TORONTO – In the 40 years since “Face Off” hit Canadian movie theatres, its tale of a hotshot hockey player who falls in love with a hippie folk singer faded into obscurity.
Along with it, went little-seen movie cameos of NHL greats Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, George Armstrong, Derek Sanderson and a young Darryl Sittler.
Hockey fan and video distributor Jonathan Gross says he spent years tracking down a suitable print of the movie to restore it for a 40th anniversary DVD/Blu-ray release this month.
“There’s no other hockey movie where there’s real action and there are actual NHL players acting,” says Gross, who recalls seeing the love story when it premiered in Toronto on Nov. 12, 1971.
“If you’re a Leaf fan, this is must-see viewing. This takes you back to (the defunct Maple Leaf) Gardens, shots of places that don’t exist anymore.”
Other featured teams include the New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks, L.A. Kings, Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers.
The story centres on cocky Maple Leaf rookie Billy Duke, played by acting veteran Art Hindle (“Paradise Falls,” “North of 60,” “E.N.G”).
As his career soars, Billy falls hard for rocker Sherri Lee Nelson (Trudy Young), who finds it difficult to stomach the violent world of hockey.
Hindle says he learned to skate in just two months in order to take the role, which put him in scrimmages that were staged at Maple Leaf Gardens. That material was later spliced in with actual game footage.
“We actually dropped the puck and for about five minutes we’d just skate up and down the ice and I’d have to make the plays and I’d have to keep up with the Blackhawks or the Bruins or the Rangers or whoever we were duplicating game footage with,” says Hindle, who notes he was often uneasy on the blades and spent much of the time trying not to topple.
“And the camera was on-ice as well, capturing me struggling this way and struggling that way.”
Gross says the biggest challenge with the DVD release was getting permission from the NHL. Game footage in the film had been cleared for theatrical use decades ago but it had not been cleared for a home entertainment release.
“It was a hurdle,” he admits, adding that part of the deal meant limiting the run to 10,000 copies of the film. “Because I have a slight relationship with the NHL they came on board.”
“They understood the importance of the film.”
The other challenge was bringing a damaged 35-millimetre print up to HD quality. Gross says he spent $10,000 in a bid to clean up the footage.
“It still looks a little grindhouse in places, but we had to go in frame by frame and clean it up,” he admits.
“We fixed up the sound as best we could.”
Hindle says Leaf all-star Jim McKenny served as his double, making the transitions between staged and real footage smoother, and making the actor look like he actually belonged on the ice.
Meanwhile, Young notes that the romance in the film was also tinged with real-life—the couple fell in love during the shoot and went on to have a relationship for several years.
She and Hindle laugh while recalling their red carpet premiere, in which their limo broke down on the way to the theatre and had them pushing the vehicle up to the waiting media.
“We got interviewed by so many people that by the time we got in there there were no seats left,” says Hindle.
“We had to seat in the balcony at the back wall. But we just necked through the whole thing.”
“Face Off” was billed as one of Canada’s first big-budget stabs at widespread commercial fare when it hit theatres, says Gross.
“Forty years ago there wasn’t much of that in Canada. This was before ‘Wedding in White,’ just after ‘Goin’ Down the Road,’ and those were not commercial films,” he notes.
“This was a glossy—or as glossy as they can make back then—film. The budget was reportedly $1 million and because (producer John Bassett’s) father owned a piece of the Leafs they shot all this stuff for nothing at the Gardens. You couldn’t make a movie like this again.”
“For guys our age there’s a lot of nostalgia. This is kind of the way things used to be.”
“Face Off” will have a special screening Thursday in the Hockey Hall of Fame with a silent auction benefiting www.stopconcussions.com.
It is set for release on DVD and Blu-ray on Nov. 15.