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Jared Abrahamson beams with confidence and casts a piercing gaze, perhaps honed during his days as an MMA fighter.
The son of a cattle farmer, contractor and “legendary miner”, Abrahamson even spent time in a mine himself while saving up to attend acting school in Vancouver.
Those days are behind him.
Now here he is at The Toronto International Film Festival, starring in Hello Destroyer, the story of a junior hockey tough guy playing for the fictional Prince George Warriors who unravels after delivering a questionable bodycheck which severely injures an opponent and results in him being suspended indefinitely by the team.
Abrahamson’s performance gives credence to the notion that the 28-year-old actor might just be the biggest thing to come out of Flin Flon MB., since Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Bob Clarke, the legendary former Philadelphia Flyers captain who led the team to their only two Stanley Cup championships in the mid-70’s.
“I ride for Flin Flon 100 percent, one of my goals getting into this business was to get (the town) back on the map like Bobby did it, this is just a new game,” he told Yahoo Canada Sports. “I told his nephews Ashton and Jordan Crone, “Tell Bobby to relax now, I got if from here.”
Clad in a shirt promoting his fathers’ contracting company, he is seated on a couch in a downtown Toronto Hotel room beside director/writer and friend Kevan Funk for a series of interviews to promote the film.
A smile sweeps across his face as he finishes his sentence.
The swagger Abrahamson exhibits is in dark contrast with the nature of Tyson Burr, the character he plays in the film.
Burr is a reserved young man, good hearted with a kind smile but simmering just below the surface is torment, anxiety and a whole host of issues that are never fully revealed to the viewer.
Throughout the film, he appears on the verge of tears nearly every time he speaks, which can be sparingly. The silence between dialogue coupled with the stark cinematography compound the prevailing theme of isolation which builds after Burr is banished from his team and culminates in the crushing climax.
Funk, 29, explores several difficult topics in his debut feature film, the most pronounced being how the impact of an act of violence can affect the perpetrator as well as the victim. He used hockey as the driver so people would take notice because of how closely it is tied to Canada’s national identity.
“I wanted to choose hockey because it is the biggest cultural institution in Canada and it worked really well,” he said. “There were a lot of stories in the hockey world that related directly to what I was talking about.”
Parallels with one incident in particular certainly had a degree of influence on the film.
On March 8, 2004 in a heated game between the Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks, Avalanche forward Steve Moore was punched in the head from behind and knocked unconscious by Todd Bertuzzi for failing to engage in a fight. Bertuzzi, followed by two other players, collapsed on top of Moore as he fell to the ice, resulting in multiple fractures in the vertabrae of his neck.
There had been bad blood between the two teams after Moore had laid a big hit on Canucks star Markus Naslund in a previous game. Bertuzzi’s attempt to seek retribution had severe unintended consequences as he ended Moore’s career and arguably derailed his own.
“What happened to Todd is something that has always resonated with me because I have found it really frustrating, I have a ton of sympathy for Steve Moore as well, I think it is really sad what happened to him too,” said the B.C. based filmaker who has been a lifelong Canucks fan. “In Vancouver there was bloodlust for Todd Bertuzzi across the city, and I found it so insane, it still pisses me off to this day…..Todd’s career was destroyed as well, yes he played a couple of years (more) but he was never the same player, as a fan of him it was really sad to see.”
In the film, Burr is scorned by the town, ostracized from his team and ousted by his billet family, while there are doubts that the latter two would ever be allowed to occur, the poetic licence Funk takes does not detract from the gravity of the film.”
Following the hit, a dramatic scene unfolds after Burr is ejected. Being held back by his assistant coach, he tries returning to the ice where a brawl is taking place, his concern for the opposing player weighing heavily upon him.
The influence was drawn from the biographies of players like Derek Boogaard (Boy on Ice, John Branch) and Bob Probert (Tough Guy, Kristie McClellan-Day).
“No one wanted to hurt anyone and when they hurt them they felt really bad and a lot of those guys who fought like crazy were actually friends,” Funk said. “It’s an insane dynamic that exists in that sport, that’s why Tyson’s empathy was really important, he is not a cruel kid, he’s a really nice kid.”
Abrahamson says while he didn't really get into hockey, the sport is king in his hometown and he drew inspiration for the character from those around him that played the game.
“On weekends they would be going on hockey trips and I would stay home so I would spend a lot of time by myself and I think that is what helped me develop as an artist,” he said. “Leading up to this film I remember asking more about the trips and what it was like. I had always been around these guys but I had to have clear images of what life on the road is and I was never really curious until doing this movie.”
Prince George B.C., a city known for being a remote outpost in Canadian junior hockey, was chosen amongst other things to emphasize the feeling of detachment for Burr, who is far from home.
“I wanted the setting of an isolated place, isolation plays a big part in this story but we also needed a place that was big enough to have a team at this level,” he said. ““If you look at the WHL, most of those teams are in the lower mainland or Kelowna, B.C., and Kelowna doesn’t really scream Canadian winter. When you look at it on a map, Prince George ends up being the only place that really made sense for us to shoot. I love that city… I feel that part of especially Western Canada is so underrepresented in media.”
Hello Destroyer was never meant to be a hockey movie in the same way as Slap Shot, The Mighty Ducks or Youngblood. Hockey is used as a vehicle to tell a story that has a lot of weight and many layers to it, within the character of Tyson Burr and also from a wider gaze in which a fictionalized Canadian experience relates to the human experience. While the film has been well received, there will be detractors who will see it as casting the sport in a negative light. This is something Funk accepts.
“I make films to have conversations, if there are elements of this that are divisive, that’s not a problem to me, as long as people feel something, whether they agree with everything they see or they feel passionately another way, that’s totally fine.
Follow Neil Acharya on Twitter: @Neil_Acharya