The NHL season is almost certainly over thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. For those who are missing their hockey fix, Hollywood Pictures has you covered with their 1999 hockey-based film Mystery, Alaska.

Strap on your skates and try to keep up with Russell Crowe and company as they face off against the New York Rangers.

The Movie

Mystery is a small town in Alaska that lives and breathes hockey. Each Saturday they have something called the ‘Saturday Game’ where everyone in the community comes out to cheer on specially chosen talented players from the town. The roster includes the Sheriff John Biebe, played by Russell Crowe, the local teacher and lothario ‘Skank’ Marden, played by Ron Eldard, ‘Birdie’ Burns played by Scott Grimes, and the local grocer Connor Banks, played by Michael Buie.

The team is regularly augmented by a town committee consisting of the mayor Scott Pitcher, played by Colm Meaney, and the local lawyer Bailey Pruitt, played by Maury Chaykin. A former resident of Mystery, Charlie Danner, played by Hank Azaria, profiled the team in Sports Illustrated magazine. The town of Mystery knows how talented their team is and why it’s important to protect the team at all costs.  

Biebe has played the Saturday game for thirteen years, but is finally replaced for an up and coming high school kid named Stevie Weeks played by Ryan Northcott. While his wife Donna, played by Mary McCormack, is trying to comfort John during his demotion, Charlie Danner returns to Mystery with big news. Thanks to the popularity of Danner’s article, the New York Rangers are interested in coming to Mystery to play the team.

With only minor resistance by local judge Walter Burns, played by Burt Reynolds, the town initiates the challenge and builds a proper venue for the game. As the town prepares for the match, the players of the New York Rangers want nothing to do with the game. Since this would be in the middle of the season, players have filed a legal injunction against having to play the game. Just when everything seems lost, Bailey Pruitt heads to New York to plead the town’s case for the game. Pruitt dies in the courtroom but succeeds, and the game is set to commence in January.

Now that the game is official, the team is brought together with Biebe returning to the ice as Captain, and Judge Burns as coach for the upcoming game. The town is in awe of the Rangers being in their community, but when the puck drops, the town and team is in it to win. Mystery scores two goals in the first period, but the Rangers rally back in the second period for five unanswered goals. A stirring motivational speech by Biebe gets the team back in the game and finishes the match with honor.

With the game over, the publicity Danner brought to Mystery has had some repercussions on the town. Stevie Weeks and Connor Banks impressed the Rangers organization and are offered contracts with the organization's AHL affiliate. The film ends with the town waving goodbye to their two hockey players.

The Best

This is a film about hockey and Mystery, Alaska serves up hockey from the first moment to the last. From the opening shot of the story with a character skating the length of the lake, to the kids in town skating and playing hockey with their friends, if you love hockey, you will be inundated with the sport from the first moment to the last. The final game with the Rangers serves up a treat in the form of a hockey game that sports enthusiasts will not see anywhere else.

Burt Reynolds’ Burns is the ideal vessel for the conscience of the town. While everyone lives and breathes hockey, Burns is repulsed by the town’s obsession, but he can’t help but be part of the game. When he becomes the coach, Burns adds a credible sense of organization to the team.

The film is beautifully shot. From the opening shot of skating the lake to the surrounding mountains, Mystery, Alaska is a wonderfully shot exposition of the natural beauty of Alberta, where the film was made.

The Worst

The movie feels like a made for tv movie and not a big screen story. There are moments of profanity, and scenes of sexuality that are not needed and in no way further develop the story. I felt like for most of the film, Mystery, Alaska wasn’t sure if it was trying to be a family-friendly film, or a film for an older audience.

The infatuation that Azaria’s Danner has with Donna Biebe is just awkward and wrong. It really has no place in the film and does nothing but undercut the supposedly strong marriage and love between Donna and John. I feel like this storyline would be a typical subplot for a Hallmark movie.

Mystery, Alaska does little to develop its characters. Crowe’s Biebe is a great lead but he’s not given enough screen time to develop the dynamics of his relationship with Donna, or his own love of hockey. We have no idea why John Biebe has played thirteen years in the Saturday game. Instead of getting development about Biebe, the film is bogged down in the escapades of ‘Skank’ Marden, the infidelity of the mayor’s wife, played by Lolita Davidovich, and the teen sexual angst of Stevie Weeks. Plus, we have another subplot of family tension with Judge Burns and his son ‘Birdie’. Sometimes less is more. Mystery, Alaska needed less subplots and more focus on some of the main characters.

Mike Myers is a talented and funny actor who has made me laugh for decades with his brilliance. His role as Donny Schulzhoffer is unnecessary and a distraction from the story. If I were to use a hockey analogy about how I feel the story played out, it would go like this: When your roster has Russell Crowe, Burt Reynolds, Mary McCormack, Ron Eldard, Hank Azaria, Colm Meaney, and Lolita Davidovich, the film should be outstanding. Unfortunately, the actors don’t get much ice time to shine.

Film Facts

  • The movie was filmed in Alberta, Canada not Alaska due to cheaper filming costs.
  • The script was co-written by prolific television writer David E. Kelley.
  • The film is loosely based on the 1905 Stanley Cup game between the Ottawa Senators and Dawson City Nuggets.
  • The real New York Rangers players refused to participate in the film. The roster of players in Mystery, Alaska is fictional.
  • The film was originally titled Face Off. 
  • Mike Myers character is inspired by Canadian hockey commentator Don Cherry
  • Russell Crowe and two other co stars from the film, Kevin Durand and Scott Grimes, would reteam for 2010’s Robin Hood.
  • Hockey legend Phil Esposito makes a cameo as himself as the commentator for the game.
  • Little Richard makes a cameo as himself singing the national anthem for the game.

See It/Skip It?

Right now, the NHL would be in the middle of the playoffs. Hockey fans are missing their favorite sport, and if you are one of those hockey fans missing your fix, then Mystery, Alaska is a See It. The movie was not well received when it was released. Mystery, Alaska was a box office failure. It has a 37% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer, but the audience score is far more generous with a 66% rating. I find myself agreeing with a lot of reviewers when they talk about too many characters, and how Russell Crowe showed what the movie could have been had the story focused on him and not a dozen other subplots. I remember liking this movie originally when I first saw it twenty years ago, but now it just doesn’t hold up. I can’t recommend Mystery, Alaska for casual viewing.

Next time on ‘To Touchstone and Beyond’ a look at the Bernie Mac baseball comedy from 2004, Mr. 3000.  

Director: Jay Roach

Production Company: Hollywood Pictures

Principal Cast:

  • Russell Crowe as John Biebe
  • Burt Reynolds as Judge Walter Burns
  • Mary McCormack as Donna Biebe
  • Ron Eldard as ‘Skank’ Marden
  • Colm Meaney as Mayor Scott Pitcher
  • Hank Azaria as Charles Danner
  • Maury Chaykin as Bailey Pruitt
  • Lolita Davidovich as Mary Jane Pitcher
  • Mike Myers as Donnie Schulzhoffer  
  • Kevin Durand as ‘Tree’ Lane
  • Scott Grimes as ‘Birdie’ Burns

Release Date: October 1, 1999

Budget: $28 million

Box Office Gross Domestic = $8,891,623