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Offside: Why can't English Canada make a hockey film that scores at the box office?

Michael McGowan's campy film Score: The Hockey Musical seemed off to a promising start.

First, organizers of the Toronto International Film Festival announced last summer that it would be their opening-night film, guaranteeing the cheeky movie worldwide press. Then it scored the same coveted position at four successive Canadian festivals, in Sudbury, Halifax, Calgary and Edmonton.

Hopes were high that McGowan's quirky film, with imported star power such as Olivia Newton-John as well as Canadian icons such as Nelly Furtado and Walter Gretzky, would score big at the box office.

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Sadly, it flopped. In its recent two-week run on 130 Canadian screens, Score: The Hockey Musical earned just $250,000 - a figure that crushed McGowan and his distributor Mongrel Media's Hussain Amarshi, who are still trying to figure out what went so drastically wrong.

"My sense is that people who are into hockey did not find the idea of a hockey musical appealing to them," says Amarshi, who spent $1-million marketing the $5-million film. "And people who like musicals did not want hockey as a theme. ... Maybe it was ahead of its time."

Amarshi is not the only person in Canada wondering why our filmmakers have yet to make a movie about our game - one that resonates with hockey-mad Canadians and scores as a bona-fide hit at the box office.

"I'm not sure why we can't seem to nail a great feature film," says Jason Blake, a Canadian professor of English at a university in Slovenia who authored a book called Canadian Hockey Literature. "In the last 20 years we've seen much great hockey fiction (the late Paul Quarrington's King Leary or Robert Sedlack's Horn of the Lamb, to name a few). But before that, it was like we were scared to write about it. Maybe some of that has rolled into film. Perhaps there is some sort of cultural insecurity here? ... I wonder if we're too busy trying to be utterly serious. Or if we're too afraid to tackle the nitty-gritty of the sport?"

In the last 30 years, Canadians have indeed turned out great books about hockey (Roch Carrier's The Hockey Sweater, Ken Dryden's The Game) and some hum-worthy tunes (Stompin' Tom Connors's Good Old Hockey Game). But we still haven't managed to nail a hockey film that can skate past the classic, 1977's Slap Shot, the foul-mouthed U.S. film starring Paul Newman and the thuggish Hanson Brothers. It clicked with the hockey populace, pundits say, because its unabashed depiction of the Charlestown Chiefs was authentic to that hard-scrabble era in the minor-hockey leagues.

"It's a cult film like Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is from that era too," notes Rick Gruneau, a professor at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University, who has written several hockey books including Hockey Night in Canada: Sports, Identities and Cultural Politics, with David Whitson. " Slap Shot did a good job of mixing comedic elements with a serious theme. It was rough, real and unabashedly violent, which is what most hockey fans want - and expect - to see in a movie about hockey. So far, no Canadian film has come close to replicating that."

Canadian directors have delivered some critically lauded contenders, including Atom Egoyan's 1993 TV movie, Gross Misconduct (about the troubled life of former hockey player Brian Spencer), The Rocket (Roy Dupuis's 2005 portrayal of Montreal Canadiens legend Maurice Richard) and Net Worth (another made-for-TV film by the CBC about "Terrible Ted" Lindsay's fight with the owner of the Detroit Red Wings that led to the creation of the NHL Players Association.

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But on the large screen, the only Canuck feature to rank in Box Office Mojo's top-15 grossing hockey films is the three-part Quebec-based Les Boys, a comedy about amateur hockey whose combined haul was $14-million (U.S.) - much of it in Quebec. The Rocket, which cost $8-million, earned just over $2-million in ticket sales.

Topping the list are all U.S. films: feel-good flick Miracle ($65-million); Tooth Fairy ($60-million); and The Mighty Ducks (roughly $50-million).

To be fair, Gruneau says, good sports movies - not just hockey ones - are hard to make. "If a director tries to be serious, a sports movie can easily lend itself to clichéd melodrama or mawkish sentimentality."

In the United States, filmmakers have managed to make commercially popular films about their most beloved games. In baseball, there is Bang the Drum Slowly and Bull Durham. Football has The Longest Yard and, more recently, the Oscar-winning The Blind Side.

Globe and Mail columnist and author Roy MacGregor has a theoryabout why Canadians haven't crossed that threshold: "Hockey rinks aren't pretty. There is nothing visually attractive around hockey games. They're not as attractive as curling. Golf has a beautiful setting. Football has the panorama of the big stadium," adds MacGregor, who wrote the acclaimed hockey novel The Last Season. "A rink is an enclosed space of cold air. It's also a very fast game. It's not an intellectual game, and it doesn't lend itself greatly to the metaphors for life, which is what the baseball movies do."

Still, Telefilm Canada - which backed Score: The Hockey Musical and is partly funding two more hockey flicks now in production ( Breakaway in Toronto and Goon in Winnipeg) - seems determined to take another kick at the can and give Canadians a hockey film they can proudly call their own.

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Breakaway, from newcomer Vinay Virmani, bills itself as the Bollywood hockey movie and features a team of Canadian Punjabi teens who form their own team (and yes, they do burst into spontaneous song). It stars Rob Lowe, comedian Russell Peters and Camilla Belle ( 10,000 BC) and is not so much a hockey movie as a vehicle to explore the themes of acceptance and assimilation.

The $11-million feature Goon, written by Montreal actor Jay Baruchel ( Knocked Up) and Vancouver's Evan Goldberg ( Pineapple Express and Superbad) is the story of a hired tough guy (Seann William Scott of Role Models) with the Halifax Highlanders. This picture, due out next year, also stars Baruchel, Eugene Levy, Alison Pill and Liev Schreiber.

And Baruchel has already made the tall promise that Goon is going to be "real mean, truthful, and everything hockey is without any of the sports-movie clichés. ... It will be, by far, the best hockey movie made since Slap Shot."

We'll see. Still, it's heartening to hear the 28-year-old Habs fan trying to wrestle the best-hockey-movie mantle away from the Americans.

"For a long time, we've been kind of ashamed of owning up to Canadian-style hockey ...," says Baruchel. "I think the mistake that's been made in the past is filmmakers have tried to anesthetize hockey and keep the violence out of it.

"But to deny that part of the game is to deny the sport exists. I want to lionize the blue-collar work ethic, and celebrate the brotherhood of the bench and the locker room."

To quote Newman, as he unleashed the Hanson Brothers: "Okay guys. Show us what you've got."

Canada's been waiting 33 years.

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