After graduating from the University of Saskatchewan, Russ Sheppard was set up to find a cushy job, start a family, work for 30 years and retire. But, at the time, that lifestyle didn’t appeal to him, so instead he accepted a teaching position in Kuglutkuk, Nanavut – a town on the icy shores of the Arctic Ocean where teens suffered from substance abuse, domestic violence and one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
To cope with the emotional distress of losing students to suicide, the young teacher turned to lacrosse and urged his students to do the same. Sheppard’s efforts in introducing the sport to the Canadian Arctic – and the profound impacts it had on the community -- inspired The Grizzlies, a film coming to American theaters on March 20.
Much to Sheppard’s relief, The Grizzlies isn’t a typical feel-good sports movie like Mighty Ducks, where a rag-tag group of kids are guided to victory by a steady-handed, self-assured adult figure. Nothing against Gordon Bombay and the Flying-V, this story just doesn’t fit the Disney mold.
Although gut-wrenching at times, the film opens an important dialogue about teen suicide, especially regarding all too overlooked indigenous communities. Two of Sheppard’s students committed suicide during his seven-year tenure, leaving the young teacher in a precarious position.
“In those scenarios, you really can’t put yourself in a position where you are trying to save people,” Sheppard said. “We always got teachers up there that the kids became emotionally dependent on, and when they left, they had a crutch pulled out from them. I tried to teach the kids to develop their own crutch.”
Sheppard said he established the lacrosse program in part for his own self-preservation. The more he watched his students struggle, the more he felt the need to engage with them. The program not only gave the students an active outlet; it gave them the means to invest in themselves and treat each other as family. It also contributed to remarkable declines in school truancy and student suicides.
WE’RE MAKING A MOVIE
The story of The Grizzlies inaugural lacrosse team made a long journey before hitting the big screen in Canada in 2018. Sheppard said a reporter on a completely unrelated assignment in Kugluktuk first caught wind of the piece and published it in the early 2000’s. Later, the CBC aired a special, which tipped off an Indian affairs group in the United States. Sheppard and The Grizzlies were then invited to Baltimore to be guests of the Iroquois Nation for the 2003 Lacrosse World Cup, which drew the attention of the Baltimore Sun.
ESPN picked up on the Baltimore Sun story and produced a TV special of its own. Living out of ESPN’s network, Sheppard didn’t even know it aired until he opened his email one morning to find dozens of messages from complete strangers, including, Sheppard still recalls, a Texas football coach who said, “This is why we coach.”
At 27-years-old, Sheppard was offered a life rights movie deal which he accepted under the condition that he wouldn’t profit in any way from the film. The script made its way to director Miranda de Pencier and sat in movie limbo for nearly a decade.
“It wasn’t something I was really worried about,” Sheppard said. “I didn’t really think it was going to get made at all. I felt the ESPN and CBC pieces were more than enough. But then Miranda called me and said, ‘We’re making a movie’.”
Before shooting began, Sheppard spoke on the phone with Ben Schnetzer, the New York native that portrays him in the film, and said the actor put in a lot of work picking up his accent and studying his coaching mannerisms known as “Russ-isms.”
“There’s a lot of things you hear in the movie that weren’t in the script that he heard from me,” Sheppard said.
Despite a full schedule of lacrosse, family and work duties, Sheppard was talked into making a cameo as a referee in the film. “I don’t want to be a self-promoter, but if there is another movie with a lacrosse referee, I think I should get a call,” Sheppard joked.
The Grizzlies has been well-received by audiences and critics, winning awards at the Palm Springs and Calgary Film Festivals and enjoying a 99% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. For Sheppard, the important part is that the film focuses on the courage of the students and the sacrifices they made to invest in themselves.
“The character that these youth have is far beyond what we give them credit for,” Sheppard said. “They did the work and they were the heroes.