Slap shots at Toronto fest

Trio of hockey pics hope to score

The baseball and football seasons may be in full swing in Toronto, but it’s all about ice time at the film festival, where a hat trick of hockey pics world-preem this weekend.

While the 2010 festival opened with Michael McGowan’s upbeat “Score: A Hockey Musical,” this year’s roster explores the rougher edges of the game.

Friday afternoon the puck dropped on “Goon,” a raucous comedy about the career challenges of a newly scouted mild-mannered enforcer (Seann William Scott), co-penned by Jay Baruchel (who also co-stars) and helmed by Michael Dowse (“FUBAR 2”). Alliance Films is releasing in Canada, and Myriad is selling internationally.

Friday night saw the darker side of the enforcer theme confronted in Alex Gibney’s latest docu “The Last Gladiators,” screening again today. Submarine’s Josh Braun is selling the film in Toronto.

The pic takes on a poignant timeliness in light of three recent deaths of NHL tough guys, most recently the apparent suicide of popular former Maple Leaf enforcer Wade Belak in a Toronto hotel less than two weeks ago.

“One of the things that struck me making this film is how we live vicariously through these guys — they fight for us,” said Gibney, an Oscar winner for the 2007 docu “Taxi to the Dark Side, who co-produced “Gladiators” with longtime collaborators Larry Weitzman and Jim Podhoretz. “These players go through a kind of crisis when they’re traded, because as an enforcer you’re expected to protect your teammates, whom you’ve developed a bond with.”

Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”), who played hockey in college and interviewed former Bruins star Bobby Orr as part of ESPN’s “Sports Century,” was approached to make the independently financed film on hockey enforcers by a group of individuals, including some team owners, and produced it through his own shingle.

“I was interested in the kind of Faustian bargain some of these players enter into, but also the notion that these guys live by a code,” says Gibney, who identified the onscreen charisma of former Montreal Canadiens brawler Chris “Knuckles” Nilan in the early days of filming, casting his journey as the pic’s main narrative.

While sports fans are a natural aud, Gibney says the few non-sports fans who’ve seen the pic (completed just last week) are responding to the central character’s universal struggle a la “The Wrestler.”

“Chris is a fascinating, very blunt-spoken guy who’s very honest about his own career and personal difficulties, including grappling with addictions,” said Gibney, who shot the film over two years.

“What we didn’t anticipate when we started filming is how much time these guys spend dealing with adjustment to ‘normal’ life after the adrenaline high of performing night after night at a high level in front of thousands of fans.”

Hockey gets a unique Toronto cross-cultural spin in Robert Lieberman’s “Breakaway,” preeming at the festival tonight and opening in Canada via Alliance Films later this month. The pic looks at a young Canadian Sikh (Vinay Virmani) who assembles a misfit team and finds a competitive coach (Rob Lowe) to combat the local Hammerheads.

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