As told to: Joe Pack
Bill Wirtz was a film buff so when he heard about Sudden Death, he said he’d play himself. But then when he heard it would take three weeks out of his life – because making a movie’s pretty boring – in a skybox in Pittsburgh, he said, “Geez, I’ll have to pass.”
I’d heard that Jaromir Jagr was upset that he was a minus-3 in the game but he’s clearly gotten over it.
We did the movie in a way to bring a lot of attention to the sport and the Penguins. But we had a huge problem as that was the year of the ’94 lockout. We had to really scramble, and fortunately Bob Goodenow, head of the players’ union, allowed us to use the names of the players. We played the Cleveland Lumberjacks in a scrimmage for a lot of the footage and they were the Chicago Blackhawks. The fans loved it, I think we had 12 or 13 thousand people there. For some of the choreographed shots, we used cardboard cutouts for some of the fans, the same cutouts that were used in the film The Natural. There’s one shot, when the helicopter is falling to the ice, that if you hit pause, from the top down those people are mighty thin.
Jay Caulfield was in the movie, Pat Brisson, Luc Robitaille – so we had plenty of experts. I’d heard that Jaromir Jagr was upset that he was a minus-3 in the game but he’s clearly gotten over it.
Sudden Death and our other film Mystery, Alaska have become cult films somewhat, up in Canada. These were picked up because they were good stories but also in order to promote the sport. There aren’t a whole range of hockey movies that have crossed over and gone worldwide but that’s the challenge.
There’s a lot of guys out here in California – I call them the hockey mafia – who love the sport and can all connect with each other. You find out who loves hockey, whether you see them at a game or just otherwise hear about them. Cuba Gooding, Tom Cruise likes it, Jim Carrey. There’s a passion in this sport that doesn’t exist in the other ones.
We’d love to tell Bobby Orr’s story. To me, he was the greatest player to ever play the game. Gretzky was amazing and Mario was too but Orr was just incredibly gifted. I remember working in the Philadelphia Flyers’ ticket office and watching him come in to the Spectrum. What he could do was just extraordinary. I don’t think there’s enough awareness out there of what an immense talent he was. That would be a fun one.
Russell liked to party and eventually Ronnie Francis came up to me and said, “Look, we’re never gonna win another game (with Russell with us) on this swing.”
Karen, David, and I were sitting at a steak house on Pico here in LA just having lunch and we said, “Let’s do a hockey story that brings the sport back to its roots. David mentioned this story about a people who had tried to revive their town by bringing in the great Jack Dempsey to fight one of their boxers. They raised $100,000 and had to extend the railroad. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if somehow the New York Rangers came and played in the elements to see how they’d do?’
Russell Crowe wanted to better understand the game and so he joined us with the Penguins on a road trip to meet the players. Russell liked to party and eventually Ronnie Francis came up to me and said, “Look, we’re never gonna win another game (with Russell with us) on this swing.”
I would say there’s no question that Mystery, Alaska had an impact on the NHL’s interest in outdoor games. Whether they’ll admit it or not is a different story. We actually built a rink up there. They had a chinook while we were filming where the warm air front moved in and we had to bring in the brilliant Dan Craig from the NHL to use artificial ice. He was wonderful, he saved our ass.
JOE PACK is a freelance writer based in Toronto and a rec-league rent-a-goalie.
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