The head of Toronto Film School Online’s Video Production program will make his festival debut as a feature documentary director next month at DOC NYC – one of the largest documentary film festivals in the world.
The Cannons, which Steven Hoffner directed, produced, shot and edited, is an immersive documentary that follows Coach Neal Henderson and his Fort Dupont Cannons – the longest-serving minority hockey program in North America.
“Coach Neal is one of the most amazing human beings I’ve had the honour of meeting in life, and I’m not the only one who would say that,” Hoffner said of founder of the Washington, D.C.-based club, which has been providing inner-city youth aged eight to 17 with the opportunity to participate in organized ice hockey since 1978.
“When you meet someone like him, you’re just kind of pulled into their energy and their positivity – and you just kind of want to be a part of that.”
A veteran producer of sports documentaries for the NHL, Hoffner said he first stumbled across the story of Henderson and his Fort Dupont Cannons a few years ago and his interest was immediately piqued.
By August 2017, after lots of research and due diligence, Hoffner and his co-director, A.J. Messier, were confident that the team’s story would be an “amazing” one to tell, and packed their bags and headed down to D.C. to convince Coach Henderson and his players of the same.
“I always thought theirs would be an amazing story to tell, but when we actually met the team, we were even more blown away by this club and what they were all about,” Hoffner said, noting that the vast majority of the team’s players hail from Washington’s predominantly Black and socio-economically disadvantaged Wards 7 and 8.
“(Coach Neal) was understandably very guarded when it came to the kids, especially with two white dudes coming in from Canada,” Hoffner laughed.
“But he’s such an unbelievable person who doesn’t see people by their colour or where they’re from, just the character you bring to the table. And we were lucky enough to earn the team’s trust…so by the time we started shooting, it was as friends, and by the end of it, they certainly became like family.”
Part of that trust was earned, Hoffner said, by his and Messier’s commitment to bringing People of Colour on to the project to help tell The Cannons’ story – people like Emmy-nominated producer and director Robert Ford, who served as an executive producer on the project, and EPSN hockey analyst Kevin Weekes, one of the first professional Black goaltenders in pro sports, who acted as an associate producer.
“I think it’s important, especially when people look at the story and they look at my skin colour, to know that we aligned with People of Colour to help produce the project,” he said of The Cannons, which follows the day-to-day lives of the young African American players on the Washington, D.C.-based team.
“A lot of Black voices feel like they’ve been shut out of the process a lot of the time, and we didn’t want to be a part of that.”
With little budget to speak of, Hoffner ended up having to take on several key roles during both the shooting of the film – which began in September 2018 and wrapped in February 2020 – and during post-production. He not only served as the documentary’s lead director and producer but also as its principal shooter and editor, among many other duties.
In doing so, Hoffner became quite close with the documentary’s main subjects – Coach Henderson and two of his teenaged players, Robert Lynch and Rayvon Hall – and their families.
“These kids are from very different homes than you would traditionally expect from ‘hockey families,’ but they have such a great energy about them – especially in terms of their perspective on the world,” Hoffner said.
Both seniors in high school, The Cannons follows Lynch and Hall as they attempt to navigate the trials and tribulations of inner-city living while striving to pursue their dreams during a year of immense change and racial tensions in America.
For Hall, whose family lives on social assistance, the struggles to make it to college are very real – he wants to continue playing hockey at the post-secondary level, but his options are limited. He dreams of making his mom proud as the first member of his family ever to go to college, but he has to figure out a way to pay for it first.
Described by Hoffner as an “incredibly charming and street-wise kid,” Lynch, on the other hand, aspires to join the police force right out of high school. His dream to one day change the culture of policing in D.C., however, comes during an especially tumultuous time in American history.
“I think given the recent civil rights movement 2.0, these young men’s stories became even more timely in terms of the themes we were covering in The Cannons: racism in the sport of hockey, the idea that hockey is for everyone, and the perspective of what it’s like to be African American in the States in this day and age,” Hoffner said.
While none of the documentary’s main subjects have yet seen the film, Hoffner said he’s hopeful Coach Henderson and his Fort Dupont crew will be able to make the five-hour drive to New York on Nov. 14 to attend its world premiere at DOC NYC.
He also hopes all those who see the film walk away from it with love and empathy in their hearts for the Cannons players and their families.
“One of our leading drives with this film was to give voices to these people who maybe never had a platform like this one before, so my hope is that people really listen to them and to what’s going on in terms of systemic racism,” he said
“Coach Neal’s message to the world is the main reason me and A.J. wanted to make this film because it’s such a touching and beautiful one – that everybody is created equal and everyone deserves an equal opportunity at life.”
To learn more about The Cannons, go to www.thecannonsdocumentary.com