September 23, 2011

Original Six: Most underrated characters in hockey movies

By Jesse Connolly

Hockey fans will always have a special place in their heart for movies about their beloved sport. From the serious (“Miracle”) to the silly (“Slap Shot”), the growing list of films portraying the game have introduced us to some iconic characters.

And although the Hanson Brothers, Gordon Bombay or maybe even a nonfiction character such as the legendary Herb Brooks might jump to the forefront of our minds, there are other, less obvious roles that deserve a proper stick salute.

6. Ned Braden in “Slap Shot”
Played by Michael Ontkean

Life wasn’t easy for Ned Braden. He was the most talented player on the Charlestown Chiefs (and likely their leading scorer), but no one really gave a damn. His wife was hardly a looker. In fact, it’s pretty apparent he loved their dog more than her. A well-educated man with a highly underappreciated sense of humor, Braden loathed the rise to fame the Hanson brothers achieved, as player-coach Reggie Dunlop’s squad decided to goon it up, much to his dismay.

Nevertheless, the ultimate non-conformist came through with a strip scene for the ages in the championship game, causing Tim McCracken and the Syracuse Bulldogs to go to spastic — leading to their eventual forfeit and an improbable victory for the Chiefs.

Memorable quote: “You take the van, I’ll keep the dog.”

Russell Crowe as John Biebe. 5. John Biebe in “Mystery Alaska”
Played by Russell Crowe 

Things weren’t exactly looking up for Mystery sheriff John Biebe. A longtime veteran of his town’s beloved Saturday game, Biebe appeared to be on the outs with a young hot shot ready to snag his roster spot. With his wife encouraging retirement, opportunity came knocking in the form of the New York Rangers — brought to town for an exhibition game by Charlie Danner (Hank Azaria), a writer for Sports Illustrated and former Mystery resident.

Determined not to be humiliated on his own turf, Biebe heroically captained his rag-tag bunch to within a single goal of forcing overtime against their vaunted opponent. The loss was gut-wrenching, but this extremely undervalued, feel-good flick was inspirational, thanks in large part to the Aussie Crowe’s performance.

Memorable quote: “Look at that surface out there. That’s still black ice. This is our pond!”

4. Mike Eruzione in “Miracle”
Played by Patrick O’Brien Demsey

Kurt Russell deservedly got a heap of praise for his portrayal of Team USA’s ever-demanding coach Herb Brooks in the film, but O’Brien Demsey anchored a few memorable scenes. With Brooks running the team into the ground via full-length sprints after a poor showing in an exhibition game, players were left sweating, puking and gasping for air.

Trying not to keel over, Eruzione barked out his name and hometown (Winthrop, Mass.) and — unlike the rest of his fellow members of the squad — finally gave the coach the answer he was looking for when asked whom he plays for. The moment sparked familial bonding and catapulted the U.S. team toward success. And, let’s not forget, Eruzione buried the game-winner against the Soviets.

Memorable quote: “I play for… the United States of America!”

3. Russ Tyler in “D2: The Mighty Ducks”
Played by Kenan Thompson

Let’s face it, my fellow children of the ’80s, the “Mighty Ducks” movies did not age well. And while we may cringe years later at its unabashed cheesiness, there are still parts we can appreciate, including Thompson’s character, Russ Tyler.

In “Fresh Prince” fashion, Tyler was just hanging out as his local park shooting pucks into a grimy trash can when suddenly the opportunity of a lifetime landed on his lap. With the soon-to-be-internationally-competitive Ducks on hand, Tyler unleashed his secret weapon, firing a twisting, curving, diving shot that even Tim Wakefield would have marveled at — earning him an immediate spot on the squad. Where, oh, where, would our culture be if we couldn’t drop the word knucklepuck every once in a while?

Memorable quote: “It’s knucklepuck time!”

Jean-Claude Van Damme as Darren McCord. 2. Darren McCord in “Sudden Death”
Played by Jean-Claude Van Damme

Former firefighter Darren McCord just wanted to go see the Penguins take on the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals with his kids. But instead of being able to cheer on his favorite team and eat nachos, he was forced to save the vice president’s life, recover his kidnapped daughter, diffuse bombs, swing down from the roof on a loose ceiling cable and kill a female baddy dressed up as the Pens’ mascot.

While hiding from the terrorists he hadn’t killed yet, Van Damme posed as Pittsburgh’s goalie, came into the game and made a highlight-reel save. There’s no doubt every hockey-loving kid watching this imagined how awesome such a moment would be.

Memorable quote: “I get your bombs, I win. That’s the game we’re gonna play, you piece of …!”

Yvon Barrette as Denis Lemieux. 1. Denis Lemieux in “Slap Shot”
Played by Yvon Barrette

Any hockey fan that hasn’t seen “Slap Shot,” or dares make the accusation that it’s overrated, is often shunned, tarred and feathered or burned at the stake. Personally, I think they can make an argument that the ’70s classic might be overhyped, but anyone who doesn’t find goalie Denis Lemieux downright hilarious is void of a sense of humor.

From his demonstration of hockey penalties in the opening scene to his mispronunciation follies, the Chiefs netminder steals every scene he’s in. It’s a miracle his agent never got in touch with “who own the Chief” to make sure he got traded “right (bleeping) now!”

Memorable quote: “I hate it here. Make me sick. My allergy, puke every time. Blugh! Like that. Puke!”

This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com