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How the Canucks created the most ambitious crossover ever with their "Heroes Return" intro video

Director Mike Pohorly pulled out all the stops and called on his film industry friends to create a memorable short film.

It was like the living embodiment of the “Infinity War” meme. Marvel thought they had made the most ambitious crossover event in history, only for the Vancouver Canucks to blow them out of the water.

When fans showed up for the Canucks’ home opener on Tuesday, they were treated to a season intro video that was more like a short film. In the 2019-20 season, the Canucks faced a Game of Thrones-style zombie horde in their intro video. This season, the Canucks stepped into the cinematic universes of Marvel, DC, Star Wars, and beyond.

The man behind both the “Heroes Return” film and the previous zombie film is Mike Pohorly, the Canucks’ creative director. Pohorly is in charge of the in-arena entertainment during games and is uniquely suited for the job of creating these videos with his background in both hockey and the film industry.

Pohorly played college hockey at Concordia University and has written and directed his own shorts and TV series as well as worked as an assistant director on everything from Hollywood productions like The A-Team to TV shows like Once Upon a Time, Prison Break, and Legends of Tomorrow.

Working on a superhero show like Legends of Tomorrow seems like good experience for this project.

"No matter how down they get, they're never out."

Set in a post-apocalyptic version of Vancouver symbolizing the emotional lows of the pandemic, one child, looking like a young Mad Max, walks through broken hockey gear. The kid, played wonderfully by Oliver Tru Sison from Kamloops, rediscovers the Canucks siren and uses it to call back the heroes of the Canucks to revitalize Rogers Arena and bring back the fans into the building.

“I tried to come up with a concept that could address the separation and uncertainty we have collectively gone through this last year-and-a-half and still be fun,” said Pohorly. “I picked superheroes because no matter how down they get, they’re never out, and being able to play with images of a post-apocalyptic version of Vancouver but through the ironic distance of the comic book world.”

Each player paid homage to a famous hero. Brock Boeser, as befitting his golden hair, plays a mythical Thor-like figure with a magical hockey stick taking the place of Mjolnir. Elias Pettersson is a robed Jedi with a hockey-stick lightsaber, while Bo Horvat is a suave Bruce Wayne type. 

“My very first images in my head for this were Petey as a Jedi, Bo overlooking the city similar to Batman and Brock as similar to Thor,” said Pohorly. “For the rest of them, my co-writer and co-producer Kody Zimmerman and I, along with the Game Entertainment team at the Canucks, met up to think of who would be a fun match.”

“Kody and I worked on this script every night for a week trying to figure out what the players would actually be doing and how it could all fit together,” he added.

J.T. Miller is in the woods as a Johnny Canuck-esque lumberjack with a hint of Wolverine, which is a pretty good fit for the gruff, frequently-scowling forward.

“J.T. mentioned that his wardrobe we gave him was pretty much straight from his closet,” said Pohorly.

Conor Garland is a speedster like the Flash on a cosmic treadmill. Quinn Hughes is the spitting image of Peter Parker, pulling a Canucks jersey out of his backpack instead of his Spider-Man costume. Oliver Ekman-Larsson apes Christopher Reeves’ Clark Kent, pulling apart his shirt to reveal the Canucks’ logo instead of Superman’s S.

“As I hope comes across in the video, the players had a lot of fun with it all,” said Pohorly. “Oliver remarked that they never got a chance to do anything like this in Arizona...Brock was really getting into it all, which shows on camera. 

“When we finally got Hughes and put him in for a Peter Parker-type cameo, he was joking that all Brock had to do was hold up a stick, but he had to run around a corner, kick off his shoes and then open his backpack.”

Clearly, Hughes had the toughest job.

Meanwhile, Thatcher Demko steps into a virtual world like Tron, though the concept was more like the X-Men’s Danger Room. Whatever the concept, it looks dynamic, with Demko fully committing with his intense stare.

"He plays out there like he's literally on fire."

The moment that got one of the best reactions from the crowd at the home opener, however, was Nils Höglander’s hero moment. When Höglander pops onto the screen juggling, as he is wont to do while riding a unicycle, that’s fun. When the juggling balls suddenly light on fire, that’s cool. But when he snaps his fingers and himself erupts in blue flames like the Human Torch, that might be the coolest moment of the entire video. 

“Nils, when I was shooting with him I let him know that I loved his style of play and he plays out there like he’s literally on fire, so that was an easy one!” said Pohorly. “Plus, he can actually juggle, so we had to throw that in there. What might not be fully evident is that the balls that he’s juggling are being absorbed into his body which later he ignites when he snaps his fingers, but I think everyone gets the fun of it.”

The video is full of other cool moments, like Miller snapping his axe over his knee and Pettersson flipping a puck that is similar to the floating remote that Luke Skywalker trains with in Star Wars: A New Hope.

“I had already come up with the idea of lightsaber hockey stick when I did the Canucks vs Zombies video, but I couldn’t make it fit in there with Petey,” said Pohorly. “So I wanted to figure out somewhere to fit that idea in.”

Jason Dickinson and Tyler Motte are also there, though they don’t seem to have a heroic counterpart. I guess Dickinson and Motte are heroic enough on their own — given the way each of them have spoken up for causes like Black Lives Matter and mental health, that’s actually pretty fitting. 

The players then gather together at centre ice of the ruined Rogers Arena and bring it back to life. In the arena, the light show was timed with this reveal, with lights arcing out from centre ice to bathe the arena in light. It was a stunning effect.

"The budget was kept extremely low."

The entire thing is remarkably ambitious for an intro video but Pohorly was able to call on his connections to the Vancouver film industry and found that people were eager to help.

“The budget was kept extremely low as I used many long-time friends of mine I’ve worked with in the film industry who were willing to work for basically free for the chance to do something unique with the Canucks,”  said Pohorly. “Shawn Williamson of Brightlight Pictures came up so massively huge for us to get this project done, along with Jon Shore to supervise post-production.”

One of the biggest challenges was the limited time that the players were available to shoot. In particular, they had minimal time with Pettersson and Hughes after the two signed so late, but even the rest of the Canucks were only briefly available.

“To find ways to be able to shoot everything I needed with each player in the hour I had with each of them meant there was no time for too many takes or set-ups,” said Pohorly. “My Director of Photography, Tyler Walzak, was lighting three sets at a time so we could jump from set to set, whereas on a feature film or commercials, we’ll have hours just to light one set. Here we were completing a set every 15 minutes.”  

Then there were all the visual effects, since so much of the shoot was done on green screen. Typically that type of post-production takes months — for this shoot, they got it done in three weeks.

“There wasn’t a moment to spare and I only finished the final sound mix yesterday morning just before our opening night rehearsals,” said Pohorly. “The visual effects were divided up through many Vancouver-based companies volunteering to share the work to get it done on such a tight timeline.  

“Animism did the bulk of the work handling all of the Demko, Petterson, Garland sequences. The rest was done by Arc, Kalos and Render Animation. Mike Leeming, who I had worked with on the TV series Prison Break, gave up his nights and weekends to help coordinate it all and Michael Davidson [who worked on visual effects for Battlestar Galactica, Chuck, and Batwoman, among others] also came up huge for us to get these shots done.”

The final result speaks for itself and is a testament to the hard work of all of these creators.