I was in Alaska last week, and my host happened to have a copy of Mystery, Alaska to hand. We watched it mostly for novelty value, but this 1999 oddity, about a matchup between the New York Rangers and a pond-hockey team from a town in relatively-rural Alaska, is actually a decent template for what sports movies ought to do differently. To put it briefly: the underdog team loses the pivotal game, no romances are consummated, no one is particularly morally redeemed and everything in town stays essentially the same.
But the absence of those sports-movie staples doesn't mean the movie is boring. The events kick off when a sportswriter who left Mystery in search of greater things does a Sports Illustrated cover story on the town's pond hockey team. To juice the piece, he talks the New York Rangers' ownership into an exhibition game in Alaska to test the Mystery team's prowess. Much hokum ensues about whether the game will actually be played, which of course it is. But in the town's efforts to field the best possible lineup, and to prepare their town for the event, the residents of Mystery risk the character of their town, whether it's going into debt to finance a new stadium, or straining their marriages with jealousy and inattention.
It's a lower-burn conflict than the temperature these movies usually burn at, and it's sort of a relief. Winning the game ends up being relatively unimportant: what matters is how the town as a whole and the individuals involved react as a result. And because of that structure, the movie spends a lot more time building up the personalities of the characters, even if it's done in a couple of broad, deft strokes. Burt Reynolds is a delightfully, bizarrely straitlaced judge, Russell Crowe the dour town sheriff, Mary McCormack his somewhat neglected wife enjoying the attentions of an old flame, the town shopkeeper a talented offensive player, a romantically nervous high-school student a tremendously talented skater. There's simply more time in the movie to give each When a randy player, apologizing to a man he's cuckolded, explains that "I play hockey and I fornicate, 'cause those are the two most fun things to do in cold weather," it feels less like stereotype because it comes from an established character.
And the sports themselves aren't irrelevant. Instead, the movie pays attention to how hockey is threaded through the culture of Mystery. The men there don't just play hockey because it's cold. The Mayor leads a committee that determines who the team is, and membership in it is largely determinative of a man's status in town: elimination means shame, and never having made it on at all is enough to alienate a man for life, or to drive him down to the lower 48. Hockey may not integrate towns, or bring about gender equality, or provide Mystery with an economic base—it doesn't perform the typical sporting function of personifying a conflict that we already have the shorthand to decode. Instead, hockey is our way into the specific joys and eccentricities, the loves and insecurities of Mystery, Alaska, an un-cliched key to a relatively un-cliched plot.