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The Puck Stops Here

Valerie Fortney is a writer based in Calgary

So you want to stage an authentic, gritty drama about a town’s obsession with the sport of hockey. Then why hire four lead actors--Burt Reynolds, Russell Crowe, Ron Eldard and Hank Azaria--whose on-ice prowess more resembles that of Bambi than Paul Kariya?

OK, maybe you have a different game strategy. For this film--billed as a story about “a drinking town with a hockey problem"--the first line of attack comes from your team co-captain, a real-life captain of a Los Angeles recreational league team who also happens to be an award-winning writer-producer (David E. Kelley). Then you match him up with another hockey fanatic, this one the current owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins (Howard Baldwin), the other co-producer.

And to ensure the authenticity of your script, nothing beats having a Canadian on your hockey roster: Co-screenwriter Sean O’Byrne regularly hits the boards with Kelley in Los Angeles; he also grew up in Edmonton, the city where Wayne Gretzky quickly went from being the Good One to the Great One.

You also need a good hockey town, where the game is more a religion than a sport. In the Canadian Rocky Mountain town of Canmore, you can’t throw a puck without hitting a guy who grew up sucking tooth guards instead of pacifiers. The majority of the cast of extras and bit players, drawn from nearby communities, have spent their youths playing in junior leagues, some eventually moving on to the semipro and pro levels. They’re the kind of guys that know the language of the game (five hole, offside) and the tough-talking vernacular of the locker room.

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But that still leaves you with the icy issue of what to do about the actors. The basic premise of Hollywood Pictures’ “Mystery, Alaska"--the early 1999 release is described by many on the set as “Northern Exposure” meets “The Longest Yard"--is that the inhabitants of a remote Alaskan town are so obsessed with the game they leave the streets frozen so they can skate down them. They’re so good at the game played on the town pond, in fact, that they end up being challenged to play an exhibition game against the New York Rangers. And unless all the actors are able to float like butterflies on ice, the illusion won’t work.

Enter hockey coordinator Craig Yeaton, a Los Angeles-based power skating instructor. To get cast members like Crowe and Eldard into credible hockey playing form, Yeaton has been putting the actors through a grueling training schedule that included a two-week, pre-shooting hockey camp consisting of five hours on the ice each day, then 2 1/2 hours a day during filming.

Reynolds, who plays the town judge and hockey coach, needed only to learn how to skate for his role (when he was approached to star in the film, his response to learning that he would have to skate: “I lied--I said I could skate like a 22-year-old, like the wind”). The creative Azaria, meanwhile, convinced director Jay Roach that his outcast character, Charlie Danner, would be more credible if he was the only guy in town who didn’t know his way around a rink.

Yeaton, a compact, hyped-as-a-cheerleader type who bounces around the set in a black track suit, is more than optimistic that he’ll be successful in pulling off the illusion.

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“I think we can take them. I think we can give them a run for the money,” Yeaton says excitedly of the semipro and pro-level players that will be filling in as Ranger players (the real Rangers will be busy in midseason during the shooting of the game scenes). Then, in a moment of unrestrained enthusiasm that runs rampant on the testosterone-laden set, Yeaton gets a little carried away: “Get Wayne Gretzky on the phone right now. Tell him to bring that team because we can take the real Rangers.”

The skeptical, Yeaton says, need only look at the success of actors like Crowe for proof of his claims. (On the day Yeaton gave his interview, Crowe was in a scene that required him to fall down with two children on the pond while skating, so we’ll have to take his word for it.)

The New Zealand-born Crowe, who had never skated before and began training with Yeaton a month before shooting, has taken a “Raging Bull” approach to his role, determined to make his ice skating believable, even to the extent of doing some of his own cross-checking stunts.

“This is the hardest sport I’ve ever tried,” he says. “I love it and hate it at the same time.”

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For most of the cast and crew, “love” isn’t a strong enough word to describe their passion for the game. On the set, conversations abound about Sunday’s regular pickup game on the pond. Director Roach (“Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery”) walks around pressing an ice pack against his right shoulder, an injury he incurred at the last game. The 40-year-old director prepared for his job by watching videos like “Legends of Hockey” and laced up his first pair of skates back in August.

“I have the novice’s love and lust for the sport,” he says. “The crew has bonded by skating together.”

Even Reynolds has caught the hockey bug. Flipping through a Vanity Fair article on hockey greats while relaxing in his trailer between takes, he describes himself as a “fanatic,” adding: “If I seem a bit punchy today, it’s because I stayed up till 5 a.m. watching the game [the Olympic bronze medal match between Canada and Finland].”

Thanks partly to his athletic background, Reynolds made sure he was ready for the job: “My 9-year-old son said to me, ‘Listen, Dad, if you can roller-blade, you can skate.’ So I put the roller-blades on and went down the driveway of my home in Florida. Suddenly I was going about 75 mph and I just crashed and burned. My son said, ‘Good fall, Dad.’ Fortunately I didn’t break anything, because I had so many pads on that I looked like the Michelin Man.”

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To make the story believable, Roach wanted more than authentic hockey playing. Setting was also important, with his vision being a small town at the base of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.

Production designer Rusty Smith began his search in Alaska, but the short hours of winter daylight forced him to head south into British Columbia. With locations scout Warner Einer, Smith began the long search for Roach’s dream. But nothing he saw met his expectations.

“Part of the problem with the small towns we saw . . . [was] that none had the drama,” he explains. “They were either beside a highway or railway, or you could see ski hills behind, or the mountains were too soft and the town too big.” Smith asked Einer where the rugged mountains were. Einer, a onetime Canmore resident, suggested they look at his former home. But, Smith says, “Canmore was Mystery 10 years ago, but it’s too big today.”

The two headed up to an open area just north of town, and that’s where they found their field of dreams. “We should build a town” was Smith’s response when he first saw the area, which is surrounded by craggy, snowcapped peaks at every angle.

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Hollywood Pictures’ first response to this expensive alternative to shooting in a ready-made town was less than welcoming. “They thought I was smoking crack,” Smith says with a laugh. But he was determined, and he waged his campaign--which ended up taking five weeks of precious pre-production time--by bringing Roach up to look at the area and then by making a model of the town he was proposing to build.

To make up for lost time, Smith engaged in some creative set making. To come up with 53 buildings in a 10-week period, he and crew got half the structures as off-the-shelf buildings, purchased from area farmers wanting to get rid of old Quonset huts, a hotel that was selling off eight small chalets and the set of “North of 60" (a Canadian television series winding up its final season just a few miles away in Bragg Creek).

The result is a quaint, authentic-looking town that, right down to the mileage sign pointing in the directions of the South Pole and Los Angeles, is more than reminiscent of “Northern Exposure.” He also developed relationships with officials at Canmore’s town office, who informed him when anyone applied for a permit to move or raze a building.

Although moving the buildings to the set wasn’t any cheaper than creating them from scratch, what it did was save valuable time and provide the crew with much-needed pre-production office space. Smith’s other challenge, albeit a small one, came from the citizens of Canmore, a town known for its strong environmentalist bent and tendency to view any form of development as suspect.

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Other than one snag--Crowe’s cabin had to be moved 200 yards closer to town because it was sitting smack in the middle of an elk path--things have gone smoothly, and Smith promises to keep it that way.

“We’ve built [nothing major]. It’s just snow everywhere"--something he says both reduced the effect on the area and reduced costs. “When we leave we’ll put it back just the way we found it.”

But perhaps Smith’s biggest challenge has come in the form of Mother Nature. Thanks to El Nino, the area has been basking in unseasonably warm temperatures, making the set look more like it has been hit by a California mudslide than snow flurries.

But Smith, who has already shown that he can create a town out of nothing without breaking the bank, is unflappable.

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“We’ve had just enough snow to maintain the illusion of snow,” he notes, adding with a laugh: “But we’re Hollywood. If we have to bring in the bloody snow, we will.”

It’s about 10:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, and many of the cast members gathered in the town’s Elks Club building are suffering from fatigue-induced giddiness. Mary McCormack (“Private Parts”), who plays Crowe’s wandering wife, shows off her singing skills and fiddles with a pinching brassiere while making faces at the camera zooming in for her close-up.

Crowe, with his shorn “L.A. Confidential” cut grown out to grungy shoulder length and sporting week-old stubble, could easily be mistaken for one of the locals working as extras as he slumps around in oversized winter boots. Azaria is getting antsy, hoping he can leave soon with his fiancee, Helen Hunt, who has flown up to meet him for a romantic weekend. And Eldard, who plays the town’s charming womanizer, stays in character between takes as he hams it up for fellow cast members, laughing so hard with a couple of other troublemakers that he collapses onto the floor.

But when Reynolds, the elder statesman on the set, arrives, a reverential hush falls on the room. He mumbles something about the press being present and the need for some decorum, advice everyone heeds.

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In this scene that has taken an entire day--and that will add up to only about a minute and a half of film--the entire cast is present. Azaria’s Charlie Danner, an outcast who moved to New York to become a Sports Illustrated writer specializing in the National Hockey League, is addressing a town hall meeting, trying to persuade his reluctant audience to take up the challenge to play the New York Rangers, a decision that could make them either heroes or a national joke. The crowd is a motley bunch in toques, Cowichan sweaters, lumberjack shirts and thick winter work boots.

One elderly woman gets up and says, “This may be an old lady talking, Charlie Danner, but I’ve always thought you were a bit of a [expletive].” Though it’s being delivered for about the 20th time today, the line still manages to crack up the weary cast and crew.

Getting an old woman to say dirty words always gets an easy laugh, but it isn’t the only time you’ll hear such epithets. In fact, there aren’t a lot of scenes in the film that aren’t littered with a liberal dose of profanity. Kelley, who says his mother was shocked after reading the script to learn Disney had bought it, defends its use.

“There’s a malicious profanity that’s aggressive, and there’s a benign kind, in which it just rolls off as part of the language,” he says. “In a town like this, it’s just the way people talk.”

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Kelley knows he’s taking a bit of a risk, as well as limiting the audience. But this son of a former NHL coach wants to see a film that blends tragic emotion with hilarious comedy, a true-to-life story that reflects his and his colleagues’ love and respect for the sport. “There are enough things going on that you don’t need to be into hockey to enjoy it,” he says.

And he doesn’t think the use of racy language is anything compared to the casting decisions for his ensemble film. Regarding the choice of Reynolds, whose last film, “Boogie Nights,” earned him a best supporting actor Oscar nomination, he knows it could go either way: creative casting or a big mistake. “He’s completely against type, but Burt is an ex-athlete, and that part of himself he exudes quite well.”

He also thinks Crowe is a great choice for town sheriff John Biebe, a soft-spoken law enforcer who never carries a gun.

“There’s a certain deadpan quality to the role, and also a depth,” Kelley says. “Russell is the kind of actor that can convey that.”

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“Mystery, Alaska” is a quirky story that, despite dealing with such real-life issues as infidelity and broken dreams, relies on suspending disbelief and believing in small miracles, if only for a short time. Two weeks after this scene was shot, a cold front swept in, dumping about two feet of the soft white stuff on the area. In this part of the world, a miracle it’s not. But as far as omens go, this one isn’t so bad.


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