Why does the movie Mystery, Alaska resonate with fans two decades later? Perhaps because it is one of the few movies that gets its hockey right. With all due respect to The Mighty Ducks and Youngblood, there are no silly knuckle-pucks or ludicrous stick-swinging duels in this film. Many people with deep hockey roots were involved in the making of Mystery, Alaska – and it shows. Producers Howard and Karen Elise Baldwin were the owners of the Pittsburgh Penguins at the time and had previously owned the Hartford Whalers. Scriptwriter David E. Kelley was the son of an NHL executive and the captain of his hockey team at Princeton. Brad Turner, the film’s assistant hockey co-ordinator and hockey double for Russell Crowe, played briefly for the New York Islanders and had an eight-year career in the minors. Several former players from the University of Calgary also contributed as Rangers players or as hockey doubles for the Mystery characters.
The Baldwins’ first film to involve hockey was the Jean-Claude Van Damme action flick Sudden Death. It came out in 1995 and had a hearty serving of hockey action. But in Mystery, Alaska, hockey was the main course. Oddly enough, the idea for the film came during a meal.
Karen Elise Baldwin (Co-producer): It really started at a lunch that we had with writer David E. Kelley.
Howard Baldwin (Producer): We’ve always been close. David’s dad, Jack Kelley, was the coach and GM of the Whalers and later the president of the Penguins. We were at Delmonico’s in L.A., and we talked about doing a movie that took hockey back to its roots.
Karen Elise Baldwin: Both Howard and David, as boys, played hockey on the lake when growing up, so they began reminiscing about that, and how it would be cool to make a movie like that.
Howard Baldwin: There is this famous story about how Shelby, Montana, hosted a heavyweight fight featuring Jack Dempsey to revitalize the town. That evolved into what Mystery, Alaska became.
Kelley, who was a writer and creator of TV shows such as L.A. Law and Ally McBeal, collaborated with friend Sean O’Byrne on the Mystery, Alaska script, which was quickly picked up by Disney. Director Jay Roach and cinematographer Peter Deming, who had previously worked together on Austin Powers and Austin Powers 2, were brought on board. Mystery, Alaska was mainly filmed in Canmore, Alberta, a town of 12,000 people that’s located about 50 miles west of Calgary.
Brad Turner (Assistant hockey director and hockey double for Russell Crowe, who played John Biebe): I played for a team in Manchester, England, at the end of my career. I went to Canmore at Christmastime to visit family. My brother-in-law was working on the special-effects crew to get the ice right during pre-production. He suggested that I get involved, so I met with the production company. The next day, I’m having coffee with Jay Roach. They needed a local hockey co-ordinator, and he said I looked a little bit like Russell Crowe, though I’m a bit taller. So, I was also hired to double for Russell. I was off to a pretty fast start.
Peter Deming (Cinematographer): I had worked with Jay on the two Austin Powers movies. It was after the second one that we did Mystery, Alaska. He asked me to do this film, and it seemed like a good challenge. I grew up in Wisconsin and knew hockey but had never played it. I was definitely not intimate with the game of hockey.
Turner: Within the week, I was teaching Russell Crowe and Burt Reynolds how to skate. They ran a five-week training camp, and I was thrown right into the mix to get these guys skating. I was on an outdoor pond in Canmore, pushing around a hockey net with Burt Reynolds, which was cool. He was a pretty tough old guy, he stayed out there for hours.
Travis Stephenson (Hockey double for Michael Buie, who played Connor Banks): I auditioned for a speaking part, for the role of ‘Tinker’ Connolly. It was an open invitation for local talent. I had never acted before, but I just thought, what the heck? Cameron Bancroft got the role of ‘Tinker.’ And then they looked at my hockey resume and suggested I try out to be a hockey double.
Darren Morrison (Hockey double for Cameron Bancroft, who played ‘Tinker’ Connolly): I was playing my last year of college hockey with the University of Calgary Dinos, but I got a concussion playing rugby right before the season started. One of the hockey guys from the movie called my coach, looking for players. He recommended me, since I wasn’t playing for the season. So, I went to these tryouts to be a hockey player in the movie. There were a bunch of actors there, skating around with figure skates and mittens on their hands, with borrowed hockey sticks. They were trying to audition as hockey players, but they really couldn’t skate. They ran us through some drills, took some photos and thought I matched up pretty well with Cameron Bancroft. They called me back, and I spent the next three months in Canmore, working on this movie.
Stephenson: There were 120 or 130 people trying out for these doubling positions, and I got one of them. I was a stunt double, and I did all the skill and skating work for the movie as well. I was used for any below-the-head shots they needed, closeup stickhandling or some footwork they wanted to show off. I spent a lot of time filming skill stuff for extra shots.
The actors had to learn how to skate, the hockey players had to learn specific plays…and the town of Mystery had to be built.
Morrison: They built the entire town, including the church and the cemetery. If you drove up to it, you’d never know it was a set. You’d think it was just a little town at the base of a mountain. The amount of money Disney spent on everything was crazy.
Karen Elise Baldwin: A lot of times, studios just try to find a town to use or build a little bit. But for this, Disney had a very specific vision of what they wanted the town of Mystery to look like.
Morrison: They called the actors ‘Team One,’ and we (hockey doubles) were ‘Team Two.’ Team Two had to drive to and from Calgary to practise choreographed plays for two hours and then drive back. The first month of the movie was just all practising plays. That was the boring part. Once we started filming in Canmore, then it got a little more glamorous. We had our own trailers. We got to hang out with the actors and do the plays and be on the set all day.
Stephenson: I would say that some of the hockey doubles were picked more because they resembled the actors they were doubling for than for their actual hockey skill, if you know what I mean.
Morrison: Team Two was kind of a mix. There were a couple of us that played college hockey. The rest were guys who played beer league. There was a difference in the levels of playing. So, when they had these complex passing plays that they made us do, sometimes we’d have to do it over and over, and the director would get pissed off because we’re the hockey experts that are supposed to be performing and playing.
Deming: Sometimes you have people in the film that are supposed to be playing at a high level who really can’t play at a high level. So you have to sort of concoct a recipe of shots and closeups to make it seem the opposite. You don’t really know if people are going to be believable or not as hockey players until you get out there. That was probably the biggest hurdle to overcome.
Turner: One of the first nights, all the doubles and actors who played hockey were invited to a little party at a hotel. Burt Reynolds got up and gave a “rally the troops” kind of speech, and he talked about his experience, gave these war stories. Then Russell got up and gave his speech, telling us how important this was and what it meant to him. He gave us all jackets and solidified the idea that we were a team.
Morrison: Russell bought Team One and Team Two hockey jackets. They had our jersey numbers on it, and the Big Dipper on the arm. He spent his own money to make us feel like a team because we were hanging around for three months together.
We got bent with Russell Crowe a few nights. I’m not going to lie to you. We had a few pops.
– Travis Stephenson
Howard Baldwin: Russell Crowe was fantastic. He’s a brilliant actor, but he loves getting people together, working on getting everybody to like each other, and making a team out of them. He really got into the role.
Stephenson: We had two different dressing rooms, but we’d go back and forth between dressing rooms and bulls— with each other. Russell Crowe used to call us hockey doubles “Fake.” So, I was “Fake Connor” and there’d be “Fake Skank” and “Fake Tinker.” He’d be like, “Hey, Fake Connor, get over here!” (laughs)
Turner: All the doubles were the “Fakes.” It was all in good spirits, not malicious. Russell didn’t call me “Fake.” I spent a lot of time with him, and he didn’t have a nickname for me.
Morrison: We’re out on that pond, waiting around. Sometimes, the director gave us time to warm up. Russell Crowe can barely stand on skates. We’re passing the puck around like we did in university. Well, there’s Russell, standing there, and no one’s passing to him, so he slams his stick on the ice and yells at me, “Hey! Fake Tinker! Pass me the puck!” I didn’t want to pass the puck too hard because if he moves too much, he’d fall. So, I kind of shuffle the puck over to him, and he tries to get it…and of course he falls down.
Turner: Russell worked really, really hard, going from zero to becoming a guy who was barely mobile on the ice, where they could use him a little bit. But his skating was poor, he had a poor skating stride.
Crowe’s inability to skate was less of a distraction than the raging parties that he would frequently throw during the film’s three-month shooting schedule, but no one seemed to mind.
Morrison: Russell was an awesome guy. He would throw these massive parties with the cast and crew many times after shooting was done for the day. He rented this house, and you’d walk in the door and there were these big garbage cans full of ice and beer.
Stephenson: Oh yeah, we got bent with Russell Crowe a few nights. I’m not going to lie to you. We had a few pops, as you would say. I remember staying at Russell’s house probably three or four times. He had that band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, and he would sit there with his guitar and jam for us.
Jim Wheatcroft (played Rangers team captain “Jackson”): Russell had his birthday during the filming of the movie, and he invited about 200 people into a little pub that was packed. I don’t think the locals liked that too much because he kind of took over the pub. He toasted a bunch of people that were in the movie and did this Australian thing where we’d all drink after each toast. He invited people back to his house for more drinks after the bar closed.
Morrison: We (hockey doubles) weren’t in the union, so we had to get up at 5 a.m. There were no labor laws for us. Russell only had to work a certain number of hours, and then he would be done for the day. So, we’d be at his parties, that kept going until 2 or 3 in the morning, and then we’d get up at 5. Russell didn’t have to get up and film until 1 in the afternoon.
Turner: The 1998 Winter Olympics were going on at the time. Russell threw a lot of great parties when the Canadian Olympic hockey team was playing. He’d rent a big suite at the Banff Springs Hotel and throw a big party there. And there was always a party or get-together at the house he rented. Russell was very good in that way, to include all of the guys who were taking part in this film and bring them all into the fold.
In the film, moments before the ‘Saturday Game’ when young Stevie Weeks makes his debut, the Mystery players are in the dressing room, watching ESPN National Hockey Night, hosted by Steve Levy and Barry Melrose. A hush falls over them as an irate Melrose gives his two cents about the forthcoming exhibition game between Mystery and the Rangers, calling the idea “a joke.”
Barry Melrose (ESPN commentator): I knew the Kelley family a long time. Jack ran the rink at Glenn Falls, where I finished my career. David called me and asked if I’d be in the film. I said sure but asked if they would include Steve Levy, too. We filmed our part in the ESPN studio in Bristol (Connecticut) between periods of a game. It probably took 10 minutes, and we had a blast.
Stephenson: The most fulfilling thing for me was the scene right before Stevie Weeks gets hit at center ice by ‘Tree’ during the ‘Saturday Game.’ Right before that, Holt the goalie stops the puck and gives it to Connor Banks behind the net. I did a quick toe-drag on the guy coming at me, and Jay Roach runs out on the ice and yells “Stop! Stop! Stop! Travis, that was f—ing awesome!” The next day, we had all the cameras set up in that corner for me to do that move again. When I did it the day before, I did it so much better. And the day that we filmed that shot, it was like minus-30 in Canmore, and we sat all day, waiting for them to set up the cameras and lights in that corner. When it came time to shoot, my hands were so cold and I didn’t pull it off quite as well as I did the day before, but it was cool to see that they still put it in the film.
Deming: The trick to shooting really good hockey is to get on the ice and move the camera on the ice with the players. As you start to learn how teams play together, what the plays are, what the teamwork is, you can sort of build up like you would in any sport.
Turner: I would look at the video monitor (to watch the replay of a filmed take) and think, as a hockey player, that it was good, but it could be better. But people outside of hockey would say that it looked really great.
Morrison: Filming is hurry up and wait. One day, we were filming the Mystery team playing against each other on the pond. So, we get up at 5 a.m. to go to hair and makeup. I needed to put a wig on, because ‘Tinker’ had sort of a mullet. I’d got made up, put on my gear, got something to eat, and then went back to my dressing room. We watched three movies, back to back to back, before we got called in. They’d get us up at 5 a.m. but didn’t call us to the set until 1 o’clock.
Stephenson: When we went on to shooting, I learned about the film industry, what they do, and how short the scenes are by the time they edit it all. There are parts that I thought for sure would be in the movie but weren’t. There were airplanes constantly flying overhead, and we’d have to stop filming. If it was a cloudy day, and we filmed the previous day with blue skies, we’d have to wait it out and work on a different scene.
In the film, the Rangers were forced to play the exhibition game against Mystery. In real life, Disney tried to get the real Rangers to make a cameo appearance.
Turner: It was a high-profile movie. Disney committed a bunch of money to it. The producers tried really hard to orchestrate where if the Rangers were scheduled to play nearby, they’d try and get them in that helicopter scene, where the Rangers players come to Mystery. They wanted to film that scene with the whole Rangers team. There was a real push to do that, but it wasn’t something they could work out schedule-wise. They may have entertained the notion of having a couple of Rangers do on-ice cameos, but once again, it was mid-season, and no matter what Disney wanted, it just wasn’t possible.
Deming: The scene where the Rangers arrive in Mystery on a helicopter was the coldest night of my life. We were shooting at night and it was 25 degrees below zero. There was an 18-mile-per-hour wind. And you had the prop wash from the helicopter every time it would take off and land. The only thing exposed were my eyes, because everything else had to be covered, or I’d get frostbite. The actors would be on the set for 10 minutes, then they’d run inside to warm up. The extras and crew had to tough it out. I grew up in the Midwest and was a skier, so I was used to cold weather. But I had been living in Southern California for a long time, so I didn’t have my winter game on. It was shocking.
Morrison: One day, they sat us on the bench, outside, on the pond. It had to be minus-30 or minus-40 with the wind chill. We’re all just wearing regular hockey gear. You can’t put extra stuff on underneath, because it would show up in the film. The directors were arguing about what plays they wanted us to do. For 15 or 20 minutes, they let us sit there, outside, minus-40, in just hockey gear. Finally, we’re told to do a complex play. We’re frozen. I can’t even feel my hands or feet. Well, someone misses the pass, and the director gets livid at us, that we can’t perform these plays. He’s American and has no idea what it’s like to play outdoor hockey. I remember him getting mad at us for not being able to perform. But they had us sit out there for 20 minutes when it was minus-40.
We’re frozen. I can’t even feel my hands or feet. Someone misses the pass, and the director gets livid at us.– Darren Morrison
Turner: At that time, you didn’t have a whole lot of CGI. It was more of the idea of getting it right. There was a little bit of pressure to do the things you needed to do. We had these rehearsed plays and choreography on how things had to happen, and how the hits had to happen. Just trying to make it look real and have the pace and intensity of hockey action is really tough to pull off.
Over the course of filming, the temperature climbed from freezing cold to warm enough to melt the ice, which is a problem when making a hockey movie. So the story of a team that plays shinny on a frozen pond would actually play its final game on an artificial surface.
Stephenson: I remember it being unseasonably warm by the time we got into the end of February and March.
Karen Elise Baldwin: It was so cold for so long, and we saved filming the hockey until the end, because we wanted the guys to be as good as they could be so that they would have time to skate together and practise together. And then a chinook came through and the ice melted. We had to scramble to get an artificial ice surface so that we could do the hockey sequences.
Howard Baldwin: Dan Craig, who does the ice for the NHL, is a genius. He came to Canmore and saved our you-know-what. He was just great.
Deming: We had piped the ice to keep it frozen. It turned out to be a really good decision. There were times when it was getting a little soupy on the ice, so we were constantly out there with a squeegee, and hoping that it would stay overcast and not get sunny. We were getting into late March and April, so that can happen.
Getting the real New York Rangers to appear in Mystery, Alaska was impossible – but getting the “fake” Rangers to stick around was also hard. Many of the players cast as Rangers couldn’t stay for long, which was another problem when filming the climactic Mystery-vs.-Rangers game. Even Rangers captain Jackson, who scores two goals in the movie, was played by two different men.
Morrison: At the end, Brad was coming to us and asking if we knew any good players that could be Rangers players. We got some more ex-Dinos players out there, like Dave Lovsin and Jim Wheatcroft.
Wheatcroft: Brad asked me to be in the movie before filming started, but I was an assistant coach with the Jr. A Canmore Eagles and couldn’t commit. After the team got knocked out of the playoffs, the guy who was originally cast as the captain of the Rangers ended up leaving the film. That’s the problem with real hockey players: they’re not actors, and they don’t care if they leave midway through filming. It drove the hockey co-ordinator (Craig Yeaton) nuts. I got a call at 9 o’clock at night from Brad, who asked me to come out because I looked like the guy they had already shot scenes with. The very next morning, 12 hours later, I was going down the ice for the breakaway goal, with sleds that filmed on-ice. It was surreal.
Morrison: These movies think that they’ll pick up skilled players who will just hang around whenever the movie needs them. But really, players would come in and play Rangers for a week or so but then had to get back to their real jobs.
Dan Craig does the ice for the NHL. He cam to Canmore and saved our you-know-what
– Howard Baldwin
Wheatcroft: They changed the laces in my skates and gave me a haircut, so I looked like the first guy who played Jackson. I don’t think a lot of people picked up on that it was two different actors. On my character, the number on the back was 11, which was Mark Messier’s number, but they wanted my jersey half-tucked in, like Wayne Gretzky. The name on the back, Jackson, is the name of the director’s son.
Turner: Some Rangers guys had limited action, and some couldn’t commit to the whole time. Because of the nature of filming, you could just rotate through a constant stream of hockey-playing guys that looked like Rangers. Some of them were there the whole time, and some came in for just a few weeks.
During the big game, intermission commentary is provided by real-life hockey broadcaster Jim Fox and the outspoken Donnie Shulzhoffer, played by comedian (and Austin Powers star) Mike Myers.
Jim Fox (Studio analyst): Mike Myers’ lines were ad-libbed on the spot. We did a lot of different takes, and he went in a lot of different directions. It was funny at the time. I was trying to not laugh out loud. Everyone behind the camera was laughing, too, because Mike was so fast and funny, so animated.
Wheatcroft: Travis Stephenson and I spent literally six or seven hours taking draws different ways. There were some days that were 14 to 16 hours on the set, because they had to wrap the movie up. The days were long, because it was spring, and we put in long hours, which was great. You work over eight hours, it becomes time-and-a-half. And when you hit 12 hours, it’s double-time-and-a-half. It really added up.
Stephenson: The first goal that Stevie Weeks scores against the Rangers, Biebe gets control of the puck behind the net, then passes to me in the corner. I had to stop the puck and pass it to Weeks for a breakaway. I was determined to make it a one-timer pass, not to stop the puck and then pass it. I finally nailed it, but it took about six or seven takes.
Fox: Mike Myers and I shot our scenes in one day, at Culver City on a sound stage. One thing I realized right away is that they all eat very well. (laughs) There were chefs making food. Just talk about first class. I had a stand-in, so I didn’t have to sit in my spot when they were setting up lights. I had my own dressing room. It was big-time, for me anyway.
Wheatcroft: One thing that I had to remember is that I was playing against actors. I flipped the puck in, and it went by Scott Grimes, who played ‘Birdie’ Burns. And he turned and yelled, “Jeez! That was close!” It wasn’t close to his face, and his overreaction was kind of funny. But then I thought, yeah, I really don’t want to split a guy like that for stitches, and then he’d have a scar in every movie that he’s in.
But then I thought, yeah, I don’t want to split him for stitches, then he’d have a scar in every movie he’s in
Deming: The sequence I’m most fond of is in the big game near the end of the film, when the Mystery team stages a comeback. The play starts behind their own net, and two players skate behind the net, and Biebe passes the puck up the ice. We had some dolly shots from the side of the ice and some sled shots behind those skaters. The actors were weaving through the other team, and we were able to follow them, which was sort of a breakaway situation. We were constantly mixing the film language of television, essentially, a game broadcast, with people in the stands and out on the ice in the middle of the action.
Stephenson: In the final scene of the game, Connor Banks shoots the puck and it hits the crossbar, flutters up, and then the goalie catches it. They had me take that shot. An assistant director and a cameraman bet a six-pack of beer on how many times it would take me to hit the crossbar and make the puck do that. Well, I couldn’t do it. I’d hit the crossbar, and the puck would go down. I shot it one time and the puck went over the crossbar and broke the glass behind the net. I couldn’t make the puck hit the crossbar and then go straight in the air and tumble end over end like you see in the final scene of the game. Finally, they brought in a puck-shooting machine to replace me, because I couldn’t make the puck do exactly what they wanted.
Mystery, Alaska was released in theaters Oct. 1, 1999. Disney, unsure if it was a comedy, a drama, a sports movie or all of the above, didn’t know how to market the film, which took in $8.9 million at the box office against its $28-million budget. Perhaps also stifling its chances was the abundance of bad language, which gave the film an R rating instead of the more audience-friendly PG-13 rating. But like the fictional team it portrayed, Mystery, Alaska didn’t have to win the game to be a winner. Fans had a new hockey movie to enjoy, one that didn’t need a “2” or “3” in its title and rehash old stories.
Karen Elise Baldwin: The opening was fun. It was in New York. Russell was there, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was there. Everyone loved the movie.
Melrose: I love everything David E. Kelley does, all his movies and shows. I enjoyed the movie. It was fun but not at the point of making fun of the NHL. And Russell Crowe was the hottest actor in Hollywood when it came out.
Fox: Even though Mystery, Alaska didn’t do well with most critics, I thought that the dressing-room scenes were as realistic as any sports movie. They were a bit crude due to language and subject matter, but I thought those scenes were very realistic.
Turner: Mystery, Alaska was a pretty amazing experience for everyone who was involved in it. It’s the first thing that I worked on after the end of my hockey career. I met a whole slew of good people and decided to stay in the film industry. I was the hockey co-ordinator for several other films, like Slap Shot 2, Chicks with Sticks and Legend No. 17, a Russian film about Valeri Kharlamov.
Morrison: When filming was over, Disney auctioned off the buildings. I walk by the old set all the time. It’s a dog park now.
Howard Baldwin: In fairness, (former Los Angeles Kings owner) Bruce McNall held an outdoor exhibition game back in 1991. But the NHL never picked up on the idea of an annual outdoor game until we did Mystery, Alaska. They talk like they invented the idea.
Karen Elise Baldwin: What do they say? Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.
Deming: It was a nice film about people who are passionate about a sport, about hockey, and how that can permeate their life and their family’s life. It was definitely written by people who played hockey.
Howard Baldwin: The film is really about playing for the love of the game. For many small towns in winter climates, hockey is the be-all, end-all for nine months of the year. It is a social event, not just for young people, but for older people that play and watch the game. Mystery, Alaska captures the spirit of the game and the passion that people have for it.