DVD Review: Trying to skate past the pain

By Garth Paulson

As anyone who has played amateur hockey beyond the age of 12 knows, the sport is rife with all sorts of dirty players, goons and plain assholes.

This problem is compounded in the lower ranking leagues where anyone with a remote degree of skill is sucked up to play with the more competitive kids, leaving only the aforementioned assholes and the hopelessly uncoordinated to slug it out.

Any idealistic notions about the love of the game are quickly discarded in these bottom-of-the-barrel leagues. The kids know they don’t have the skills or the smarts to go anywhere so they frantically grasp at the last remaining option for realizing their hockey dreams– brutality. In these contests the focus is not on the scoreboard, but on how many people you can scare, bodies you can send flying and punches you can land.

Most people eventually realize the futility of their actions and retire to the beer leagues, but some continue to follow their impossible dreams. David Bajurny and Jason Gileno’s The Chiefs is the story of these few refusing to believe the dream is over.

Following the Laval Chiefs through a season in the LHSPQ, a Quebec semi-pro league, the documentary is an occasionally humorous, often disturbing and ultimately depressing film chronicling the dirty underside of hockey. In the LHSPQ, fights are more common than goals, bench-clearing brawls occur with startling frequency and acts of violence like the recent Marty McSorley and Todd Bertuzzi incidents happen nearly every game. The league is about as far away from the NHL as you can get but still attracts a fanatical fan base, giving players the hope of one day making it big.

It is this undying stubbornness which causes these players to continuously put themselves in considerable danger and makes watching the film so unsettling. At the beginning of The Chiefs the players list all the injuries they’ve received playing for the team, struggling to remember how many times their noses have been broken or how many stitches have been sown into their flesh. Soon thereafter, the crew takes the audience on a trip through several of the players’ apartment, haphazardly built under the stadium’s bleachers, complete with multiple holes in the walls and a padlock on the door.

The film continues on this hopeless note throughout, demonstrating time and again how far down the ladder the LHSPQ really is. Even more depressing is watching the players justify continuing to play and their actions when they do. Mike Henderson, the team’s leader, explains how he doesn’t enjoy fighting, because he doesn’t want his daughter seeing it. In the film’s final moments we learn he was suspended for the entirety of a season for fighting in the stands. Mike Bajurny complains throughout the playoffs about being benched and threatens to leave the team because he feels the coaches only see him as a goon. Later, he accepts an offer to return the following year, because he has nowhere else to go. Tim Leveque maintains delusions about a future with the Chicago Blackhawks’ farm team and leaves the Chiefs to pursue those delusions, only to return to Laval to wash dishes.

Though these tales of quiet desperation and refusal to move on do make The Chiefs difficult to watch, for the most part the film is well done. The filmmakers do an excellent job capturing the gloom surrounding the Chiefs, while injecting some much needed humour into the film at key times.

The Chiefs succeeds in its unmasking of our idealization of sport. This is not the glamorous lifestyle of Sergei Fedorov. This is not a celebration of the beauty of hockey. This is a story about the worst aspects of the sport and the unfortunate few with no choice left but to perpetuate them.