The enforcer is a behemoth on skates, the guy everyone tries to avoid lest fisticuffs break out. Fighting is what they’re on the ice for, and their bare-knuckle brawling is such an indelible part of hockey that it’s a focal point for fans and novices alike.
I used to cite it as the reason I would never watch hockey. Uncivilized, I would say. It has no room in sport, I would deride, while in the next breath cheering for every vicious hit in my beloved American football.
It’s true that other contact sports don’t allow fights to break out, but to say that violence isn’t a part of their appeal would be an outright lie. When I turned my nose up at hockey throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s, I wasn’t thinking about why I liked other contact sports, and it took me some time to recognize my own hypocrisy.
Ice Guardians will broaden everyone’s view on the disparaged enforcers, framing itself as a plea to those who have sided against the bruisers without giving it much thought. After all, the lumbering men are just that, men, and Ice Guardians captures them and their role in all its complicated glory.
Giving The Goons Their Voice
While enforcer is the kind name for these players, goon is another commonly used and more descriptive term for how these men are thought of. We most often see them on the ice with fists raised or blood pouring, and that lends itself to a barbaric image. Ice Guardians flips the script by allowing the enforcers to articulate their own defense and in doing so shatter the idea of the simple goon.
Past and present players are shown giving calm, intelligent observations about their chosen career, juxtaposing that with the more familiar footage of them lumbering on the ice. The audience isn’t supposed to forget that these men made a living through intimidation and violence, but instead are meant to view them as subject matter experts that can, in some ways, provide more insight than anyone else.
Lest the audience forget their experience, many of the players are positioned with hockey jerseys, memorabilia, or even faux locker rooms behind them. Other interviewees are given more mundane backdrops, making the differentiation between insiders and outsiders very clear. All viewpoints are given weight, but the audience is ultimately being pushed to listen and rely on the opinions of the players.
This occasionally takes the documentary down some very subjective roads, and while director Brett Harvey includes some rebuttals from the other experts, logical fallacies still slip through. The most detrimental is in its closing moments, when an appeal to emotion is brought up that makes the aftertaste of the film less potent than it deserves. Overall, the players make a strong case for themselves, and that does more to dispel their profession’s bad name than anything else Ice Guardians throws at you.
Filling In The Gaps
Besides providing rebuttals to the player’s arguments, the non-player talking heads are used to bring up more academic ideas about the role and to expand upon the external forces moving against the enforcers.
Like almost all contact sports, ice hockey has been shaken by the concussion research that’s come out in recent years. Public demands to make the game safer has led to a slew of kneejerk rule changes and public image campaigns that occasionally lose sight of what would actually make the game safer. An enforcer slamming fists into another player has become an easy scapegoat, but in reality it is far from the leading cause of concussions in the game.
Ice Guardians brings in a doctor to explain the details, and the points he makes land even harder given that he’s refuted pro-enforcer arguments previously. Because of the media attention on the concussion issue, it’s one of the biggest points Ice Guardians must take on, and its approach is both sound and persuasive. It would’ve been easy to deflect the controversy by bringing up the many dangers of ice hockey (I mean, Clint Malarchuk famously had his neck sliced by one of those skates), but it sticks to outlining the specific causes of concussions in hockey, of which the enforcers make up a shockingly small percentage.
The fact is, as the experts point out, that the enforcers are not there to knock out other players, and the sport does not exist to play it safe. Each are fulfilling a role that has existed in cultures throughout time. These observations about human behavior and our history of dealing with them are a small but crucial part of the film’s defense, showing just how much is missed when you make quick judgements about the role of the enforcer.
It’s Still A Game
This review is in danger of making Ice Guardians sound like an academically stiff take on a crowd-pleasing sport, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The audience for this documentary will largely be sports fans, and it proves adept at keeping that audience entertained.
Like the sport it takes on, Ice Guardians moves at a nice clip, using rock and other high energy music to add to the momentum of its arguments. There’s a concerted effort to avoid long static shots as well, interspersing the talking heads with lots of stock footage from games. Whenever it does stay on one person for a long time, there are cuts between multiple camera angles to prevent it from bogging down.
All of this gives the film a steady momentum without the need for gimmicks. There are no big names that might get a larger audience, but that also means that Harvey isn’t beholden to put anything on the screen for longer than it needs. The only non-hockey celebrity to make an appearance is Jay Baruchel, whose presence is earned thanks his pro-enforcer film Goon. By avoiding common documentary gimmicks, Harvey is freed to make a slick, persuasive film.
Ice Guardians was made as a response to the enforcer’s decreasing role in ice hockey. Public opinion and the style of the game has moved against then, but there’s still reasons to grieve for their absence. Ice Guardians can get people back on the enforcer’s side, but even if it’s too late to save them, it still encapsulates why we should respect them.
Do you think your opinions on fighting in ice hockey can be swayed? Let us know in the comments!
Ice Guardians is playing in select cities in the U.S., U.K., and Canada. For screening dates, click here.
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