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Five years ago, I had what could only be called an epic experience working on the CBC made for television movie Mr. Hockey, which looked at the year Gordie Howe decided to come out of retirement and play alongside his two eldest sons Marty and Mark in 1973. At the time, he was 44 years old, and it was known as one of the biggest comebacks in professional hockey.
Being someone originally from Saskatchewan, I was more than slightly thrilled to be a part of this biographical project. Playing the title role in the film was Michael Shanks, who at the time was known more for his work in the long-running science fiction series Stargate: SG1 as the rather soft-spoken Dr. Daniel Jackson. One might mistakenly think that because Mr. Shanks played the part of a bookworm and academic, his skills of playing one of the toughest, and most unique, hockey players to ever lace up the skates in professional hockey would be difficult for him.
Being present for most of the shooting in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, where all of the on-ice scenes were shot, I got to witness firsthand how Mr. Shanks is not only a very accomplished actor (he had Gordie's voice down so perfectly, it was astounding!) but also a very good hockey player.
Now, one might argue the actor himself has never played pro hockey. For certain things with the role, however, one would never guess this to be so. In fact, he does play a lot of recreational hockey, and for the role, did develop some of the more...unique skills that Mr. Hockey himself had.
Such as being totally ambidextrous when it came to stickhandling. Obviously, a skill that is hardly ever even used in this day and age, it was something that Gordie Howe did, that was one of his trademark moves (other than of course the "Gordie Howe hat trick—that being a goal, an assist, and a fight!). And also something that Mr. Shanks was able to do on his own, on camera, in the film itself!
That isn't to say that his co-stars, Dylan Playfair and Andrew Herr, who played the roles of Marty and Mark Howe respectfully, were any slouches on the ice. In fact, everyone who was on the ice were, for the most part, people who had played hockey at one time or another. Many of the members of the University of Manitoba Bison Men's hockey team were out on the ice, and certainly the realism of many of the on-ice scenes weren't exactly things that anyone was unfamiliar with, nor would they be easy to fake at all.
Everyone could skate extremely well. I am also certain that everyone playing the role of a hockey player on any of the teams depicted in the film had, at one time or another, played in a hockey game which meant the world to them, whether it was for a national title or just plain pride in their community team.
But being the part of a story such as this—where someone who had retired from hockey decided to make a professional comeback alongside his adult sons—was an experience I shall never soon forget. Certainly, I played the role of the little accordion playing member of Griff's Army by using the knowledge and respect that many fans in 1973 would have had for him.
The accordion was my own. It was one I had bought a few months earlier from a secondhand store in Winnipeg, as it looked useful somehow. Imagine my surprise when that little instrument became something the casting director told me to bring along to the set!
The night before we went in to shoot (as is the general rule with being a background performer, you are given perhaps 12-20 hours notice before actually showing up on set!), I worked on creating unique straps for my squawky little instrument. I created the lettering for HOWE 9, done in the Detroit Red Wing colors as an homage to his former team, stitched to the front straps on my accordion. Even Mr. Shanks gave a nod of approval when he saw that, and the costume and props department was pretty thrilled as well.
To be a part of something like that, to be able to play a role which I had no difficulty playing ("Me, a hockey fan? Who'da thunk that?!"), AND to be in a film about—a hockey legend no less—from my home province of Saskatchewan, was beyond being a thrill. It was an honour, and an experience which I will always carry with me, both as an actor and a sports journalist.