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It’s stated early in Ice Guardians that the very first professional ice hockey game ended in a brawl. True or not, the incorporation of fighting in the game has been part of the North American hockey experience since it all began. Penalty rules for fighting were set as far back as 1922, less than five years after the league’s inception. Yet many consider it a part of the game and a big reason for why they watch or attend games. Others think it has no place in the sport. No matter your opinion, or even if you have no interest in hockey, Ice Guardians strips away the myths and gives a powerfully informative examination of the men hired to protect the ones scoring the goals.
Even if you aren’t a fan of the sport, the term “goon” is almost synonymous with hockey, a player who is known for initiating or engaging in a fight. In the league, they are called “enforcers” and have become an integral part of the game and the strategy for how its played, something that is unknown in such frequency in any other sport. Attempting to understand why may divide people who fall almost exclusively on either side of the fence, but there is no denying the power of the violence and how it reaches much deeper into the very fabric of what it means to be human, where athletes have replaced the ancient warrior.
Naturally, it is the ones who score the most goals and earn the highest points in any sport that garner the headlines and accolades, and it’s no stretch to say that they achieved that because of the other players on their teams, some who sacrifice themselves at all costs to keep them safe. Ice Guardians makes no effort to hide the fact that in hockey, many of these stars, while acknowledging their incredible skills, got to where they are because of the enforcers watching their backs, even revealing that one of the greatest players in the history of the game, Wayne Gretzky, wouldn’t allow his trade to be completed without his enforcer.
That may be a reality, yet Ice Guardians addresses more about the disbeliefs and misconceptions that have led to the inclusion and arguable need for enforcers. That means giving insight to its history, it’s purpose, even its etiquette, and of course, the consequences, some of which are hard to watch. It’s the story of men who are a far deeper set of people than depicted, though to their benefit, that fearful anonymity has helped build their aggressive mystique, at least for the crowds watching. What we learn is that there is a complex set of unwritten rules and respect between these fighters, many highly educated and in fact, friends who fully embrace and understand their role in the system that is a rollercoaster of professionals who must constantly defend their position or risk being sent back to the farm teams to try and fight their way back.
Directed by Brett Harvey, Ice Guardians does its level best to provide a fair look at the controversy though is unabashedly biased in presenting a case for the enforcers (the title alone implies the most), allowing the men who made names for themselves on the rink in the National Hockey League as bare-knuckle brawlers to tell their stories on-screen, reliving the history of their own battles and reasons why. There is also film actor Jay Baruchel, a life-long fan and advocate for the enforcer, who himself starred in a film called Goon (2011), though he is a small voice in the overall production. These men give a surprisingly personal and often emotional account of their lives on the ice, mixed with archival footage of their exploits, and despite the film’s length, makes for a compelling watch.
It’s said we don’t know anything until we walk a mile in another man’s shoes. So it is with hockey and another man’s skates. Citing lots of stats and inviting professionals and authorities to be part of documentary, Ice Guardians is an eye-opening experience that doesn’t require its audience to know the game, but will definitely have them thinking more about how its played. One of the best sports documentaries in recent years, this is a well-made and respectful look at a dying breed and the warriors who love the game they play.
Director: Brett Harvey
Writers: Scott Dodds, Brett Harvey
Stars: Jay Baruchel, Sasha Lakovic, Chris Chelios, many more.
Genre: Documentary, Sports