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In the Crease debuts on Versus

Friday, 01.18.2008 / 9:10 AM / Features

By Brian Hunter - Staff Writer

In the Crease is making its national television debut on Sunday at 4 p.m. ET on Versus.
Like the collection of teenagers from Southern California it follows, the hockey documentary In the Crease is a compelling story of its own.

Produced and directed as the fledgling project of Stickmen Pictures, an independent company founded in 2005 by studio executives Matt Gannon and Michael Sarner, it was released on DVD in Dec. 2006 and thrived initially by word of mouth.

Now, after climbing to the top of Amazon’s list as the No. 1 Bestselling Sports DVD and developing a cult following among hockey enthusiasts not only from the U.S. but beyond, the story of a teenage hockey team called the California Wave is set to make its national television debut, Sunday at 4 p.m. ET on Versus.

In the Crease continues to gain steam like a power forward charging down the wing, and when you listen to Gannon describe its premise, it’s easy to understand why.

“It’s a classic sports story. It has all the great elements,” Gannon said. “You have an underdog team, a coach who’s larger than life, who pushes his players and inspires them to be the best. There are great twists and turns, and you get to go behind the scenes, inside the locker room, on the bench.”

The all-access documentary follows the Wave from March 2005 to April 2006 and chronicles their efforts to capture a USA Hockey national championship under the guidance of Mike Lewis, the first African American coach to win such a title. While the on-ice action should be dynamic enough to draw even the casual fan’s interest, the myriad of storylines that surround the players’ efforts to realize every young athlete’s dream adds an extra element of drama.

“Ultimately, we see it as a universal story,” Gannon said. “We made this film with the average fan in mind. For the people who have played hockey, at any level, you totally identify with what (the players) go through. But it’s also for the fans who never played, but just love a great sports story.”

Also included are special appearances by over a dozen NHL stars, including Brendan Shanahan, Joe Thornton and Scott Niedermayer, in which the players share their own personal stories and experiences.

“NHL fans get to see a side of these guys you don’t normally see,” Gannon said. “We went after some of the top players and we got a good cross section of Americans, Canadians and Europeans where anyone can identify with the film.”

For Gannon, who started playing youth hockey at age 7 in Rockland County, N.Y., In the Crease is the byproduct of a lifelong love for the game. In his own teenage years, Gannon played for Exeter, a New England prep school, and competed each season against top talent like Jeremy Roenick, a future 500-goal scorer in the NHL who also appears in the film.

Gannon’s hockey career would conclude after a year playing at Wesleyan University and he went on to make his mark as a studio executive for Twentieth Century Fox – where his credits include co-producing such movies as the Oscar nominated Girl with a Pearl Earring – and a production executive for Fox Searchlight Pictures. Teamed up with Sarner, a marketing executive for United Artists, he set out to create a hockey film that would capture the essence of the sport and ring true to its fans.

“We felt there was an audience of fans out there – myself and the co-director being two of them – who not only craved a hockey movie, but one that also feels real and authentic, and was made by people who understand the game,” Gannon said. “We felt this story totally delivered.”

And who needed a Hollywood script when the Wave provided a tremendous tale in real life? The Bantam AAA travel team draws players not only from around Southern California but stretching as far as Seattle, Washington.

Its alumni include Mitchell Wahl, the Wave’s former co-captain who now stars for the Spokane Chiefs and is likely to be picked in the first couple rounds of the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, USA National Team members Nick Maricic and Colin Reddin, and recent NHL draft picks Brett Sterling (Atlanta Thrashers) and Jonathan Blum (Nashville Predators). Sterling has cracked the Thrashers’ lineup for 10 games this season, while Blum last year became the first Californian to be taken in the first round when the Predators selected him.

The Wave’s talent on the ice has been matched by its leadership behind the bench. Lewis, who originally hails from Long Island, N.Y., took teams to the national championship in three consecutive seasons.

So Gannon had his story – it was just a matter of getting it in the hands of his target audience. As an independent production company, he admits things were kind of “done in a reverse order.”

“We went out on DVD and built up a tremendous following, where it turned into an underground hit,” Gannon said. “Fans across the country embraced it, and we built up a groundswell of support where Versus came to us. It’s an obvious home for it – they have a great audience of NHL fans.”

To view a trailer for the film, visit


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