“I ask everyone I’ve interviewed, always: the question of the film has been, what has hockey meant to you personally?” said Rachel Koteen, director and producer of a documentary that is tackling the broader question of women’s sports through the lens of the NWHL. “That’s what I’ve been wrapping up with every interview. You get great answers, but it’s funny how many people say ‘Everything. What do you mean? Hockey’s everything. Everything.'”
“And they all then go on to say things that are different – each person is different and they’re all quite moving and beautiful. But for them, hockey is everything.”
That “everything” is something Koteen is hoping to capture in her NWHL-centric film, “History Begins.” Koteen spoke with me in a phone interview Monday, Nov. 9, the day her Kickstarter for her film launched, but this project has already been nearly a year in the making.
“I have wanted to do a sports story for a long time, particularly a behind-the-scenes of a team,” Koteen said. “That is something that has been in my head for a while, yes. So I heard about this (in March) and I was like, ‘oh, yes, that could be it. That could be perfect.'”
The fact that this was the league’s inaugural year wasn’t lost on Koteen, either.
“The added excitement of it being their first year I thought brought a whole other dimension to the story,” she said.
“The main thing that fascinates me, the main reason this type of film has been in my mind for a while is because the athletes just work so hard,” Koteen continued. “They give everything. And especially, and in a situation like this where there’s not big money. There’s not amazing, massive fame to be had. There are passionate fans of this league but there’s not the level of fame and money that you would see for an NHL player.”
And while these women continue to work for what equates to less than minimum wage when calculated out, that they are being financially rewarded for their passion and skill at all is a new twist on an old topic, at least in the history of women’s hockey. As such, players have learned to take their rewards in intangibles: a win, a goal, a deke or a toe drag that fakes out a goaltender, or even the knowledge that is gained with a loss.
“That’s the story I want to tell: this incredible passion that goes into being the best at something,” said Koteen. “And the way that they are the best, and how exciting it is to win. And what you learn from losing, too. It can be pretty devastating but . . . you learn a lot. Effective, yeah.”
Koteen comes to “History Begins” from having been a producer for Show of Force on their acclaimed documentaries “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” and their newest project, “A Path Appears.”
“I would say the number one thing I learned is about story, and how to build a really compelling story,” she said, when asked what she learned from her work on Half the Sky. “To see characters for who they are. I think I also learned that people want to be inspired. They want to see solutions. I wouldn’t want to make a documentary that was just like, ‘God, there are no good opportunities for female athletes, isn’t this terrible.’ I would rather see people like Dani (Rylan), the staff in the NWHL, all the players in the NWHL, who are going around saying they’re not going to tolerate the lack of opportunities for female athletes. I think that’s a huge thing I learned from working on Half the Sky.”
Koteen approached NWHL founder and Commissioner Dani Rylan about the possibility of letting her and a crew shoot a documentary prior even to the launch party in April. Once Rylan agreed, Koteen began traveling to training camps, conducting interviews, and catching as much footage as she could to tell the story of the first year of this league.
“I want to make sure I’m getting good coverage but there’s not money in the budget to shoot every game, unfortunately,” said Koteen. “To some extent what happened in the games will be a known quantity. A documentary like this takes a long time to cut, to edit, and what happens in the games will be a known quantity and won’t necessarily be the focus of our story. The full arc of the season and what’s going on surrounding that is the story.”
And so Koteen, who has been fundraising through more traditional means as well, turned to Kickstarter.
“This is all happening so fast,” Koteen said. “I mobilized quite quickly but you often need a lot more time than I have even had to get a film funded. I felt like this was a good way to make sure we can keep going and to make sure we don’t miss the stories because everything is happening now. There are so many people who are passionate about it I thought; let’s tap into that, let’s bring them on board and have a little bit of ownership of it.”
Koteen is an independent producer and director who is collaborating with the league. While she is focusing her film on them, she felt it was important to emphasize that the story she is telling will be her own, meaning she has creative control over her own work.
Similarly to the NWHL, however, Koteen is focused on paying those who are developing her product.
“A lot of people (on the film) have been volunteers,” Koteen said. “Some crew I had to pay, and I prefer to pay people. That’s why I’m fundraising right now; because I want to keep shooting and paying people. These are professionals and like the women in the league they deserve to be paid when they work. It’s expensive; production’s super expensive. Especially…I think the teaser gives you a sense of the production value I want to bring to the piece and that’s expensive.”
Koteen is working with Marian Dealy, a cinematographer she met through her amateur women’s hockey league, Ana Vesilic, her story producer, Jarred Alterman, a cinematographer, all of whom helped craft the teaser that fans could view today.
She, Kaleigh Fratkin, captain of the Connecticut Whale, Altman and Dealy bundled up and drove down to Middletown, N.J. to Middletown Ice World. They filmed Fratkin’s slap shot, which opposing goaltenders can attest is formidable.
“Kaleigh is really there meant to represent all women,” Koteen said. “She’s not meant to be The Kaleigh Fratkin.”
“I met her at the initial tryouts and she was sweet enough to do a little extra filming up for me in Boston at the international player camp. So that’s A. And B, I was looking for someone with a great slapshot, and Kaleigh has a great slapshot.”
And while Koteen gets a lot of satisfaction out of filming itself, there’s a lot going on around her that she delights in as well that may very well make it into her film, and some of which has already been incorporated into her trailer.
“What I love seeing is the little girls at the games,” said Koteen. “And then the players react to it and they’re so excited about it, and then the kids are so excited about (the players being excited). I love seeing the camaraderie grow between the teammates and the rivalries grow between the teams. I have to admit, I was pretty amused at that first New York-Boston game. Is there something about just telling people: ‘you’re New York, you’re Boston,’ and immediately there’s bad blood?” Koteen laughs. “What is that!”
“Everyone is already so passionate about their team and their fandom. I had this one guy come over at the opening Connecticut Whale game and demand to be interviewed because he’s the no. 1 Whale fan. I’m just like, you’re the number 1 fan of a team that’s only played one real game? One game that counted and you are the number 1 fan? And he was! He was so passionate. That’s really fun to see.”
Hockey isn’t just everything to the players, coaches and GMs Koteen is focused on capturing; it’s also everything to the fans who have made themselves a part of these women’s lives.
Fans can visit the film’s Kickstarter site here. In just one day the project has already reached over $10,000 in donations.
In the interest of full disclosure, the podcast I hold weekly with two other writers, Don’t Snow the Goalie, has agreed to donate a guest spot to Koteen for her Kickstarter.