They say it’s who you know in the entertainment industry, and luckily for Michael Shanks he knew two people that would eventually land him the role of any hockey fan’s lifetime: Portraying Gordie Howe on film.
Shanks worked with director Andy Mikita – yes, a relative of Stan Mikita – during his run on the “Stargate” television franchise, where Shanks played Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader’s role from the big screen version) from 1997 through 2010.
He also worked with writer Malcolm MacRury on “Saving Hope”, a Toronto-based medical drama. MacRury is the writer behind “Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story”, a film that just happened to land in the hands of … Andy Mikita.
It was a small world for Shanks, and the opportunity he’d been waiting for.
“I would have crawled across broken glass to be in this movie, because I always wanted to be in a hockey movie,” he said in a recent phone interview.
“Mr. Hockey” debuts in the U.S. on the Hallmark Channel on Saturday, May 4 at 9 p.m. ET/PT and 8 CT, after strong reviews upon its debut in Canada.
It covers Howe’s return to hockey at age 45 to play in the World Hockey Association with his sons Mark (Andrew Herr) and Marty (Dylan Playfair, son of former Calgary coach Jim Playfair) on the Houston Aeros.
“It was probably the easiest negotiation they had. It was a dream come true,” Shanks said, pausing for a moment. “Except for filming in Winnipeg, it was a dream come true.”
Shanks remembers Howe mostly as a Whaler, having limited access to hockey on television growing up in British Columbia. As in, “two channels”, said Shanks.
“I didn’t know there was a team in Vancouver until around 1978 because they never showed the damn games on Hockey Night in Canada,” he said.
He started as a Leafs fans – “it churns my stomach now,” he said – but is now a Vancouver Canucks fan.
We spoke to Shanks about playing Gordie and the challenges that come with it; his time as a sci-fi TV icon; and of course, about his favorite NHL team.
Q. So you’re a Canucks fan now?
SHANKS: Yeah, I sorted that out and became a frustrated Canucks fan.
Where do you stand on the goaltending controversy?
It is what it is. It’s the bed that they made. It made sense in the cap world … he’s a No. 1 goalie anywhere else. I understand his situation, when you have a younger and less expensive goalie coming up. Luongo has his pride and his ego. When you’re in a position when the cap’s going down and the only team that can afford to take you are the Toronto Maple Leafs … it is what it is.
I think Alain Vigneault has handled it well. I think they’re both handling it well. It’s not affecting the team’s play. It’s a great tandem of goalies.
Do you think the window’s closed for this team?
It’s getting kind of narrow-ish. This might be it because of the cap dropping next year. This could be it. It’s a shame, but it happens.
Finally, on the Canucks: What’s your favorite sweater in franchise history?
[Laughs] Boy, that’s like asking me what my favorite flavor of poo is.
Let’s face it, they own some of the worst jerseys in the history of the game. The original was so awful because you look at and you’re like “it’s just a hockey stick” and really kind of a boring jersey.
Then the vomitorium started: The Flying ‘V’ and whatever that ridiculous skate was. When the whale came around, it wasn’t like “hey, that’s so original” but at least it was something.
Like I said, a better flavor of poo.
Outside of “Slap Shot”, is there a hockey movie that you put on a pedestal?
They’re all sorta different, but the one that with the best hockey and the most realism was probably “Miracle”. Which kinda sucks, because it’s crappy being a Canadian knowing that the Americans can make a better hockey movie than we can.
I know you’re American and everything, but you’re like “Really? Really? We can’t do one on the ’72 [Summit Series] that gets to be the best one?”
They did everything right. They cast hockey players first, actors second and a really great actor in the lead role.
But it was filmed in Vancouver, so at least we can claim that.
You have to understand that if we can’t beat you in the Olympics, at the very least we can make a better film about the Olympics than you can.
That check’s in the mail though, right? I saw those women’s world championships and I think the check’s in the mail.
So does this movie mostly cover Gordie’s years with Houston, where he played with his kids?
I was surprised at that too. It starts at his retirement ceremony. In newsreel, it skips over the first 25 years of his career. It bears down on that first year when he was playing with the Houston Aeros, playing with his kids.
It’s just a tiny little piece of his history, which makes this ripe for some prequel action.
It’s been tough to tell Red Wings fans [about the movie] because they always ask what era it covers, and I have to tell them, “The part right after Detroit.”
But how many movies focus on the WHA? John Garrett’s going to be crapping his pants.
How did you try and develop this character. Did you have any interaction with Gordie or the family? What’s they key to capturing the essence?
I didn’t get to meet Gordie himself. I know the boys – Andrew Herr and Dylan Playfair – they’ve talked with Mark and Marty Howe on the phone. I didn’t want to disturb Gordie, and I wasn’t sure of his health. But eventually, as an actor, I decided I had to interpret. I’m going to shoot from the hip. Watch old footage of him to see how he speaks and how he skates.
I hope Gordie watches the film, and doesn’t punch me in the face.
When you say the name “Gordie Howe”, there’s always that ruggedness to it. So how do you play that? With a Clint Eastwood edge or something?
There’s so little source material to sort of find out. Everybody talks about what a great guy he was off the ice and what a mean guy he was on the ice, and that interpretation stays true - specifically in this movie, because we spend so much time with him and his family. So there is that teddy bear side.
You have to play the scenes as they were written, and it was written well enough to capture that duality about him. I think there could have been a little more of the on-ice stuff that would have been more colorful.
OK, some sci-fi geek questions while we have you. What was your strangest interaction with a Stargate fan?
We’ve got a lot of great fans. And some weird ones. The strangest interaction in person was when someone asked me to sign their vibrator.
The funny thing was, I wasn’t the first one asked to sign it. I didn’t look too close at it, and I said I couldn’t sign it.
Right, because then it becomes a thing where “do I sign next to the dude who played Worf or the dude who played Data on ‘Star Trek?’”
[Laughs] I literally and figuratively didn’t want to go there.
Finally, you played Hawkman on “Smallville”. Was this the superhero you always had in mind to one day portray?
Yeah … no, that was not one that was on my radar. To play “Chicken Man.”
If you see the comic book representations of the guy, he looks like a steroid monster. Schwarzenegger couldn’t have made the outfit work that I had to wear.
When I looked at the last episode, and they finally put some wings on me, it sort of worked.