January 30, 2024
• Inspired by real-life tragedies, a Needham High School graduate explores the impact of mental health on local youth through the sport of hockey.
This article contains mentions of suicide.
Students at Needham High School in the mid-2000s remember the feeling well: walking through the hallways and seeing one less familiar face, or gearing up in the locker room without their teammate.
A series of suicides among Needham teenagers “turned the town gray,” 2009 NHS graduate Jake Miskin said, and it was difficult talking with friends about it or understanding what was happening.
But in the wake of tragedy, there was triumph — the high school’s hockey team won a state championship, fostering a much-needed sense of community. Hockey kept the school and town grounded, including Miskin himself, who was also dealing with dark thoughts.
That experience, as well as Miskin’s own affinity for the sport, led him to write “Shattered Ice,” an independent film a decade in the making. He’s returned to Needham, along with a crew of other Massachusetts natives, to begin filming this winter. They’ve already shot scenes across the Needham area, recruiting locals for extra roles and incorporating iconic local imagery, including Greene’s Field, Perry Park and NHS itself.
They hope to wrap by late spring or early summer and hold premieres in the fall, said Miskin, who is also an executive producer.
Miskin’s homecoming has been a sentimental and rewarding one. From a show business dream conceived in college to lugging film equipment through his parents’ house, Miskin said he’s excited to see the project come to life.
“It’s because of the community, of everyone championing a story like this forward, that deals with some really hard issues to talk about. That’s why I’m doing this,” Miskin said, “because there’s a stigma behind it, but also people want a good hockey story.”
Set in the fictional town of Nehoiden — named after Nehoiden Street — the film follows a local high schooler after his best friend and star hockey player takes his own life. He confronts that trauma and moves through grief, all while taking to the ice in his friend’s absence. The film is directed by Alex Ranarivelo.
Miskin said he aims to spark impactful dialogue around mental health through a “raw, authentic hockey movie” reminiscent of “Friday Night Lights,” a popular TV show about high school football that aired during his high school years.
Sports have a special ability to bring people together, and NHS hockey games in particular are “electric,” said Ben Stephen, a 2008 NHS graduate and a producer on the film. By tying in the film’s heavy subject matter with a quintessential aspect of New England life, the filmmakers can “sneak the broccoli in with the chocolate,” he said.
In the wake of the high school’s losses, Stephen said his and his classmates’ lives were irrevocably changed.
“I think all of us had to grow up really quickly when those things happened… If anybody was innocent or naive to the concept of depression and suicide, I think that that, at least for me and for us in that moment, that innocence was lost,” Stephen said, “because something like that, it changes you, merely by realization of the fact that it can happen in your town.”
While the messaging is integral to the film — and shouldn’t feel like watching a PSA — Stephen and the team figured the hockey scenes should be just as gripping.
“The hockey has to rock. It has to feel like those nights that we were at the games in high school, where it was the most important thing in the world, and if someone scored a goal, you absolutely lost your mind,” Stephen said. “So that is what we’re trying to emulate.”
Nehoiden hockey captivated Randolph’s Zapustas Ice Arena earlier this month, when the “Shattered Ice” crew sent actors out on the ice to shoot a pivotal hockey scene. The team wore blue and golden Nehoiden Black Bears jerseys, playing against the fictional Catholic Prep Crusaders.
Dozens of extras joined the action, including Will Saunders, of Stoughton, who wore his own clothes from his high school years in the mid-2000s. Saunders formerly worked for the University of Maine’s hockey team, as well as the Syracuse Crunch, and considers himself a longtime hockey fanatic.
After seeing a call for extras on a local Facebook group, Saunders said he felt compelled to join the project, as the film’s theme resonated with him. The more attention mental health issues receive, the easier it will be to deal with those issues, Saunders said, and hockey seems to be an appropriate channel through which to break existing stigmas.
“I do like the fact that hockey teams are among the few you see that, they actually stick together, they defend each other,” Saunders said. “Someone gets hit, there’s a brawl that breaks out, for better or worse.”
Extra and former Needhamite Mark Troy, of Norwell, remarked the skating rink was the place to be, as it was likely warmer than the freezing cold outside. The film is intrinsically Needham, which was all Troy needed to get involved, but its messaging is also important.
“I think people should own their own mental health and be able to speak about it,” Troy said. “That’s just my wishful thinking.”
During the fundraising and promotional phase of the project, Miskin launched the social media campaign #WeSkateWithMentalHealth and recruited young and former athletes to rep Nehoiden Black Bears merchandise and share what mental health means to them.
Miskin expressed his gratitude to Needham residents, who have been “introducing the project to new heights” thanks to their support — an active online fundraiser has raised more than $30,000, and a previous Kickstarter surpassed its goal of $35,000. Bauer Hockey donated hockey equipment, Miskin said, and 47 Brand donated customized merchandise.
Though he sees plenty of NHS as an assistant coach for the boys soccer team, Miskin said returning inside his alma mater to shoot some scenes was significant.
“It’s pretty surreal filming in classrooms,” Miskin said. “It’s a lot more brand new than it was when I left.”
Needham Public Schools students expressed equal excitement for the film, Superintendent Dan Gutekanst said, as some of them appeared as extras during the scenes filmed at the school. Filmmakers approached the district last year to possibly film on location, and Gutekanst said he enjoyed welcoming a Rocket back to campus to tell a meaningful story based on NHS life.
“There are a lot of young people who struggle with mental health issues, and they should understand that they’re not alone, that it’s not atypical, they’re not different, that is something that can happen and will happen to folks at different parts in their lives,” Gutekanst said. “Although there’s some tragedy involved in the story, to bring awareness to the issue through a compelling narrative in a film is something I think that will really connect to our students, their families and beyond.”
At NPS, teachers, staffers and athletic coaches work to identify signs of stress or distress and help refer students to the proper resources, Gutekanst said, and a team of counselors provide assistance. The district also partners with Needham Youth and Family Services.
Those watching the film will never learn why the character committed suicide, and Miskin kept that intentionally obscure.
“Once you show a reason why, it turns people away like, ‘Oh, that’s not going to happen to my friend, or that’s not going to happen to my son or daughter or my brother or sister,’” Miskin said. “It can happen to anyone, and that’s what we found out in high school.”
He remembers the “dark cloud” that fell on Needham, but he also pointed to the good that’s come of it. A focus on mental health initiatives both in schools and in town work to ensure better outcomes for local youth, Miskin said, and the community is stronger and more resilient.
And when it comes to Massachusetts, there will always be hockey.
“The town rallies around these things. It’s such a source of pride. It’s a source of meaning too,” Stephen said. “A huge part of the story is that this character who’s going through it, he really finds his purpose and his sense of self in the sport of hockey and in the community and in the people that are on the team.”