hockey was a foaming-at-the-mouth celebration of violence, and the psychedelic approach of Hockey Homicide is truly a sight to see.
Mystery, Alaska: A fun concept sullied by misogyny and an absolutely wretched Mike Myers Cameo.
Sudden Death: Some of you don't remember how boring this movie is and it shows. If you loved Die Hard, you're going to hate this.
Youngblood: A b-movie with a confused message about violence in hockey. Still, look for Keanu Reeves playing a French-Canadian goaltender.
The Love Guru: (I will not be sharing any thoughts about this alleged film, thank you for your understanding.)
Goon 2: The Last of the Enforcers: No thanks to the faux-Sportscenter panel of James Duthie and T.J. Miller. I've never fast-forwarded through a movie faster.