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Gordie movie is 'dream role' for actor

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
  Actor Michael Shanks plays Gordie Howe in the upcoming

  movie about the legends return to the ice following his
  retirement in 1971. (Photo courtesy of Hallmark Channel)

DETROIT – Growing up in rural British Columbia during the 1970s, Michael Shanks had dreams of either playing professional hockey or acting.

An acting career eventually won out, but last year, his two obsessions collided when he was cast in the lead role of the upcoming Hallmark Channel original movie, “Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story,” set to premiere in the U.S. on May 4.

Shanks plays Howe, who at 45-years-old, decides that he’s going to come out of retirement to form the only father-and-sons line combination in pro hockey history.

“When this came along it was kind of the best of both worlds,” said Shanks, who is best known for his role as Dr. Daniel Jackson in the long-running military sci-fi TV series “Stargate SG-1”.

“It was the most fun that I’ve had shooting something, which I kind of expected too,” Shanks said. “I’d been dying to do a hockey movie throughout my career. Sure ‘Stargate’ was fun stuff … but when you get to combine your two passions, this is a rare opportunity.”

The two-hour movie – which was co-produced by Mike Ilitch, Jr. – focuses mainly on Howe’s life in the years soon after he retired from the Red Wings. It was during this time that he jumped at the opportunity to play alongside his sons, Mark and Marty, in the WHA in what many skeptics once referred to as, “The biggest publicity stunt in hockey history.”

But Howe quickly silenced his critics, earning the league’s MVP award as a 100-point producer, and helping the Houston Aeros win the WHA championship in his first and second seasons.

A huge Canucks’ fan, Shanks said his memories of Howe’s playing career begin and end with the Hartford Whalers during the 1979-80 NHL season. Though Shanks only goes back to Howe’s final pro season – when the living legend was still playing at age 51 – researching the part of a hockey icon at any age was a lot of fun and educational.

“The media’s take on everything from that time period is really the only analysis that is offered up to you,” Shanks said. “So understanding little details, like how the boys were really kind of reluctant to have dad come play with them. All of the things that a young man fears when the dad comes rushing to your defense as a dad instead of as a teammate. Stuff like that.

“The family dynamic was really fascinating and how really important it really was in that move, and everything that went on from Colleen’s interaction as the manager and sort of the head of the household in keeping everything together all of the time, as well as the boys’ own growing up and getting over their own embarrassment of playing with their dad, and then learning to respect him at the end. I think it’s a really great family movie from that sense and it taught me a lot about the inner workings of the family than just the hockey stuff.”

Shanks hasn’t met Gordie Howe, but just the idea of playing the iconic figure was beyond exciting for the B.C. boy who grew up playing hockey in the Canadian Rockies.

“It was the best,” Shanks said. “But it wasn’t until people started talking to me about (the role) that I realized the stigma that would come with kind of playing this part, especially in Canada. I was just so excited to do a hockey movie and the fact that Gordie is a bit of a character. He’s got a certain way that he speaks and there’s a certain background that he comes from. … It was a great challenge as an actor.”

But the biggest challenge may have been the physical preparation for the role.

Canadian actress Kathleen Robertson plays Colleen Howe in the upcoming Hallmark original movie, set to air on May 4 in the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Hallmark Channel)

“I got to do a lot of training before hand just to get into better muscular form, because even then, Gordie was still a big guy, bigger than I am,” Shanks said. “Then to do the hockey stuff as a hockey-playing actor who gets to spend nine days on the ice for 12 hours, I mean, we all become little kids when we get on the ice. So to have all of this kind of bundled together was the most fun I’ve ever had shooting something.”

A hall-of-famer himself, Mark Howe hasn’t seen an advance of the film, though nothing, he said, captures the 1973-74 season like the memories he still holds on to.

“For me the biggest thing is I know how awesome a season he had,” said Howe said, of his hall of fame father. “It took him a month to get going, but it was incredible to be a part of it, to watch what he did at age 45. It’s the most incredible thing I’ve seen in sport. He was scary good and it was the best I had seen him play in seven years.

“For anybody to get a chance to play on the same team as a world-class athlete, which he is, it was terrific. It just so happened he’s my father.”

The movie has been in the works for several years, Mark Howe said.

“We’re excited for it. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve seen some of the outtakes,” he said. “My mom was hoping to get this done. … But we’re really happy that it got done so dad can see it.”

This Sunday, Gordie Howe turns 85, and he plans to celebrate the milestone by attending the Red Wings-Blackhawks game, which will be televised throughout the United States on NBC at 12:30 p.m. EDT.

The movie was shot primarily in Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie with Canadian actors, including Hamilton, Ontario native Kathleen Robertson, who plays Colleen. Meanwhile, Mark is portrayed by Andrew Herr, and Marty is played by Dylan Playfair, the 20-year-old son of Jim Playfair, who played three NHL seasons with Edmonton and Chicago.

“Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story” will also air on CBC in Canada on April. Check local listings for broadcast times.

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose

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