Chill-out zone: in the trenches with Melbourne Ice

Shannon Swan and Jason McFadyen turned their love of ice hockey into a compelling warts and all documentary.Some of the most compelling reality TV programs follow “ordinary” people in their extraordinary occupations. Goldminers in the Bering Sea; truckers in the Arctic; fishermen in the wildest waters of the Atlantic and Southern oceans; policing in fearsome urban jungles – shows that highlight such jobs are now a successful TV staple.

Professional sports have remained one of the few realms to resist this trend, most clubs determined to protect and control how they are portrayed.

It took two Australians, following an amateur ice hockey team, to deliver a truly captivating “access all areas” sports documentary.

The Ice: Road to Three-Peat depicts Melbourne Ice in its 10th anniversary season as it strives to become the first team in the history of the Australian Ice Hockey League to win three successive titles.

The footage is not so much “behind the scenes” as embedded in the midst of them, the cameras mingling with coaches and players as they despair and exult, fight and score. For Resolution Media’s hockey-mad Shannon Swan and Jason McFadyen, it was a labour of love that blessed them with a surfeit of material.

In a remarkably eventful season, the club endured two major suspensions to key players, a form slump that tested their self-belief and team cohesion, and a near amputation to its star player, among many other dramas en route to a thrilling finals series.

Swan says the show worked because of trust and love.

“Deep down inside – we didn’t realise it at the time – but we’d fallen in love with the team and all the people involved.

“It’s a really weird thing because a lot of people say they were conscious of you having the camera around, and they were at the start, until we showed them the first episode – then we had their trust. And then it was almost like a cloak of invisibility: you could be in a room with a camera and no one would bat an eyelid. No one would even notice you were there, and that’s why we got all those shots.”

Swan and McFadyen believe that quickly winning the trust of the participants is vital to the success of such “workplace” documentaries. But they have further advice for those who would follow in their footsteps.

“Follow something that you love because you know it. And you’re going to spend a lot of time doing it so make sure you enjoy it.

“The other thing is they [the subjects] have got to have buy-in themselves. You can’t be continually trying to talk them in to doing something. They knew that they wanted to do it and why it was important.”

Ice president Andy Lamrock and coach Paul “Jaffa” Watson immediately grasped the impact the six-part series could have on their team, and the sport in Australia. But they could not have reasonably expected that it would be not only picked up and aired by Foxtel, but become the subject of international interest from documentary festivals and even US and Canadian broadcasters.

The producers say Watson was a “huge driver” of the show – calling the camera crew in when he knew something was going to happen.

“They realised what we were doing and that was when they saw the first episode they saw that we weren’t out to exploit them, that we had their back, we wanted to tell their story and promote the game.”

Despite its affection for the sport and the players, the production had to keep its distance.”Just observe the zoo, don’t be a part of the zoo,” Swan says. But that was a tough challenge.

“You’ve got to let the drama unfold in front of you. I found that probably the most difficult aspect of it, because they were all good blokes and we’re now friends with most of them.

“We had to make sure we weren’t censoring anything because we knew the guys . . . we definitely left a space for the audience to make up their minds. We didn’t sugarcoat any of the issues which happened . . . we had to stay neutral.”

That included keeping the cameras running when teammates were calling each other to account, or team captain Vinnie Hughes was involved in a controversial fight.

Swan and McFadyen were originally inspired to embark on a sports documentary in part by HBO’s acclaimed 24/7 series, which follows two professional ice hockey teams in the weeks leading up to the annual outdoors “Winter Classic” game.

However, the NHL teams involved in 24/7 remain commercial entities, the players wary, experienced media performers, and the production a commitment to just a slice of a long season.

Resolution considered doing the same for AFL, basketball or cricket in Australia, but found “they were all too censored and they were all too controlled”.

The best subject was right under their hockey-loving noses.

“People go on Big Brother to get something out of it, they want to be famous,” Swan says. “These guys were involved because they loved what they do, not because they wanted to be famous out of it, not because they wanted money but because . . . they loved what they do and they wanted to show off what they do. That’s why it was successful and people were themselves.”

Melbourne Ice players train and prepare as intently as many professional sportspeople, and the organisation, volunteer-run, has grown five-fold in three years since moving to the Icehouse in Melbourne’s Docklands.

The balance of the amateur and professional is precarious for Australian ice hockey, and its portrayal broadens the appeal of the series.

“They’re a minority sport, they’re amateurs, they don’t have to worry about sponsors, they don’t have to worry about a public profile yet – even though it’s on the verge of that,” Swan says.

“So they could be themselves. They didn’t have anything to lose, really, because they don’t have anything. So it was that opportunistic thing of their sport isn’t censored at this stage, there’s no public profile . . . So what you got was something that was really raw and it was real. So I think that’s why the results were so good and they were themselves.

“It did perfectly line up for us, the season they had, how down they got, even when they were two-nil down in the final. The story almost told itself, we were just lucky to be part of it.”

Swan and McFadyen enjoy all manner of documentaries – “Anything that gives an insight into what you just don’t get to see,” as McFadyen puts it. But they remain most in love with sport.

“I’ve always said that sport is the best reality TV,” Swan says. “A guy breaks his leg on the MCG on a Friday night and it’s everywhere. Someone on Big Brother does something and nobody cares, because it’s all set up.”

And they both loved making Road to Three-Peat so much that they are suffering withdrawal – it is hard to replicate that love they felt.

Detailing proposed follow-ups with Ice and the AIHL, McFadyen says they will miss “being part of the team and part of the club”.

“I don’t think we can handle not having any hockey around.”

But Swan says whatever the duo takes on next, it will never be the same as the extraordinary six months they spent with Melbourne Ice.

“That’s the hardest thing. Because even if we go on a road trip next year you’re not in the locker room, you’re not part of it, you’re in the crowd, you’re a fan again. So as much as you might have a couple of beers afterwards, you’re not in the trenches feeling every blow.”

Official site: The Ice: Road To Threepeat

The Age’s report on the AIHL 2012 grand final – click here

Melbourne Ice -click here

Melbourne Mustangs -click here

AIHL -click here

Melbourne Icehouse – click here

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.


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