The Iron Range of Minnesota has long been known to those who follow the sport of hockey for its hockey excellence.
A new motion picture that began production Friday on the Iron Range will attempt to describe the passion for hockey on the Range, and also blend in an emotional story line during a fictional run to an unlikely high school state championship.
The movie is named “Way of the Warriors” and it is an independent feature film that is centered around high school hockey on the Range. The film will showcase the unique culture, people and places of the “State of Hockey” in what John Montague – who wrote the script for the movie – said is in an authentic, positive manner.
Montague grew up in Minnesota playing and loving the game of hockey. He said he selected Eveleth and the Iron Range as the location of the fictional high school hockey team showcased in the film because of the history of hockey on the Range.
“I think those of us who grew up in the Twin Cities all looked at the Iron Range and these hockey towns up north as being the real home of hockey,” Montague said. “I can remember feeling like the boys up here were the real hockey players, the tough guys. So I think that we’ve always thought of this place as the home of hockey and we had a lot of reverence for this area.”
Montague said he originally wanted to film in all the Iron Range arenas because they are an important part of the experience of high school hockey.
“I really wanted to let the audience feel what high school hockey in Minnesota is all about at all these different rinks, but the unfortunate reality is when you are making a film you have to try to be smart about how you logistically operate,” Montague explained. “So over time as we have been moving into production we have had to decrease the number of rinks that we are going to shoot in.
“But we are still going to play all the towns like Grand Rapids, Greenway, Hibbing and Virginia. We just won’t get to play in all of the rinks.”
Montague said most hockey films in the past have not been very authentic and has not shown the game of hockey that Minnesotans know. He said “Miracle” is probably the best hockey film made to date in terms of its authenticity.
“Our goal is to make a film that is 100 percent authentic, one that hockey players and hockey fans, particularly those in Minnesota that know what the whole phenomenon of Minnesota high school hockey is, will see this film and they will feel that we are real in the way that we told the story,” Montague said.
When casting for the film, Montague said all actors had to have played hockey at the high school varsity level. He said the goal was to get real hockey players because it would be easier to take hockey players and teach them how to act rather than taking actors and trying to teach them how to play hockey.
“We were fortunate that we found a lot of great hockey players that are also great actors,” Montague explained. “Some of the players on the team that we cast include Pat Shea who played for the University of Maine, Jordan Subban who is the younger brother to P.K. and Malcolm Subban who has played the game at a very high level. So we have a number of the players that we cast on the Warriors team that have played the game at the highest levels.”
In a nutshell, the story is about a high school coach who contacts terminal cancer. He has two sons on the team and it chronicles the trials and tribulations of a team trying to win a coveted Minnesota state championship.
“It is a story of what the news that he has terminal cancer does to him as an individual, and then what it does to the team and town,” Montague said. “It ultimately serves as a wake-up call, as a reminder of how fragile life truly is and how we need to really appreciate every day and how we need to appreciate each other.
“I am also a coach and we talk about as coaches that it gets harder and harder to really get through to the players that we are coaching. As parents it is getting harder to get through to children that we want them to appreciate life and we want them to be present and we want them in the world we live in with all their phones, their video games, their short attention spans. We sometimes have a hard time getting through to them and we also have a hard time getting them to care,
“I feel in the end it is a story about how this coach realizes that his days are numbered and uses whatever energy and wisdom that he has to try to get all the other people in his life – namely the kids that he is coaching – to really appreciate their lives and to understand that any shift could be your last, any game could be your last.
“He is trying to inspire his two sons, and then inspire the team as well. I think in the end it is a story about a man who finally learns how to live because he is dying.”
Jack Kesy is the lead actor in the movie and plays a coach who faces personal and professional challenges while battling to win a Minnesota state championship with his Eveleth squad. He is a native of Queens, N.Y., and said he has played multiple sports but does not have an extensive hockey background.
“I think the role is inspiring, and it is based on a true story and on an actual events,” said Kesy when asked why he decided to take the role. “It is a time in my career that I felt like this is something that could be beneficial for me personally and as an actor to go in a direction that helps my career.”
Kesy said everybody involved in the movie will do their best to make it a success.
“We will see how the public responds,” Kesy said. “I am excited and super grateful to be here. Everyone has been helpful and I love being up here.”
Kesy said the movie has an emotional story line and that is what interested him.
“As a new father myself, I really connected to that side of the story,” he said. “I know that hockey is the heart, soul and epicenter of not only the film but Minnesota. I really like the family aspect of the story.”
Graham Geisler is a 1993 graduate of Grand Rapids High School and a former goaltender for the hockey team. He said he and his brother, Todd, produce music known as the Iron Range Roadies and they were working on some music when Montague heard it and liked the message it sent which was about unity and the things can be done for people to come together.
“(Montague) sent us a script and he sent us a description of different songs,” Geisler, who now lives in Edina, said. “He wanted the sound track to carry the message throughout the movie. When I read the script, everything in it reminded me of growing up on the Iron Range, and the history and culture and what hockey brings to the community. It hit a chord in me and that to me is what makes great music or great art or great movies. It is something that grabs you by an emotion and pulls you in and doesn’t let you go.”
Geisler said he and brother Todd – a 1988 GRHS graduate – have received a description of the 18 different songs planned for the sound track for the movie and he said they have written 13 songs so far.
“We don’t know for sure at this point what songs are going to be in there for sure but we are trying to work with local artists and possibly some national artists to perform the songs they have written.
“It’s all about the message for each scene that John has picked out. We try to provide him with something that the music and the movie together creates a total package.”
Geisler said an inspiration for him was watching his alma mater Grand Rapids team win the 2017 state hockey championship. He said he was a member of the 1991 Grand Rapids team that competed at state.
“Hockey up here is important to the people,” Geisler said. “It is not just about the sport, it is not just about the players, it’s about the whole community and what that brings to people. It’s a whole other level of dedication and pride that I think hockey brings to a small town.”
Geisler said the focus for the movie is to have as much authenticity as possible when filming the hockey scenes.
“Obviously there are some barriers to overcome because we don’t want it to be like a ‘Mighty Duck’ film. We want some authenticity of the Iron Range and the heritage,” said Geisler. “There are also technical and other challenges with that but we are doing everything we can to make it as authentic as we can because I think that is the most important thing for true die-hard hockey fans.
“We don’t want to see all the extra gloss; we want to see the grit and the dedication involved in it. Our goal is to focus on the heart and the grit of the people of the Iron Range and northern Minnesota.”
Filming for the movie started on Friday with the hockey filming beginning in early December. He said extras are still being sought to be in the crowd scenes or for skaters, and for a number of other levels. There is a website run by KUMD radio station that has information about how to become an extra.
The film will be finished in early 2021, and it will be targeted for release for Thanksgiving of 2021. Besides Kesy, some other notable actors in the movie will include Julia Jones, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Burt Young of the “Rocky” films.
“This is the biggest film that has been made in Minnesota in many years,” Montague said. “I hope this is a film that everyone on the Iron Range is going to be very proud of because we really are telling their story. We are portraying this amazing place in a very positive way. It is really intended to be a tribute to this part of our state that I think is very special.
“I also hope that everyone in the game of hockey is also very proud of this movie because it also is a tribute to the game.”