This, the official documentary history of the NHL, is an adequate history of the NHL if you
- don’t watch hockey and
- didn’t grow up watching hockey OR
- you like having the old hockey myths repeated to you by different people than the people who usually told you these myths.
As an actual history of the NHL, that might reveal something to us long-time fans, it is not necessarily a failure, but certainly little more than a glossy propaganda film.
Jon Hamm narrates the same history of the NHL that we all grew up with, with the same players and teams highlighted and all familiar boxes ticked. Hamm himself seems to have done only a few takes, occasionally stumbling over names he hasn’t practiced and doing essentially a high-end version of what someone who worked for the NHL would have done.
When I say all the boxes are ticked, they really are. I have heard these stories – and stories they are – so many times, albeit usually in more depth than in this film. We learn about the Spanish Flu, the early days of the game Howie Morenz, WWII, Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard and on and on, as if this is a textbook. Various historians and, later, former players, are here to tell us the usual myths, with no deviation from the traditional narratives. Even former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is here to tell us about hockey history. (For those of you Americans, it’s a little as if George Bush Jr. was a talking head in a baseball documentary, only if Bush had written a book about baseball.) I didn’t learn anything, I just watched as they reinforced all their treasured myths: old time hockey was vicious, so-and-so was the best player I ever saw, etc.
As a hockey fan who occasionally uses his brain, the thing adds nothing of value. There’s no questioning or re-framing of oft-repeated stories about Eddie Shore ending Ace Bailey’s career or Bob Baun scoring a goal on a broken ankle or any of the hundreds of other treasured narratives trotted out. There’s nothing new. I wouldn’t expect anything less from the NHL, but it would have been nice if they had let someone else make this movie, instead of creating a propaganda film.