Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Deesmealz. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Growing up on northern Minnesota's “Iron Range,” I wasn't just a basketball kid in a hockey town, I was a basketball kid in hockey country. Just a few miles from my childhood home sat the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and the World's Largest Hockey Stick. Many of my peers at area schools went on to play high-level college hockey, with at least one achieving a successful NHL career and eventually returning home on a Stanley Cup tour.

Back then, I bristled at being second-class on the winter sports calendar, resenting hockey's regional hegemony. A touch older and wiser now, I've come to more fully appreciate the sport's role in my hometown heritage — even if I'm still more at home on the hardwood than an ice rink.

The recently released documentary film “Hockeyland” captures that heritage in brilliant detail, and it only accelerates my softening stance toward the rink rats. It helps that the film was made by a team that knows a thing or two about the area; brothers Tommy Haines and JT Haines, who directed and produced the film, respectively, grew up playing hockey in the same town where I was playing hoops some years later.

I was delighted to have the chance to talk with JT about “Hockeyland,” and the larger portfolio of his team at Northland Films. Enjoy our conversation about finding your way in the film biz, the preservation of small-town stories, the importance of community relationships in documentary, and, of course, hockey.

Members of the Eveleth-Gilbert Golden Bears high school hockey team, in a still from the Northland Films documentary “Hockeyland” (Image Credit: Northland Films via Greenwich Entertainment).

Adam Giorgi, Deesmealz: I wanted to start by asking you about the latest project, the “Hockeyland” movie. I'd love to hear about the whole journey of how this project came together. I know it's the third in a series, a trilogy of hockey movies, but I'd love to know a little bit of the history of how you guys came to this story.

JT Haines: So, this is our fifth documentary film. We have a production company called Northland Films based in Minnesota and Iowa. And this is our fifth documentary, and it's our third hockey documentary. The first hockey documentary was called “Pond Hockey,” that was in the 2008-2009 timeframe.

And it really centered on the culture of outdoor hockey, “shinny,” skating on outdoor rinks. We talked to a lot of people who grew up playing on outdoor rinks, and people playing today. And just looked at how the culture has changed a bit, going more and more indoors in the arenas, and just the changing nature of hockey in general.

That was really well received, and we made a lot of interesting connections and good relationships. And we heard from people like Neal Broten and Governor [Wendell] Anderson, and they had a lot of really interesting things to say about the way things used to be and what about that old culture is worth hanging onto.

Then, we kind of used the story of these teams playing in the very first Pond Hockey Championships in Minneapolis as kind of a story arc to tell this story of outdoor hockey and why that's meaningful for folks. And that was our first hockey film.

[My brother] Tommy and I grew up playing hockey in Mountain Iron, [Minnesota]. So we had some background in it, but that was really our first foray into hockey documentary filmmaking. And it's a pretty niche area, so we quickly became kind of the “hockey documentary guys.”

A couple of guys we met on the “Pond Hockey” project were involved with the 1960 Gold Medal Olympic team. And this is John Mayasich and Willard Ikola, and guys like that, and Bob Cleary. And so we thought, well, that's another really interesting story because we know a lot about the 1980 team and the Miracle on Ice. Well heck, it turns out that another team also improbably won gold 20 years earlier in 1960. And this was just at the advent of television coverage of the Olympics. So there wasn't really a lot of attention to this story, but it's an amazing story. So we made a second film, called “Forgotten Miracle,” about those guys. And that was really great too.

All through this process, my brother and I, Tommy, we had a developing interest; like, we grew up on the Range, playing youth hockey. In our mind, high school hockey in Minnesota is just one of the greatest things in sports and it's really the heart and soul of hockey in Minnesota. We call ourselves the State of Hockey, and obviously, we have a really successful NHL team and multiple really successful D1 NCAA teams.

But really the heart of it is community hockey, youth hockey, especially at the high school level. So even though there's more logistical challenges in shooting youth hockey, we thought this is a story that people could really connect to. So we've been wanting to do something around high school hockey in Minnesota, especially in northern Minnesota for probably around 10 years.

One of the things Neil said that has stuck with all of us over the years is he had an amazing career at the college and NHL level and he's still talking about the trips down to the state tournament with Roseau. That's the thing that is really kind of settled in his core being. So, that was one of those conversations that really sent us in this direction.

DY: How’s it been going, premiering it and having it out in the world? I imagine that has to be really rewarding and satisfying.

JTH: It's been really great and we're really happy to finally be in this part of the process because as you can imagine, it takes a long sort of on-ramp where you've got the photography and then you've got editing and then you are working on film festival stuff and local, home community screening stuff.

We did some of that in February with Hermantown and Eveleth-Gilbert. And then all of that, after two, three years, finally, if you're lucky, you're in theaters. And so we opened in theaters September 9 and we opened in Minnesota first on purpose for the first week.

It was in 50 or 60 theaters across Minnesota, which, when you look at a map, that really feels very comprehensive. It was all over the state. Then it opened nationwide to more like 150 theaters the following week, September 16. And we're now in our fifth week. Actually, some of those Minnesota screens that opened on the ninth — this is Virginia, Mountain Iron, Hibbing, Grand Rapids, Lakeville, I think Hastings was in there — there's like 10 screens who are running it for a fifth week, which is, I think that's kind of almost unprecedented for an independent documentary in Minnesota. Obviously there are big documentaries that screen nationwide that'll have a run, but a normal run is a couple, three weeks. So it's just really exciting and gratifying that these community theaters and communities are running it, still running it now into October. So, that's been amazing.

And like I said, it's kind of the end of one of the last steps in a very long process. So, we're very happy to be in this spot where now it's just opened and available to everybody.

YouTube video
A trailer for “Hockeyland” (via Greenwich Entertainment on YouTube).

DY: I'd love to know a little bit more of the Northland origin story. So when people think about starting a successful filmmaking operation, I don't think they would think of northern Minnesota or Iowa as the first landing spot. So how did that take shape? Just having these creative aspirations and starting something special and successful with Iowa and northern Minnesota as the cultivating ground.

JTH: I wonder even where to start here. I mean we have a lot to say to young filmmakers who are interested in the business and a lot of it has to do with logistics of how you're earning income. And there's a couple different models to follow. I think the most common model is for individuals to make a name with a successful project. And then they're getting hired on to bigger productions or they're writing grants to do independent productions. This team model that we have, I don't know how common it is actually, but it feels a little bit unique to me.

We just started making films together because we wanted to. My brother Tommy went to film school. He went to a film school in Iowa and he went there because his wife is from Iowa. But we all started in the Twin Cities. Andrew [Sherburne], Tommy and I are from Minnesota and we started in the Twin Cities. They both moved to Iowa for family. When we first got started, it was with another pair of brothers from Rosemont High School, where Tommy and I went. But we just started kicking around little short films, little short narratives, [on] those early digital cameras, the old Canons and the one chips.

We would do little commercial projects for roofing companies and stuff to make a couple, three grand, so we could buy one of these early digital cameras. I think we had a little bit of luck on our side in terms of timing, where we were early adopters of this new technology and just started producing films because this was early 2000s when not a lot of people were doing it, so it wasn't as hard to get attention.

And then we follow what is, I think, kind of a more normal course, which is we made several not super films, but we tried to make some feature narrative films. We made three of them and they kicked around kind of B-level film festivals but they weren't great.

We were proud of them and we worked hard on them and we had fun, but it wasn't like, “We're onto something here.” It wasn't until we made a documentary where this actually really aligns with our skillset that the team has, because you're already wearing a lot of hats, and scripting and casting and directing actors, that's another whole set of skills that is separate from what we do in documentaries.

Long story short, we nickeled and dimed our way to a couple cameras and then made a couple bad films and then finally made a couple good films and then on we go. But it took 15 years to get to where we are now.

DY: When looking through the catalog of Northland's documentaries, for our organization we really give attention to rural issues, and that seems to be a bit of a thread or a throughline for you guys. [You] have films about corn husking and fish mongering and little villages and gold mining. And the one that really struck me the most was one that's a little meta, where you're looking at the history of getting film into farm communities, like [literally] doing early film screenings in farm communities. So I'm curious if that throughline, kind of looking at small town stories and rural experience, if any of that was intentional or if that kind of came about organically, no pun intended, and how you guys go about picking stories or finding stories that you want to jump onto?

JTH: First of all, kudos Adam. That's one of the better questions I've heard in this whole run. And that's a really astute observation and it's one of the things I'm more proud of as a producer with Northland Films is we are drawn to these themes of community and legacy and even mortality and protecting things of value as the world changes around us.

And it does seem to be a theme that is consistent through all of our projects and you asked if it's organic or intentional. I think it probably started as organic. Then just by the nature of who we are and what we bring to the process, we've brought those themes out organically in the early productions and then they've carried through.

JT Haines, producer at Northland Films (Image Credit: Northland Films)

And now we're certainly looking for those things and we're absolutely drawn to small-town storytelling and rural storytelling because it can be a really powerful avenue for community and these types of themes that feel important to us. Absolutely.

DY: When you're scouting and looking for places, what do you look for? Where do you say, “Oh, there's some strong potential there, we've got to dig deeper”?

JTH: I think the bottom line is relationships. I mean, you hear a lot of ideas over the years. Each one of these projects takes three years for the bigger ones, maybe one to two for the smaller ones. So it takes some time and there are ideas floating around. And I think what usually carries the day is relationships.

When you talk to potential film participants and get a sense for their story and their interest in it, do they have a feel for the process, does it seem like there's some trust there, are they interested in it? I mean I think that's honestly what ends up carrying the day because we're not really in a position to make an observational documentary without interest and participation from the people we're working with.

So that is first and foremost the top priority. And when that's there, there are an unlimited number of stories that can be told. So it's not as if we're looking for the best story in the world as a first step. It's more, who are we meeting, what's around us, what are they saying? And then the story, if we're doing our jobs right, I think the story often flows from there.

DY: You've talked about some of the projects that are coming down the pipeline immediately, but in a more general sense, a bigger picture way, I'd love to know what your aspirations are for Northland. What do you guys hope for? Where do you hope that you can take this organization longer term and as you keep going?

JTH: That's a really interesting question because this is I think the biggest film we've had. I mean by certain measures it's very clearly the biggest film we've had. So up till now the bar we've set for ourselves is we want to keep making films together and we want to keep making them better and better.

And it's been internal in that way. It hasn't really been external like, “Do we have goals to reach this or that milestone or make this or that type of film.” So it'll be interesting to see what the conversation looks like now moving forward. I don't know if we're going to continue on the path of, “Hey, can we find space in our lives to keep making quality documentaries together or do we want to put even more emphasis on this and try something even bigger?”

And I don't know the answer to that right now, to be honest with you. That'll be a fun conversation for us to have.

DY: It sounds like you're at an exciting moment of reflection and deliberation. You mentioned earlier, you hit on this piece of advice about the inherent wisdom of just going and making films and being okay if the first few are bad, that's totally okay. But if there are young creatives in Eveleth, Minnesota or other corners of rural America, I wonder if there's any other advice you'd give them if they wanted to walk a path like the one that you guys are walking.

JTH: It would be nice to be able to spare some of these early 20s filmmakers from some of the mistakes that are common in the industry. I think a pretty common path is to find oneself on a passion project where you really want to get this film done and you go all in on it. And that's great and those types of projects often produce amazing films and they often don't.

I think being willing to ask for advice, and receive advice, could really help avoid some common mistakes early on in the filmmaking process. To give one specific example, because I'm sure that feels very general, is things tend to go a little long when you do get attached to stuff as a filmmaker early on. And just being willing to trim it up and cut that shot a little early, and [ask], “Do we lose the audience here? Do we get them back here? Can we avoid losing them in the first place? Are we heavy-handed with the music? Is that creating a vibe that we're not intending?”

Just getting some reactions from other filmmakers is a really smart idea, especially in the middle of the production. You can get some eyes on some rough cuts, get some responses to the rough cuts. It's hard to do because you're trying to get the thing out and you're trying to apply to festivals and you're excited. But in our experience, it is absolutely worth the time, especially as you're learning to invite some feedback from other filmmakers.

DY: All I have left is the important business at the end, which is, how can people see the film? You mentioned that some of the theatrical screenings are still ongoing, but big picture, what are folks' options going to be now and going forward?

JTH: [On] our website, hockeylandmovie.com or northlandfilms.com, you can find information about where it's streaming and it'll be available on Blu-ray as well.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Deesmealz. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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