Old-time hockey. Black and white TV footage. Tinkly piano music. No advertising on the boards. It's Gordie Howe playing for the NHL's Detroit Red Wings. Back in the day.
That's the opening of Mr. Hockey (Sunday, CBC, 8 p.m.), a TV movie about Howe, specifically his post-Red Wings comeback in the World Hockey Association league, playing with his sons Marty and Mark.
We approach this type of TV movie with some trepidation. Well, I do anyway. The abominable two CBC movies about Don Cherry set a new low in hockey drama – groan-inducing, obvious, sanitized and trite. There is plenty of sentimentality in Mr. Hockey (no surprise it will air in the United States on the Hallmark Channel next week), but it's a well-told, engrossing movie that has fine performances. The tropes of hockey movies are there, but there's wit, too, and an occasional sharp edge.
Mr. Hockey (directed by Andy Mikita and written by Malcolm MacRury) has the benefit of Michael Shanks (from Saving Hope) as Howe, and he plays the role with gusto, capturing Howe's strength of mind, flinty humour and vast determination with aplomb. It's a tough role, playing an iconic, living figure and carrying the movie. It also has a bonus in Kathleen Robertson (Boss) as Colleen, Howe's wife. Robertson is a fine actor, and does fierceness well. Here, she's excellent as the woman who made sure that Gordie and the boys were getting what they deserved in rewards and acclaim when they became the WHA's star attraction.
Things start with Howe's jersey being retired by the Red Wings. There's a lot of grand talk about his contribution to the team. He gets a backroom job that bores him but, for a time, he's happy to nurture his sons.
Colleen is annoyed that the boys can't turn pro until they're 20. There's talk about this WHA league. Some people say it's a crock and, in one of the typical themes of hockey movies, roly-poly older men chomp on cigars and rant about the players being ungrateful nobodies. Gordie, being Gordie, isn't impressed. He takes off for Houston with the family and plans to play again with his boys as teammates.
The meat in the movie is in the dynamic between Gordie, Colleen and the boys. The boys worry their father is too old for the game and he'll get hurt. He worries that the boys are too young for the fame and money. Daughter Cathy (a scene-stealing Emma Grabinsky) is left to figure out her own path. There is a cute scene in which Cathy brings home a young fella. "Be inside in five minutes or the young man gets a date with the elbows," Howe barks. The boyfriend concludes that Gordie Howe is kinda like Clint Eastwood.
It's not that Mr. Hockey is any sort of masterpiece. Few attempts at dramatizing the game's great stories succeed. Exceptions were Canada Russia '72 (in which Malcolm MacRury was also involved) and, back in 1993, the Atom Egoyan-directed Gross Misconduct: The Life of Brian Spencer. There was also Michael McGowan's wonderfully eccentric Score: A Hockey Musical, which examined the game's grip on the Canadian soul.
Mr. Hockey is none of those, but it's pleasant, intelligent drama and arrives when the hockey playoffs consume the country.
Also airing this weekend
The Good Wife (Sunday, CBS, 9 p.m.) reaches its season finale, and New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg guest-stars as himself. Apparently the plot does not involve the rights and wrongs of consuming giant Slurpee drinks.
About Face (Sunday, CBC NN, 10 p.m., on The Passionate Eye) is a repeat, but worth noting if you missed it. This good HBO doc by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders features interviews with many models, including Carmen Dell'Orefice, Jerry Hall and Isabella Rossellini. They talk about their lives , how the industry has changed and whether it's good to deny aging. Most decide it isn't.
All times ET. Check local listings.