Filming underway on CBC hockey drama

May 17, 2005

FREDERICTON -- David Miller figures he is sitting on a hat trick of good luck for the first time in his young career. He wants to pinch himself. And anyone with the barest understanding of Canada's sporting history could understand why.

The rangy, mop-haired actor has landed his first big role. It just happens to be playing his boyhood idol, the hockey star Paul Henderson. To ice the cake, or perhaps that should be the rink, the Miramichi, N.B., native gets to shoot Canada Russia 72 in nearby Fredericton, what is essentially his childhood backyard.

Oh, yes. There is one more thing: Miller gets to re-enact the goal heard from Yarmouth to Yellowknife, arguably the most dramatic and significant hockey goal scored in Canada's history of the game. Miller's most anticipated scene was Henderson's goal at 19:26 in the final period that lifted Canada over the Russians 6-5 in the deciding game of the epic Summit Series tournament in Moscow.

"It's not that hard of a goal," said the 29-year-old, who has watched it dozens of times. "He falls down, comes in front of the net, slaps at it, slaps at it again and it goes in. It's a garbage goal. Even he calls it a garbage goal.

"But it's a really big goal."

Canada Russia 72, a four-hour miniseries being produced for CBC Television by Dream Street Pictures Inc., of Moncton, and Summit Films Inc., of Halifax, the latter best known for its hit Showcase series Trailer Park Boys, will be broadcast over two nights, in early 2006.

The script, by Trailer Park Boys' producer and writer Barrie Dunn, will attempt to capture the remarkable comeback on the ice that captivated Canadians for eight games that September, but it will also dig deep into the off-ice drama.

The series was shot over 39 days in New Brunswick, the bulk of it in Fredericton at the Aitken Centre at the University of New Brunswick, with a few days in Saint John, with Harbour Station doubling as the Vancouver Coliseum.

The series will open at Game 4, a 5-3 loss in Vancouver that saw Team Canada booed off the ice and Phil Esposito's televised criticism of the fans. Canada lost the following game, but stormed back with three consecutive victories.

Anyone expecting a Canadian version of Miracle, Disney's slick and syrupy $60-million tale of the U.S. hockey team's gold-medal victory over the Soviets at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980, will be disappointed.

"It is a hockey movie," Dream Street producer Tim Hogan said. "But far more than that, it is the story of what happened behind the scenes. It is based on conversations and conjecture and it's going to blow people away."

Shot with $7.7-million in a documentary style with two hand-held cameras by director T.W. Peacocke (Eleventh Hour, Blue Murder), the series will have a neat, grainy news-footage look.

Hogan and his partner, producer Rick LeGuerrier, know that as a piece of this country's history, Canada Russia 72 will be held to the highest of standards.

"We're going to be judged by this project," Hogan said. "If this thing bombs, we're going to wear it for years. There's a reason why it took 15 or 20 years to get this thing made. A lot of people were afraid of it. It's a daunting task."

But everyone, from local props master Gary Ferguson, to Halifax-based actor Mark Owen, who plays assistant coach John Ferguson, was thrilled to be a part of its making.

Chisholm Pothier, Premier Bernard Lord's spokesman, has a line as a radio reporter. UNB media-relations director Brad Janes is handling the more challenging skating duties for actor David Berni, who plays Phil Esposito.

On the set a few weeks ago, as they filmed scenes from the climatic eighth game, with the Aitken Centre done up to stand in for the old Russian Ice Palace, Lord slipped out of the office for an hour to see the set. Back then, he skipped school to watch the real thing.

"My mother was home, so she must have been okay with it," the Premier said. "I remember when Canada scored the tying goal -- the whole house went nuts. I knew it was something special."

Owen, who as Ferguson is playing one of the toughest guys to ever suit up in the National Hockey League, remembers watching it with his Grade 2 class. He went on to play university and Senior A hockey, and feels a kinship with his character. He was a tough guy, too.

"But I never fought off the ice, and Ferguson didn't either," Owen said. "With this, I feel like my stars had aligned as an actor. I've been waiting my whole life for this role."

With jet-black hair, bushy sideburns and plenty of polyester, including the white leisure suit Fergie donned at the Montreal Forum -- he seems to have nailed the assistant coach.

"That was so hard about casting this movie," he said. "They were looking for someone with acting ability and hockey ability and a physical resemblance. Oh my god, how often do you find all that?"

But they did. Actor Gabe Hogan is the spitting image of Ken Dryden. John Breger makes a fine Bobby Clarke. Marc Savard plays his father, Serge.

Miller consulted Henderson thoroughly on how he dressed, his superstition of putting his left skate on first, that he talked to himself in the locker room before games, what books he was reading, and to what music he was listening.

But not everyone decided to probe the players personally for their roles. Actor Booth Savage, who plays bench boss Harry Sinden, read the coach's book, researched him on the Internet and watched a DVD of the series, but decided not to involve Sinden personally. Savage has vivid memories of the series and in particular, Game 8.

"I remember being pretty excited," he said. "I remember thinking, 'We can't lose this, we can't lose this.' It meant a lot to me at the time. It's going to be interesting to see if people who weren't alive when it happened watch this."

Everyone involved agreed that they have never been a part of a film project that was so much fun. Props master Ferguson learned to skate during the shoot. The crew plays pickup hockey games during their breaks. At lunch, the Russian and Canadian actors break off naturally to eat together, just like a real sports team would, without even thinking about it.

"I've never been on a set like this in my life," Savage said. "It's hockey, it's all guys. It's a fun, emotional atmosphere. There does seem to be something special about this."

And everyone is a little nervous about striking the right tone. Canadians take their hockey pretty personally, and the retelling, even of a tournament long in the history books, will be held closely to the light.

"Every now and again it hits you that you hope you really nail it," Miller said. "The potential is for everybody in the country to be watching this movie. You want to do it right. You want to do it justice.

"It's a big thing to act as someone who is still alive, but to act as someone who did something so big is enormous. People are going to tear apart every little detail. People are either going to love it, or hate it. I hope we get it right."