There is something about hockey that keeps drawing California-based Rob Lowe back here to freeze in arenas that smell of stale popcorn and sweat.
Seated in the back of a black SUV, parked on a leafy street in Toronto's High Park last fall, the 47-year-old actor (who looks a decade younger than his years) explains it's his second time in 25 years that he's travelled to Toronto to make a movie dedicated to hockey, a sport he calls "the religion of Canada."
"I'm a surfer, first, and I can skate half-decently," says Lowe, who first made the feel-good sports movie Youngblood in 1986 and has returned to film 2011's Breakaway, a Bollywood-infused drama/comedy that debuted earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"But I love hockey. It's what brings people together and it's how Canadians, in particular, find their common bond. In this movie, hockey is the metaphor – and it really could be any sport – for how a young team of second-generation Sikh-Canadians try to find their Canadian identity. The theme of assimilation is what attracted me to this role."
Lowe squeezed the filming of Breakaway into a schedule that was already jam-packed with his TV day jobs, as a regular on Amy Poehler's Parks and Recreation, and the raunchy drama Californication.
"I've never seen a movie like this, ever. We live in a world where movies are more derivative each year, and this is a film that just wants to make you feel good. Period."
In Youngblood, which Lowe made when he was in his early 20s, he played the hotshot player who joined the Hamilton Mustangs and soon got the wake-up call that, to survive in the minor leagues, he had to learn (from his team mentor, played by Patrick Swayze) that he'd better know how to fight.
Now Lowe has grown up – and, fittingly, so has his hockey role in Breakaway. Sporting a frayed Mustangs T-shirt ("This is my little nod to my first film for those who care"), Lowe says he jumped at the chance to play Dan Winters, a once-promising NHL prospect whose raging ego cost him his professional sports career. When audiences meet the cynical, down-on-his-luck Winters in Breakaway, he's managing a local arena in the suburbs, where a fledgling team of really bad Sikh-Canadian hockey players are trying to be taken seriously.
Winters takes on the daunting position of coach of the Speedy Singhs (yes, everyone on the team has the last name Singh), who are determined to try to wrest the championship from the reigning local franchise, the Hammerheads, who don't think Speedy Singhs belong in their beloved game.
"I wanted a crack at the iconic coach part, where he gets to rally the troops," says Lowe, who wrote the team-rousing speech that he delivers just before the fate-changing championship game. "I'm really proud of that part of the film."
Breakaway is a first-time script by newcomer actor Vinay Virmani, who also stars in the film, alongside love interest Camilla Belle, Brampton-born comedian Russell Peters, as well as cameos from Toronto's hip-hop artist Drake and Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar. The film is a weird mix of drama, comedy and a love story – with a breakout musical number on skates, as well as a wedding (where Peters shows up at the temple on an elephant) and specially designed hockey helmets to accommodate the traditional Sikh turban.
During the Toronto International Film Festival, Peters says Virmani told him that his inspiration for the Breakaway script came after watching the stand-up comic perform and crack a joke about an all-Indian hockey team – the Toronto Maple Sikhs – where "Singh passes to Singh, and Singh shoots on Singh," laughs Peters, who plays a self-important businessman who has nothing but disdain for the national game.
At first he turned down the part, Peters admits. "I just don't like any team sports," says the comic, who is being offered more and more film parts, including Garry Marshall's upcoming ensemble comedy New Year's Eve, with a cast including Halle Berry, Jessica Biel and Ashton Kutcher.
But in the end he capitulated. "This movie is really just about following your dreams. My family was pretty well assimilated into the community when I was growing up in Brampton," he says. "But I could still relate to the film's themes of assimilation and trying to fit in. We had to try hard to make people realize that we were, in fact, assimilated. That was a harder sell."
Lowe, too, says he knew he was taking something of a risk by signing on to a film with a first-time writer. But Breakaway, directed by Robert Lieberman ( D3: The Mighty Ducks) was a movie with heart, he says. And that was the kicker that had him flying red-eyes from the sets of Parks and Rec and Californication to show up in Toronto, shoot for a day, and then fly back to Los Angeles to begin filming the TV shows the next morning.
"I thought it would be fun to bookend my hockey oeuvre," he adds, chuckling.
Breakaway opens in theatres on Friday, Sept. 30.