Portland figures in nearly every second of filmmaker Devon Platte’s upcoming NBCSN docu-series “Puckland,” right down to the opening titles. Ending on a shot of a hand-painted graffiti wall handsomely emblazoned with the name “Portland,” an artist approaches and spray-paints “Puck” over the first four letters. As Platte tells me, that’s Portland-based graffiti artist Mike Rich, replicating his work from the sadly-demolished landmark graffiti wall at the old Asylum night club, a deep-cut Portland reference that’s indicative of just how deeply rooted the city’s long and tumultuous relationship with its minor league hockey teams is.
For Platte, the idea for “Puckland” came from his hometown paper – the same one where this column appears – the Portland Press Herald. Standing in his Munjoy Hill kitchen one morning in 2017, he and his wife got into a debate about which fan-voted name should be the moniker of what eventually became the Maine Mariners. “I thought because it’s the minors, you need some flash,” Platte said, laughing, “so I was all about the (ultimately un-chosen and eccentric team name) Wild Blueberries.” Sadly for him, the potential Portland Wild Blueberries became the Maine Mariners, the second such-named minor league hockey team in town. The old Mariners left for Rhode Island in 1992, and Portlanders are still smarting from the abrupt departure of the Portland Pirates in 2016, a testament to both the rough-and-tumble life of minor league sports franchises, and Portland’s undying love of the sport.
That passion is what led Los Angeles native Platte to formulate what would eventually become the six-episode reality series “Puckland,” which will air on NBCSN later in the current hockey season (specific dates and times were not yet available). Platte, an experienced TV vet who was also an executive producer of Animal Planet’s Maine-set warden reality series “North Woods Law,” saw the potential for another Maine-based documentary show, right in his own backyard. All he had to do was convince a team with no name, logo, players or coach that following the difficult birth of the new team around with cameras was a good idea.
Inspired by other such behind-the-scenes sports documentary series as “Hard Knocks” and “Last Chance U,” Platte says he was fortunate enough to get a coffee meeting with Mariners fledgling general manager and 17-year NHL player Daniel Brière, who (along with Mariners VP Adam Goldberg) agreed to let Platte and his crew of largely local filmmakers document the birth of Portland’s latest hockey franchise. Platte says the production got a boost when, filming the show’s network-enticing “sizzle reel” at the Boston Bruins-Philadelphia Flyers alumni game at Portland’s Cross Insurance Area in February 2018, Brière informed filmmakers that they would be naming the team’s first-ever head coach, Riley Armstrong. Thus armed with a suitably dramatic event to kick off the series, Platte and company got to work, eventually securing a home at NBC’s hockey-heavy sports network.
For Platte, minor league sports is an especially fruitful dramatic milieu, and Portland’s fraught history of hockey fandom and heartbreak only adds to “Puckland’s” richness. “As lovely as Portland is,” Platte said, “nobody wants to retire here. Players, coaches, executives – they all look at their time in Portland as a stepping stone to somewhere bigger.” That “here” and “not-here” existence is simply the way of things for a minor league franchise, regardless of the sport, and, for Mainers, that complicated relationship to their teams is central, too. Said Platte, “For the Mariners, starting a new team is that much harder in a town that’s already lost two teams in recent memory.”
Platte credits own his stellar local team (including editor Corey Norman, producer Heeth Grantham, audio supervisor Rob Sylvain, line producer Eric Mofford and director of photography Joe Brunette) for making the modestly budgeted and scrappy “Puckland” look good enough to compete with the big boys. (Even the soundtrack rings with songs from local artists like Spose and The Mallett Brothers Band.) “I still have a house in L.A., but I live right on Munjoy Hill, and I’m always fascinated with some of the stories I kind of stumble across,” said Platte. “This is just another good chance to work here, tell interesting stories, and to work with some of the great people around me. There’s just a very talented group of professionals that live right here in Maine. Meeting up at what’s now the Munjoy Hill Tavern to come up with ideas, the fact that this was a local story was a big motivator for us.”
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Thursday: “Mountain Miracle.” This heartwarming tale (a big winner at the Lolas, aka the German Oscars) follows the friendship of an asthmatic young girl and a boy who helps carry her up a mountain in search of a legendary cure.
Starts Friday: “Greta.” From director Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”) comes this thriller about an innocent young woman (the always-interesting Chloë Grace Moretz) whose good deed leads to an unlikely (and ultimately freaky) friendship with a lonely widow (French acting legend Isabelle Huppert). A tip: Don’t watch the trailer, which is criminally spoiler-filled.