1977’S SLAP SHOT IS STILL A ROUGH & TUMBLE TALE OF “OLD TIME HOCKEY” & THE WORKING MAN’S STRUGGLE

October is the first full month of autumn, a time for stylish jackets and sweaters as the air crisps and cools, a celebration of all things Halloween, but it’s also the start of a perennial tradition: the NHL regular season. Now before your eyes glaze over at the mere mention of sport, please allow me a chance to explain. Some of you fellow groovy cinephiles might eschew all things sweaty (well, not all things sweaty), but when I think of hockey, I envision beautiful sheets of perfect ice, not yet blemished by hockey players’ skates, Stompin’ Tom Connors’ “The Hockey Song”, hot chocolate with marshmallows, and Slap Shot, a comedy classic that celebrates Canada’s national pastime. Except that it’s not a Canadian movie, it’s a product of a Hollywood studio, and it’s also written by a woman. The former would shock and upset many a Canadian, so beloved has Slap Shot become in the Great White North (much like Strange Brew, another Hollywood product masquerading as Canadiana), but it’s the latter that’s more intriguing: professional sports have long been dominated by men, so it’s surprising and refreshing to know that a movie about Neanderthal male hockey players was written by the future Oscar-winning female screenwriter of Hal Ashby’s Coming Home. Don Cherry eat your heart out. Slap Shot is that rare comedy classic that’s been embraced by both hockey fans and cinephiles alike. 

Why would Hollywood make a movie about hockey? In 1977, the year Slap Shot was released, the NHL was a distant fourth place in popularity among the major professional sports in the United States, behind Major League Baseball, NFL, and NBA.  Outside of major population centres (New York, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia) and wintry states like Minnesota, hockey struggled to compete for affection with the other sports leagues; in the Sun Belt, the NHL was persona non grata to all except for a cluster of Canadian snowbirds. The NHL even had to compete with an upstart professional hockey league, the World Hockey Association (WHA), as teen phenomenon Wayne Gretzky chose to play for the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers over storied NHL franchises like the Montréal Canadiens or New York Rangers (by 1979, the WHA’s success was short-lived, as many of the teams, such as the Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers, including the Oilers, were absorbed into the NHL).  Writers have long waxed poetic about baseball, America’s pastime, and Hollywood has made a lot of baseball films, more than I can recount (Wikipedia lists over 100 baseball-related films: everything from Casey at the Bat (1929), The Pride of the Yankees (1942), the original Angels in the Outfield (1951), to modern-day classics like The NaturalBull DurhamEight Men Out, and even Richard Linklater’s recent Everybody Wants Some!! (2016).). There are almost as many movies celebrating American football (The Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers (1932); Knute Rockne, All American, starring a pre-presidential Ronald Reagan as the Gipper, and The Longest Yard (1974), a crude comedy headlined by Burt Reynolds which would become a huge success.). It’s not surprising that many of these films were successful at the box office—famous Hollywood stars featured in films about revered sports is as Americana as it gets. How could a Canadian sport played on ice with sticks and a rubber puck hope to compete on the big screen? 

Answer: not very well. In Hollywood, hockey-related films were less prolific than the other sports: an early hockey talkie, Idol of the Crowds (1937) stars a young John Wayne (!), as a hockey player who agrees to play in the big leagues in order to save his family farm and thwart nefarious gamblers; it was originally titled Hell on Ice before the Hays Office requested a title change (no H-E-DOUBLE-HOCKEY-STICKS allowed in Hollywood). The few hockey films made were B-movie fare: Olympic Honeymoon (1940), a British comedy, which might as well have been a fantasy: comedic actor Claude Hebert’s character is involved in a case of mistaken identity, while on honeymoon,and believed to be an acclaimed hockey player; he’s asked to play for England’s Olympic hockey team. England (I’ll wait until you stop laughing). White Lightning (1953), features hockey players vs. organized crime (hockey noir?) and an early role for Lee Van Cleef, as the perfectly-named Brutus Allen. In Canada, there were two low-budget hockey melodramas made and mostly forgotten: Face-Off (1971), starring a pre-Black Christmas Art Hindle; Paperback Hero (1973), starring Hindle’s Black Christmas castmate, Keir Dullea (sadly, the latter is unavailable on home video, but Face-Off is available on Blu-ray in Canada and it’s great). Want something for the kids? Chachi himself, Scott Baio, plays a teen hockey player struggling with alcoholism in the subtly titled TV movie, The Boy Who Drank Too Much (1980). Being the fourth-ranked professional sport in America doesn’t warrant studio executives imagining the lucrative possibilities of a hockey movie. 

But it was Nancy Dowd’s script of a beleaguered minor-league American hockey team that convinced Universal, the same studio that made Idol of the Crowds, to give hockey another chance on the silver screen.  By the 1970s, the NHL had expanded into various markets in the USA, including a dip in the California sun with the Los Angeles Kings (and the short-lived California Golden Seals), which proved to be a challenging market, yet creating a small, but passionate fanbase. That fanbase, coupled with the theatrical antics of the Philadelphia Flyers, dubbed the “Broad Street Bullies” for their aggressive physical play and frequent on-ice fighting (and the only NHL team that played the Soviet Union’s infamous Red Army hockey team in an exhibition game in 1976 that proved to be a PR disaster for both sides, as one Soviet player had been body checked so hard that he lay unconscious on the ice; the Soviet coach, visibly upset, pulled the entire team in protest when a penalty wasn’t called. “They’re going home!” announced legendary hockey broadcaster Bob Cole), convinced Dowd to explore the sweet, sweaty world of hockey. Her brother was a minor-league hockey player with the Johnstown Jets of the now-defunct North American Hockey League, a professional minor league for the WHA, and he regaled her with tales on the road and on the ice (he even recorded locker room conversations), which added to the film’s authenticity. Minor-league hockey was filled with players with failed dreams of playing in the NHL or WHA, with stories as eccentric as seen in Slap Shot inspiring the film’s Charlestown Chiefs hockey team.

The Charlestown Chiefs, a dismal minor-league hockey team in the Federal League, face an uncertain future, as the local steel mill is rumored to be shutting down, letting go over ten thousand workers, crippling the local economy. In a desperate ploy to sell more tickets and possibly save the team, Chiefs’ player/coach Reggie Dunlop, in the waning days of his playing career, orders his players to forget fancy stickwork and focus on beating up the opposing teams and become a ruthless, violent team. He also starts a rumor that a consortium of senior citizens in Florida are prospective buyers, hoping it will motivate the Chiefs’ mysterious owner to sell the team to a town with a brighter future than Charlestown. His plan succeeds, as the Chiefs become an instant local sensation because of their aggressive play, rocketing them to the top of the standings and attendance. Reg tries to convince his star player, Ned Braden, to follow the team’s lead and “goon it up”, capitalizing on Ned’s marital problems while also trying to reconcile with his ex-wife, Francine. Will the Chiefs save the town and be sold? 

Slap Shot attracted the attention of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid director George Roy Hill, an Oscar winner with clout to get projects financed in Hollywood. As The Longest Yard and The Bad New Bears (1976) had been recent box office successes, both featuring loud, crude characters (even kids), Slap Shot was deemed ideal to continue the winning streak of sports movies. Hill enlisted frequent collaborator and Hollywood royalty, Paul Newman, to play Reggie Dunlop. Newman was in his early 50s when cast, which is shocking, considering few players outside of Gordie Howe played into their 40s, let alone 50s. Canadian actor (and future Twin PeaksSheriff) Michael Ontkean was cast as Ned Braden, a Princeton graduate who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the team’s working-class roots. Veteran character actor Strother Martin was hired to play the Chiefs’ general manager, Joe McGrath, and various American and Québécois actors filled out the remaining roles, including actual Johnstown Jets players for many of the hockey action scenes, including Nancy Dowd’s brother, Ned, as Syracuse Bulldog’s Ogie Ogilthorpe, a player so notorious that when he’s deported back to Canada, the country doesn’t want him back! Ogilthorpe is like a spectre haunting the Chiefs throughout the film, a living legend for all the wrong reasons in the Federal League. There are also several early roles for well-liked character actors: M. Emmet Walsh, as Charlestown’s sports scribe, Dickie Dunn, Paul Dooley as a play-by-play announcer, and Swoozie Kurtz as one of the gum-snapping, bored hockey wives (“You can only screw so much, drink so much…”). Johnstown, Pennsylvania, an actual working-class steel town, stood in for the fictional Charlestown to add a touch of realism, showcasing a small town that, like its hockey team, barely scrapes by each day. 

What makes Slap Shot a memorable sports film? It’s funny. It doesn’t elicit just a couple of guffaws and a giggle, but a constant barrage of deeply diaphragmatic laughter that will overtax tear ducts and cause coughing fits (please make sure you have voided your bladder sufficiently before viewing). That’s an exaggeration, but Slap Shot’s depiction of the rise of the Charlestown Chiefs, from perpetual cellar dwellers to beloved brutes atop their division is raucous, perverse, and profane (Keep in mind that through a 21st Century perspective, the film has many problematic elements, but it was made in 1977 and attitudes were considerably different then, accurately reflecting the nature of many a mens’ locker room). Only in the minor leagues would a player show up drunk: “I’m not bullshittin’ ya. Got stinkin’ shit-faced on the bus, Louise left me, and that son of a bitch over there keeps playin’ me, when he knows I’m shit-faced. Anybody throws me against the boards, I’m gonna piss all over myself.” In the prologue, Slap Shot addresses the perceived violent nature of hockey hilariously, demonstrating some of the nastier elements of the sport to an unfamiliar American audience. Smarmy, plaid-clad Charlestown TV sports reporter Jim Carr (Andrew Duncan) interviews the Chiefs’ Québécois goaltender, Denis Lemieux (Yvon Barrette) on the types of plays and penalties called in a game. Lemieux explains icing, in his limited grasp of English: “Icing ‘appen when dee puck come down… Bang! You know… before dee udder guy. Nobody dere. My h’arm go comme ça, den dee game stop den start h’up.” It’s an awkward interview that descends quickly when Lemieux demonstrates illegal moves on Carr, who’s keeping it together, despite being slashed in the shins, hooked by the hip, and shoved in the neck with a hockey stick; Duncan sells the ordeal with quick reactive grunts and impeccable comic timing. Lemieux explains that a high-sticking penalty is earned by “some English pig with no brains,” distilling over a century of culture clashes between English Canada and Québéc in a single, humorous line. When assessed with a penalty, Lemieux explains that “you go to the box for two minutes by yourself…you feel shame…then you get free.” There you have it, a quick, amusing hockey tutorial to foreshadow some of the ridiculous on-ice nastiness that will occur later in the film.

And those Hanson Brothers! As the worst team in the Federal League and rumors that the steel mill will be close, resulting in the Chiefs’ folding, McGrath starts selling off equipment and possibly even the team bus. He also signs a trio of brothers who seem better suited for jail than hockey. The Hanson Brothers (two of whom are actual brothers, Jeff and Steve Carson, and David Hanson—all of them former teammates of Ned Dowd), a trio of tall, lanky, greasy long-haired, Coke-bottle-bespectacled hooligans, in an extreme case of arrested development, who bring their electric racing-car set on road trips (“They brought their fucking TOYS!” Reg thunders incredulously at McGrath, complaining that for “every piece of garbage that comes into the league, you gotta buy it.”). Polite and soft spoken off the ice (always craving soda), the Hansons are benched until the mill closure is announced and Reg initiates his scheme to turn the Chiefs into winners for one last hurrah; he unleashes the trio on unsuspecting teams with a predictably violent result (they wrap aluminum foil around their fingers for maximum effect). Immediately, they smash opponents to the ice, slam them into the boards, and even injure the Chiefs’ organist with a slap shot to the head! During a pre-game warmup skate, the brothers start a brawl between teams even before the officials have taken to the ice. Cut to the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner”, where all the players, particularly the Hansons, are bloodied as they stand at attention. The fictional brothers would become pop-culture icons, inspiring Canadian punk band The Hanson Brothers to record hockey-themed punk anthems (including a cover of Maxine Nightingale’s “Right Back Where We Started From,” a recurring song in Slap Shot). 

This is not a beautifully shot film, but that’s intentional. The ’70s were known for awful plaid patterns, earth tones, and garish colors, and Slap Shot is no exception—one need only look at the Chiefs’ “fashion show” (GM McGrath’s sad attempt to muster enthusiasm for a poorly-attended team) as evidence. The Chiefs’ locker room is a dingy, yellow cavern—one can smell the sweaty jockstraps and the male musk that permeate the room. The Chiefs’ locker room and ’60s-era bus (the bus driver takes a sledge hammer to it intentionally to make it “mean,” once the Chiefs have energized Charlestown with its brutish on-ice play) reflect the town’s bygone era—the past glory of steel processing as an economic engine is gone, the town facing an uncertain future. Even Reg’s ex-wife, Francine (Jennifer Warren) is planning on moving to Long Island, so poor is her hair salon’s business. Soon the near-empty bar will close and there will be nothing left but the statue of Morley’s Dog (an actual Johnstown landmark). “What’s the story with the dog?” Lily asks Reg. ”That’s the dog that saved Charlestown from the 1938 flood,” he replies. “Well, fuck him,” she snorts. The War Memorial arena is an asbestos relic that sits empty and neglected, revived temporarily once the Chiefs start winning games; it’s emblematic of many old arenas that populated small cities and towns across North America (it reminds me of the old Saskatoon Arena, in which I saw future Toronto Maple Leafs legend, Wendel Clark, then a Saskatoon Blade, eviscerate an opponent with his bare hands, blood all over the ice and the two players. Shouts of “meat wagon!”— [ old-fashioned hockey slang for an ambulance] erupted from the crowd. Who said Canadians were polite?).  Slap Shot is a time capsule of a time when most hockey players wore handlebar mustaches and not helmets, and goalies like Boston Bruins’ legendary Gerry Cheevers wore masks scarier than anything Jason Voorhees wore in the Friday the 13th movies. When Reg discovers the Chiefs’ owner’s identity, Anita McCambridge, he pleads with her to sell the team now that they’re finally profitable. However, the owner, who despises hockey and its violence, has no interest in selling the team, insisting she can make a better profit folding the team and taking a tax write-off. It shocks Reg, but it reflects the changing attitude perceived in America in the ’70s: sentimentality must take a backseat to capitalism. If the Chiefs fold, many of their players wouldn’t fit in with other teams’ full rosters and would have to return to a life of factory work or a trade, if they’re lucky. Hockey is a beautiful game to some people, but it’s a business to others, and Slap Shot showcases the transitory nature of once-prosperous industrial cities and towns becoming irrelevant in a world of cold commerce. 

If Slap Shot appears dismal by design, it more than makes up for it with its exhilarating hockey scenes. While real hockey players replaced the actors for the complicated stickhandling scenes, it’s great fun to watch Newman and Ontkean skate, clearly enjoying the action. Ontkean’s Ned is not just a college graduate with a promising future off the ice, but his smooth, graceful speed and goal-scoring ability contrasts the mediocre skills of his teammates and the decision to play like a team of merciless enforcers.  The camera shoots from a skate-level perspective, as hockey players whiz by with fantastic speed, and closes in on body-checks into the boards with painful intimacy. The hockey brawls are shot in narrow perspective and quick cuts, recording every blow to the face, spurt of blood, and gouge of the eyes with dizzying speed. Interspersed among the violence are wide shots of the roaring, approving Charlestown crowd, like Romans enjoying a frozen group gladiator spectacle. Who can blame the Chiefs for mucking it up on the ice when its fans clearly love it? George Roy Hill does a masterful job conveying the brutal hockey fights as a way of catharsis for the Charlestown citizenry—their town may be dying, but they still have hockey, even in the extreme, and it helps them release their real-world frustrations. The championship game between the Chiefs and Syracuse is a montage of hockey gore: fed up with Reg’s antics, which propelled a 5th place team into the playoffs, the Bulldogs’ GM fills its roster with the most notorious players in the league (“From Mile Forty, Saskatchewan, where he now runs a doughnut shop, number 15, former penalty-minute holder of the Federal League for the years 1960 to 1968 inclusive, Gilmore Tuttle!”), including Ogie Ogilthorpe. The bodies pile up quickly as a result and the camera spares no one from blood or bruises—nearly every Charlestown Chief is decimated by Syracuse’s hockey assassins. 

Paul Newman is truly revelatory as Reg, the amiable-yet-burned-out coach who really doesn’t know how to coach a team. Newman was primarily known for dramatic roles, but even in Butch Cassidy and The Sting, there was a winking playfulness in his performances. As player and coach, Newman’s weary Reg mumbles a series of sports clichés in the locker room during intermissions, a feeble attempt to rouse his players’ emotions; there is little wonder why the Chiefs are the worst team in the Federal League. Like the town itself, the Chiefs are on life support, without hope. It’s only when rumors of the steel mill closure circulate does Reg display a spark of motivation. He’s got nothing left to lose and the town needs a distraction from its woes. Forget skill and perseverance, Reg decides that the Chiefs need to be mean, bloody, and take no prisoners on the ice: “[The crowd] spent their own dough to get here, and they came here to see us! All right, let’s show ’em what we got, guys! Get out there on the ice and let ’em know you’re there. Get that fuckin’ stick in their side. Let ’em know you’re there! Get that lumber in his teeth. Let ’em know you’re there!”). Newman’s Reg flirts with Ned’s wife, Lily (Lindsay Crouse) to spur him into playing mean like the rest of the team; Ned’s marital issues cause him to refuse to buy into Reg’s new violent playbook:

Reggie Dunlop: She underlines the fuck scenes for ya? Jesus, if she underlines the fuck scenes for ya, she must worship the ground you walk on.
Ned Braden: They teach you how to underline in college.
Reggie Dunlop: Not the fuck scenes, they don’t. Braden, you gotta learn to put out more, you know what I mean?

With such clever, earthy dialogue, Newman creates a foul-mouthed life coach—so committed was he to his character that Newman claims it took him years to shed the profane habit that poured out Reg’s mouth effortlessly. 

Reg Dunlop is a frenzy of activity once the gloves drop and the Chiefs become a sensation with their newfound style of play. He sleeps with an opposing player’s ex-wife as a way at provoking the player, Hanrahan, into attacking him and consequently being ejected, forfeiting the game to the Chiefs. A “garbage win,” sure, but to Reg, it’s all part of the plan. He drops the false rumor about the Florida group of prospective buyers (“All that hot Florida snatch,” one of the Chiefs players murmurs with anticipatory delight) and encourages his players to play ruthlessly—delighted to witnesses meek player Dave (Jerry Houser) transform into Dave “Killer” Carlson on the ice (when not on the ice, “Killer” credits Reg and the Swami Baha’s positive thinking records for his personal transformation). He nonchalantly orders a personal bounty of $100 on the head of opposing player, Tim McCracken (known as “Dr. Hook” for his intricate—and illegal—stick handling skills) on the air of a local sports radio call-in show. He blackmails McGrath to learn the identity of the Chiefs’ enigmatic owner, enduring McGrath’s grimy anecdote of a chronic masturbator/hockey player back in ’48 who would take penalties intentionally to be alone in the penalty box. He continues to antagonize Ned to no avail and conjures up excuses to bump into his ex-wife in the (futile) hopes of reconciling their long-dead marriage. Reg revels in seeing the people of Charlestown fill the stands of the War Memorial arena, roaring for broken bodies and vicious goal scoring. However, it’s hard to keep up appearances and when Reg tries to nap, exhausted by all his machinations, he’s interrupted by phone calls from his players and an unannounced visit from Lily, who states she’s moving in with him, at least temporarily. Without a word of dialogue, Newman conveys a man who might very well collapse before his plan comes to fruition.  Perhaps Newman’s finest moment in the film is when Reg, realizing his plan has backfired after visiting the owner, gives a rousing locker room speech, far from the tired clichés he mutters at the beginning of the film:

The Chiefs are history, guys. There ain’t no Florida deal. I just made that shit up. We’re     deader than this stinkin’ town is. Dead history! I conned you guys. I just lied to you. We ​were never anything but a rich broad’s tax write-off. It made no difference whether we​ won or lost. You know, we ain’t hockey players. We’ve been clowns. We’ve been goons!​ We’re the freaks in a fuckin’ sideshow. We’re nothing but a bunch of criminals. We oughta​ be in jail, that’s all there is. Yeah. Really ashamed of myself. See, Ned was right. Violence is killin’ this sport. It’s draggin’ it through the mud. If things keep up the way they are, hockey players’ll be nothing but actors, punks. Well, I’m not playin’ my last game that way. It’s my​ last game, and I wanna play it straight. No more “Nail ’em.” No more “Fuck with ’em.” That’s finished. I wanna win that championship tonight, but I wanna win it clean. Old-time hockey, like when I got started, you know? Jeez. Toe Blake, Dit Clapper, Eddie Shore, those guys were the greats. I don’t know what to say. Christ, it’s up to you. 

Reg’s romanticism for “old time hockey” returns, as he realizes his bluff was called and he lost. It’s his last game as a player, so he wants to travel back in time to his glory days, if only for a moment. The game ends with a brazen “burlesque-apade” performance from Braden, who finally embraces the end of the season and the Chiefs in the spirit it deserves, confusing both teams and the audience and delighting Lily and Reg and with his striptease. And throughout his shenanigans, only Paul Newman’s Reggie Dunlop can pull off the very ’70s ensemble of tight leather leisure suits, fur-lined coats, and shirts with the widest collars. Even after Slap Shot’s success, it’s a shame that Newman didn’t make many comedies before his death in 2008—he was truly a gifted comedic actor.

While Slap Shot’s influence in Canada is undeniable, embraced by hockey-crazed hosers in toques, its impact can be seen in the proliferation of hockey in the USA. Of course, “The Trade” in 1988, in which Edmonton Oilers’ owner Peter Pocklington sold Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings, inspired countless kids south of the border to take up the sport, birthing superstars like Patrick Kane and Auston Matthews, but Slap Shot had its part to play. If it wasn’t for the Charlestown Chiefs, there might not have been Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, and Keanu Reeves sexing up the ice rink in Youngblood, or Emilio Estevez coaching underachieving kids in The Mighty Ducks and its sequels (and inspiring Disney to purchase an NHL expansion team, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks–sorry just Ducks, as the “mighty” was removed a few years ago). Slap Shot also inspired a couple of DTV sequels starring one of the lesser Baldwins, but I don’t have the fortitude to watch. If Canada can’t claim Slap Shot as its own, at least the film inspired Canadian filmmakers to strive for excellence: The Rocket (2005), a biopic of Montréal Canadiens legend Maurice “Rocket” Richard; Score: A Hockey Musical (2010), just what its name implies; Goon (2011), from the director of FUBAR, Michael Dowse, and its sequel, Goon: Last of the Enforcers (2017), written and directed by Jay Baruchel. As hockey continues to expand across the USA and internationally, focusing on player safety and reducing the level of fighting in the sport, we still have Slap Shot to remind us of a simpler, cruder time when hockey violence was funny. 

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