In the years to come, when we look back on the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2020, we will be rightfully amazed that we are able to mention them at all. It is no small miracle that the NHL was able to successfully construct a world within a world that would allow them to award the Stanley Cup. While this run will hold a place in the memories of every hockey fan, for fans of the Dallas Stars it will forever hold a higher perch.
The drama that seemed to build from period to period. The elation of comebacks, so many comebacks, and overtime goals, and the more-than-occasional Anton Khudobin save. It was all there to the point where these playoffs felt normal, even if we all knew that they were anything but. Which is why the deflation for fans of the Stars still cuts so deep as we collectively sit in November with no NHL game in sight.
It was a run by a Stars team that had been widely counted out, in a playoff season that was once in a lifetime. It was natural to talk yourself into the idea that THIS year was the year a team like the Dallas Stars could skate away with a Stanley Cup.
It wasn't to be and that is what makes what Jeff Toates created in “We’re Not Going Home” that much more incredible and painful.
The documentary film that followed the 2020 Dallas Stars doesn't just allow fans to peak behind the curtain. It tears the curtain down, giving viewers access to a team that is one of the most beloved in franchise history. Arguably, they are even more loved this morning.
Toates was given the coveted 51st spot in the Stars’ traveling party to Edmonton, the one designated for a “content creator.” Armed with cameras he quickly and quietly went to work, documenting nearly every second of the Stars’ playoff run. More importantly, he was able to document the new lives that the Stars players and staff were quickly adjusting to. Which, to this viewer, was precisely the point of the film in the first place.
It was a treat to be able to watch the Stars players as they settled into the hotel in Edmonton, like Stephen Johns with his monitors and gaming system, proving to a lot of hockey fans that they are what we are: people. That should go without saying, but without the jerseys, the equipment, the emotions, they are all just guys in their 20s and 30s. Not much different than people are at those ages.
Toates was able to convey that point over and over again.
Whether it was the players grabbing food, bowling, hitting great and terrible golf shots, it was the images of the players breaking up the mundane that stuck out. It brought out the human element, showing young men sacrificing time away from parents, wives, children, and significant others. One of the most hard hitting scenes came when the coaching staff rolled the film of the players’ families supporting the team from afar. The emotions on the players’ faces telling the whole story.
Then there is the current that runs through any team at any level of sport: camaraderie. When a team goes on the road, spends as much time together as a team often does, it is natural to develop a family-like bond. A feeling of trust and togetherness. This is clearly on display in the film, showing the team meetings, meals, and team activities. How the drama, the stress, and the motivation to keep going flows from that common bond of not wanting to let the man next to you down. The defiance it takes in the face of defeat to stand up and say, “We’re Not Going Home.”
Fans were able to see all of it, seeing how the “We’re Not Going Home” mantra was born out of the iconic Wolf of Wall Street scene where Jordan Belfort defiantly announces that he’s not fucking leaving.
Neither were the Stars.
The locker room scenes made that abundantly clear, with team leaders speaking to the group after tough losses. Players tossing their equipment in frustration, only to calmly reach their center to continue the fight in the next game. The coaches walking into the room telling the group that their opponent was there to be had, and the players echoing that message before the games. Finally, the elation of wins, big and small, playing out in rowdy post-game celebrations culminating in the passing of the chain.
The film built to what we all knew it was building towards: the loss in the Finals.
The games in real time were painful. The Game 4 loss that looks and feels as unfair as anything was brought back to life. So, too, were the post-game discussions in the locker room, as a clearly shocked group tried to shock themselves back into the fight when down 3-1. Fight they did in that do-or-die Game 5 when Corey Perry cemented himself in Stars history by extending their season.
However, like a movie adapted from a book, we all knew the ending.
What Jeff Toates put together is something that Stars fans will be able to have for years to come. Just like a young hockey player, falling in love with his hometown team in the early 2000s watched the 1999 “Nothing Else Matters” VHS on repeat, this generation of Stars fans will be able to watch and relive the 2020 run over and over again. From the practices in Frisco in the early days of the restart, the move to the hotel in Edmonton, to the games, the downtime, meetings, and so much more, it is all there to see.
As is the most painful moment of the film.
The moment that wraps this all in a painful bow that connects the emotions of the players to the emotions of a fanbase who cares just as deeply. Jamie Benn sitting in his stall, without a piece of his equipment removed from his body. In their last interaction as teammates, Mattias Janmark walks over to the Stars captain offering his hand before walking out of the Stars dressing room for the last time.
Alone, in full equipment and sweater, Jamie Benn stares blankly ahead before his head falls into his hands. The emotion of a captain, a hockey player, a resident of Dallas, Texas, shouldering the love and expectation for a city and franchise that arguably raised him through his young adulthood in the most heart-wrenching moment of his career. One that was the most heart-wrenching moments in recent years for Stars fans.
A moment that connected the face of the franchise and every supporter of the team in the most poignant way possible — captured in the raw, words unnecessary to describe the feeling in what is arguably the best creative way to do it.