New doc Junior explores the cutthroat world of junior hockey in Canada
One of the first things you’ll notice about Junior, the recent NFB doc about junior hockey, is that there are absolutely no shots of hockey. In fact, there is little of the overly romantic cinematic tradition normally found in films dedicated to our national sport.
In Junior, hockey is big business.
Filmed in the direct cinema tradition, Junior, by Isabelle Lavigne and Stéphane Thibault, presents a behind-the-scenes portrait of a year in the life of a junior hockey team from Northern Quebec – the Baie-Comeau Drakkar. There are no voiceovers, no fancy shots from games, no interviews – only a glimpse into the (sometimes dark) inner workings of the junior feeder system that supplies the biggest hockey brand of them all, the NHL.
In North America, the players in the NHL boil up directly from the juniors, whose ranks are filled with 16-year-old hopefuls who’ll do just about anything to make the big leagues. (Of course, the reality is that the vast majority of them won’t ever get there – they are more likely to toil away in European leagues or recount their glory days in local beer leagues.) For the kids playing for the Baie-Comeau team, they live and breathe hockey – on many occasions literally sacrificing their childhoods, educations and often families, hometowns and personal priorities for their one shot at the big show. They also learn how to shape up or ship out, pledge allegiance and wear a tie.
While the mainstream media obsess over pro men’s sport – the latest stats, trades, hot pro players and scandals of the NHL – little critical or credible journalism tackles the very intricate and complex world that supports it. Which is partly why Junior is so utterly fascinating. Despite a collective passion for the sport, the darker side of hockey is something we rarely care to look at.
Junior follows the lives of players, managers, trainers, shareholders, agents and recruiters on the Drakkar team over one season as they experience highs and, as was the case this particular year, mostly lows. The camera wanders pretty much wherever it wants – capturing player-coach meetings, scouting reports, the nasty politics behind trades in the backrooms of the league, lights out at hotel rooms, teen girl fans, even the coach trash-talking in the dressing room – and ultimately succeeds in showing some of the more sinister and cutthroat elements of the business of hockey today. It isn’t always a pretty picture.
In many ways, while the detached direct camera can be viewed as a fitting approach to a game that on so many levels has come to treat our young, especially young boys, like cattle (albeit some soon-to-be-rich cattle kings), something does seem amiss with Junior‘s portrayal of the team. At the midway point, the mechanical shots from the inside become less interesting than the characters and their struggles, which we seem to know little about.
One of the strongest scenes in the film reveals a star player, severely injured and depressed, as he begins to see his dream of making the pros slip away. Pressure from coaches and trainers in a private meeting sees him crumble under pressure and begin to cry. But lost on everyone around him in the moment (he’s flanked on all sides by male mentors and guides who have no idea how to comfort him) is a rather simple plea: "I used to have fun playing hockey. I just want to have fun again… "
Despite the fact that directors Lavigne and Thibault clearly have considerable access here, they still somehow manage to remain surprisingly distanced from their subjects. We never follow up with this star player, nor when another player, an affable East Coast kid, is sacrificed in a trade-gone-awry and forced to choose between travelling on a bus that very night to play with his new team further north in Quebec or quit hockey to study and be closer to his family. In these moments, the camera never lingers long or hard enough, nor does it follow through with the drama: What does the kid decide? Where does he go? What happens to him? And as a result, the film never fully allows us to empathize with the players’ wider realities.
Whether this is because of the insular nature of the game itself, the stunted emotional world of hockey or a reflection of the cinematic style chosen, it matters little in the end. Junior manages to reflect something sinister about our national sport for boys today, but in the process it has detached us from the players, their emotions and feelings, their passions and struggles. And isn’t that the stuff that makes for a good hockey story?