When the theatre lights dim at The Royal Cinema in Toronto, ON., on Monday evening, Kelly Chase will try to quell his heightened nerves so they don’t get the best of him as he did so often throughout his 11-season NHL career which lasted from 1989-2000
Chase was what people call an enforcer when they are being polite, a goon or thug if they aren’t.
On this night he will be on screen as an ice guardian and viewed intently by a crowd that will be full of them. He wants to ensure they see their story told in the right light.
Luke Gazdic, Eric Godard and Todd Fedoruk, amongst other former and current NHL tough guys will gather for the premiere of Ice Guardians, a film which Chase is credited as an executive producer.
“I just want to make sure people get honoured in the right way,” he told Yahoo Canada Sports. “We get painted with a certain brush, that we have no sense, no intelligence. People will knock the role and you’re a bad person because you played that role, they say “that’s not a direct shot at you”. It is, I am that role and I don’t happen to be that person. There is a reason as to why I fought that guy. If you really think it through and process it, you would be a lot more educated.”
Chase racked up over 2000 penalty minutes during his playing days, primarily with the St. Louis Blues where he and fellow tough guys such as Tony Twist and Garth Butcher used their physicality to make life easier for the team’s stars like Brett Hull and Adam Oates.
According to hockeyfights.com, Chase was involved in 123 fights during his eight seasons with the Blues, and another 46 with the Hartford Whalers and Toronto Maple Leafs. 16 years after retiring, he still ranks second all-time in Blues’ penalty minutes.
In 1998 he was awarded the King Clancy Memorial Trophy by the league for his work helping mentally challenged youths get involved with sports.
Ice Guardians has been in development for eight years and is the baby of B.C., based filmmaker Adam Scorgie (also an executive producer) and director Brett Harvey. Chase had been aware of the project and got on board when approached by Scorgie in 2014.
“This is not a film to glorify or put a negative spin on fighting, it was made just to honour the role of the enforcer,” Scorgie said. “It isn’t debatable that these guys have a huge part in the sports’ history.”
Scorgie first became interested in hockey fighters when he moved to Kelowna, B.C., to begin highschool in the mid-1990's after spending several years living Australia and Singapore with his parents.
He became friends with Fedoruk and Scott Parker who were schoolmates and puglisits for the Kelowna Rockets, the local CHL team.
“What they did to spark the team or prevent cheap shots, I found fascinating.”
Fast forward a little over a decade after graduating and Scorgie, now an actor and producer with several projects under his belt, was looking for a new endeavour.
“There wasn’t a great feature documentary done on fighters,” said the 36-year-old. “(Once we started Ice Guardians) being personal friends with Fedoruk and Parker, word got out that we were asking the right questions. Many players had done interviews where the story was flipped and made them look like dummies, they weren’t eager.”
The most notable feature length documentary pertaining to fighting in hockey is The Last Gladiators, which was selected as an entry into the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The film focused on the volatile life of NHL enforcer Chris “Knuckles” Nilan and explored his on-ice battles, and off-ice issues with substance abuse.
Although roundly praised, the dark elements of the film combined with the shocking deaths of prominent tough guys around the same time such as Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien plus the growing concern about the impacts of CTE led to hesitancy by heavyweights about talking on camera.
Chase helped draw players to the project provided he was consulted in the direction of the film.
“I said, “I don’t mind doing this as long as we have some guidelines,” said Chase, who was involved with The Last Gladiators before pulling out due to differences regarding elements of the narrative. “I didn’t want to get into a debate over fighting in the game, this is not what it’s about, it’s about the guys and the role they played and sacrifices they made.”
The film was screened last month for past and present players in Saskatoon, SK., during Chase’s fantasy camp. He says he was anxiously gauging their reaction from the back row of the theatre and when the house lights came on, found many of them to be emotionally moved.
“There were tears in the eyes of Derek Dorsett (Vancouver Canucks) and Brenden Morrow (former Dallas Stars captain),” Chase said. “Just seeing the emotion on the face of a guy like Kelly Buchberger (two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Edmonton Oilers) you could tell that it worked and that we didn’t waste 90- minutes of people’s time.”
The film not only includes famed bruisers Wendal Clark, Dave Semenko and Dave “The Hammer” Schultz but also Dr. Victoria Silverwood, who earned her PhD at Cardiff University in the U.K., by studying fighting in professional hockey, as well as neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Tator.
Scorgie also traveled to Northern Ireland to track down Kevin Westgarth who was wrapping up his professional career with the Belfast Giants of the EIHL in 2014-15 after six NHL seasons.
Westgarth played four years of Ivy League hockey for Princeton University, where fighting is barred under NCAA rules, before signing with the LA Kings where his main role would using his fists.
He acknowledged that with the excitement of knowing he would get to realize his dream of playing in the NHL, there was a hint of trepidation, knowing what was expected of him once he got there.
“I always enjoyed fighting, the anticipation sometimes bothers guys and I certainly had a little anxiety, but once you get in to it, it’s man-to-man and you do your best to protect your teammates and provide intimidation so no one messes with your guys.” said Westgarth, who now works as VP of business developmennt and international affairs for the NHL. “What excited me about this film is it delved into the reasons why people do it, it is because they want to do whatever they can to play and you get to know their personalities. Every person’s story needs to be told, there is a huge spectrum of stories in what has become a very loaded discussion these days.”
According to hockeyfights.com, there were 344 fights last season, 47 fewer than the season prior and the number has been dropping since 2008-09 (not including the 2012-13 shortened season). Ahead of the upcoming season, the AHL instituted tougher rules meant to deter fighting. The OHL has also mandated that begining in 2016-17, a player will recieve a two-game suspension for each fight after they pass the three-fight threshold, this is an ammendment from the 10-fight threshold established in 2012.
Chase understands that the writing on the wall is becoming increasingly apparent and perhaps somewhere in the back of his mind, he knows this film may be chronicling soon-to-be relics of the game. His former role and the role of others like him may only live in the annals of hockey in the near future.
“We are trying to honour the role that is probably not going to exist in a while. It will be phased out in the next 10 years. That’s the direction they are going,” he said. “We want people to walk away from Ice Guardians thinking about it. The NHL isn’t going to publically say, “Boy, are we proud of this film” but when they are in a back room somewhere, we want them to say, “Boy, are we proud of this film.”
Follow Neil Acharya on Twitter: @Neil_Acharya