The Toronto Maple Leafs had just completed the 1970-71 season, eliminated in the first round by the New York Rangers and it was the day after as the players cleaned out their lockers preparing for the long off-season. The usual throng of reporters mingled about asking routine questions about summer plans with some players making jokes, others not speaking, Dave Keon snarling, Denis Dupere quipped,
“No more penalties to kill but I’ve got a lot of time to kill.”
Then there was Jim McKenny and Jim Dorey who insisted they were going into the moving business.
“If you need a haul, just give us a call,” said McKenny.
“We can’t say too much,” said Dorey, “We don’t want to give away our plans to any of the big transport outfits.”
These tongue-in-cheek comments were made in reference to how much time the two them had spent shuffling between the minors and the big club all year.
Little did the two of them know that in the next few months a movie they were acting as script advisers on by the name of “Face Off” would become one the best known Canadian movies of all time.
Recently I had the privilege of hosting a gathering of some of the participants in the film including the lead Art Hindle, Jim Dorey and Jim McKenny. It was a part of a monthly series of hockey related talks I host as the Ultimate Leafs Fan.
The idea for the movie belonged to John F. Bassett who was inspired after reading a true magazine story by Paul Rimstead about pro hockey player Bruce Draper who died of cancer at the age of 27 in 1968. Bassett didn’t want to make the movie too depressing, so with the guidance of George Robertson, a screenplay was developed about a young star hockey player (Hindle) debuting with the Toronto Maple Leafs and falling for the upcoming female rock star played by Trudy Young.
Jim McKenny was considered for the lead, but his inexperience worried director George McCowan, so they went with a McKenny look-a-like; Art Hindle, who also happened to be in the same acting class as McKenny. Jim had aspirations of entering the movie business once his hockey career was finished, but when he realized acting wasn’t for him, he instead became the voice of sports on City TV for 25-years.
Art would explain to us how he actually turned the part down because Jim had become a friend and he didn’t want to take his part. However, after some soul searching, convincing from McKenny and the fact they were now considering an American actor for the part, Hindle changed his mind. Hindle was a good athlete but couldn’t skate; thus McKenny would be his stand-in, along with Jim Dorey. But with practice he became good enough to get up and down the ice with the highlight for Art being of the day the Gardens was almost full for game action. He talked of a skirmish with Rod Seiling that was to result in a fight, but they couldn’t get it right because it kept coming across not realistic enough. So after numerous “takes”, a frustrated Hindle sucker punches Seiling, while catching him off guard and then made a beeline for the dressing room before Seiling got a hold of him.
During the filming of a breakaway goal scene, Mike Walton fell and wiped out the film crew, breaking a camera and delayed shooting for a day.
To make his experience more realistic, Hindle got to travel with the team and live the life of a professional hockey player. Unlike George Plimpton, Hindle was accepted by the players and “lived the dream.” He roomed, dressed, skated and drank with the guys to see the world through the eyes of a NHL player. Art spoke glowingly of his time on the road with the Leafs and points to that as one of the defining moments in his professional life, not only as an actor but also as a fan.
Because McKenny was almost a dead-ringer for Hindle he didn’t get a part in the movie except as the stand-in for Hindle during the shooting of the hockey scenes. But the guys had a blast making the movie and even team owner Harold Ballard had a part as the team doctor.
The movie made a Canadian film production record at the time, with a cost of $600,000, that Hindle insists was closer to a million and wasn’t without controversy. December 16, 1970, a movie titled “Love Story” about a young Harvard hockey player (Ryan O’Neil) falling for love interest (Ali MacGraw) with tragic results became not only a world wide sensation but launched the careers of O’Neil and MacGraw. When Faceoff premiered November 12, 1971 at the Oden Carlton (next to Maple Leaf Gardens of course) it had its skeptics.
A New York agent went so far as to try to convince Bassett to drop the project the parallels were so glaring.
When Bassett was halfway through scripting and preliminary shooting for “Face-Off” was underway he took his wife to see “Love Story”.
“That son-of-a-gun Erich Segal is making millions of dollars from my own idea. And the worst thing is, he doesn’t even know it.”
Scott Young was almost finished co-authoring the book, when he picked up a copy of “Love Story” at an airport.
“God I was terribly upset, I thought, gee here I am into a book that involves a hockey player and a girl. But you know, there’s really nothing new in the world, “Love Story” was really a beautifully done book.”
Aside from the obvious, there was the fact that the screenplay was written before the book, that the heroine drove a 52 MG and director George McCowan had originally lined up Ryan O’Neil to star, eventually taken by Hindle.
“Nobody had even heard of O’Neil then,” said Bassett, “I think it’s the biggest fluke.”
The movie received negative reviews, but Hindle was praised for his work along with Trudy Young and the hockey scenes deemed some of the most realistic in sports movie history. That may not have really meant much because sports-movies in those days and even today are generally regarded as “fluff pieces” for the fans.
“Face-Off” was released throughout Canada at 20 theatres, which was then the widest distribution of a Canadian feature film. It grossed $600,000 at the box office by early 1973 and that was substantial for a Canadian film, however, for the movie to break-even it needed to do twice that amount. The book sold over 6,000 copies the first 4-weeks on the stands.
So what is it about the movie “Face-Off” that resonates with all of us from that era? Why does the mention of the film bring a slow, warm smile over faces sometimes that weren’t even around at the time? Could it be our Canadian pride coming through; the fact it’s centered around a Toronto Maple Leaf; it’s about hockey or maybe it’s the thought of the possible love scene George Armstrong was supposed to have in the movie but was eventually cut out?