Humanity can complicate righteousness.
I was righteous in my indignation about fighting in hockey. It was a brutal, Neanderthal, antiquated component of the game and the sooner fighting disappeared from the ice, the better.
Then I saw the 2016 sports documentary “Ice Guardians.” I saw the humanity of those players whose National Hockey League careers were defined by dropping the gloves. And by the end of this brilliant piece of filmmaking, I was confused.
“Ice Guardians” tells the story of those players — players like Kelly Chase and Kevin Westgarth and so many others — and the layers of humanity beyond their fists and the evolution and purpose of enforcers in the game.
I still may not condone fighting. But now I understand the violence and see it in a much different light. Where I saw “goons” (I’m even reluctant to write that word after seeing this film), now I see men who were leaders of their teams and who, in the culture of hockey, held a place of honor.
“Like the movie says, it is a polarizing issue,” producer Adam Scorgie said. “It’s not an easy position one way or the other. Ultimately, the goal of the movie was to honor their place in hockey history.
“Whether you agree with fighting in the game or that the game is evolving in a way that it may not exist anymore — that’s not the point,” he said. “These guys were a big part of hockey history, and their story needed to be told — by them, from them, instead of everyone speaking for them. There is no narration — it is them telling their story.”
One of those storytellers is Westgarth, a Princeton graduate who was an enforcer in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings, Carolina Hurricanes and Calgary Flames for six years, 2008 to 2014.
“Most guys they grow up dreaming of scoring that winning goal in the Stanley Cup finals, but the reality is your own skill set and your personality to protect your teammates offers a way to be a part of a team and continue to live your dream — and protect your teammates,” Westgarth told me. “It is a role I took a lot of pride in and to be part of this brotherhood.
“One of the most important roles an enforcer has are the values we bring to hockey — honor, self sacrifice, the team before self,” Westgarth said. “All these things are important values that are inherent in our game. I think those things will never be lost in the game of hockey.”
This is the part that hit me like a puck to the head. I looked at these guys fighting and never saw honor and self sacrifice. But within the locker room, that is exactly how they are seen — protecting their teammates and putting themselves at risk to do so.
“I don’t even know what a goon is,” said Kelly Chase, who spent 10 years as an enforcer with the St. Louis Blues and Hartford Whalers from 1990 to 2000. “I just didn’t like people taking advantage of other people, especially my teammates. It is part of who you are.”
Chase, the color analyst on the Blues radio broadcasts, was so pleased with the way that Scorgie was willing to let the players speak for themselves that he became an executive producer.
“We wanted to make sure the right message about these guys was out there because there have been some misconceptions about a lot of the players and the way they are talked about as people, and also about the role,” Chase said. “We are not much different from people in everyday life. We don’t act like fools. We don’t tear people’s arms off and hit people over the heads with them. We do have intelligent thoughts and the guys who stayed in the game the longest are the sort of guys you would want to be associated with and do business with.
“For the longest time that is not the way they have been portrayed — the goon comments, uneducated guys who when their career is over they get involved in drugs or alcohol,” he said. “The most respected and sought after guys in the locker room are the enforcers and many of them are well educated yet they don’t get opportunities in the game. You see a guy who scored a lot of goals become the president of a team unsolicited, yet the guy who was taking care of them on the ice may be the most prepared for that job.”
Washington filmmaker Chris Tavlarides, who along with Jimmy Lynn founded the film company Sophia Entertainment, which has produced such award-winning documentaries as “The Good Son: The life of Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini,” is an executive producer of “Ice Guardians,” which is written and directed by Brett Harvey.
“What we are trying to do with our films is create a rich narrative, a syrupy, thick narrative as opposed to this watered-down, ADD, app-driven, shortcut driven documentary theme you see all over the place now,” Tavlarides said. “Just like with ‘The Good Son.’ You could tell that story a lot shorter than we did, but you don’t get the full richness of Ray’s life. We feel like we did the same thing with ‘Ice Guardians.’ We didn’t shorten it to make it TV ready. We wanted the full documentary. Every hockey fan in D.C needs to see this film. The next time they see two guys drop the gloves they will have a deeper appreciation of it.”
Washington fans can see “Ice Guardians” this week at the AMC Hoffman Center 22 in Alexandria. You might be surprised at your reaction — and you will have a reaction, one way or another.
When they showed the movie in Chase’s hometown, Scorgie remembers one particular reaction. “A girl came up to him with tears in her eyes and said, ‘Kelly, I’m so proud of you. I finally understand why you did what you did.’ As a filmmaker, when you get a response like that, it doesn’t get much better.”
It’s a response to the humanity beneath the savagery.
Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.