In 1977, a recipe of minor league hockey, swearing, violence and some guys in thick glasses produced an enduring piece of sports cinema. Slap Shot is 35 years old.
The Charlestown Chiefs are a fifth-place team in a Rust-Belt town on the verge of losing its mill. The rumor is that if the mill closes, the team will also fold. If that sounds like the start of a movie adaption of a Bruce Springsteen song … trust me, it’s not.
The Three Musketeers
Paul Newman stars as Reggie Dunlop, the Chiefs’ aging player-coach. Dunlop doesn’t know it at first, but the team’s turnaround, on the ice at least, rolls into town in the form of three long-haired brothers in black-rimmed glasses. He finds them in the bus station, dropping the gloves with a soda machine that stole their quarter. It’s a sign of things to come.
Dave Hanson: “I play Jack Hanson, the good-lookin’ and intelligent one of the Hanson brothers.”
Steve Carlson: “I’m the good-lookin’ one of the Hanson brothers.”
Carlson says screenwriter Nancy Dowd learned about the three players and their antics on and off the ice through her brother Ned Dowd, who also played pro hockey.
“They couldn’t find actors to skate well enough to do our roles and so they approached us and asked us if we wanted to do it ourselves,” Carlson said. “It took us about five seconds to say, ‘OK fine, we’ll do it.’”
‘The Only Honest Sports Movie’
That kind of authenticity is one reason Deadspin’s Will Leitch calls Slap Shot, the only honest sports movie.
“We paint all these kind of narratives of heroes and underdogs and comeback stories. That’s not just movies about sports. In a lot of ways, that’s how sports is covered,” said Leitch, who founded Deadspin and reviews movies for the sports website. “[Slap Shot is] guys. It’s guys being guys at their most base instincts. That speaks to a lot of its appeal and they would certainly sanitize this movie today.”
And there would be a lot to sanitize. The Hansons bloody their opponents and don’t mind getting bloody in the process. The Chiefs use profanity like most people use punctuation. There’s nudity … female and male. And while Dunlop uttering gay slurs in 1977 might have been realistic, hearing them come out of Newman’s mouth in 2012 seems a bit surreal.
Today, the NFL is still sorting out its bounty scandal, but Newman’s Dunlop takes a more open approach during a radio interview.
“I’m placing a personal bounty on the head of Tim McCracken. He’s the coach and chief punk on that Syracuse team,” Dunlop tells the incredulous host. “100 bucks of my own money for the first of my men that really nails that creep. That’s 8 o’clock, Syracuse and the all-new Charlestown Chiefs.”
Low-Brow Humor, High-Brow Credits
But to dismiss Slap Shot as being simply low-brow is off the mark. There are subtleties and sharp humor that still shine through on the screen. Writer Nancy Dowd would go on to share the Academy Award for best-screenplay for 1978’s Coming Home, a film centered around the Vietnam War. Slap Shot director George Roy Hill won the Oscar for best-director for 1973’s The Sting, which also took best-picture honors. And then of course, there’s Newman. Dave Hanson couldn’t believe he was going to work with him.
“And then to come find out, the guy was nothing more than a regular guy like the rest of us, that liked to go out and have a good time, pull a bunch of practical jokes and drink beer all night long,” Hanson said. “We did all that pretty well and over [the few months] that it took us to do the film became a pretty close-knit family and had a great time doing it.”
Carlson remembers Newman, who died in 2008, as a a great athlete and says they coached each other.
“What helped us a lot is [Newman] would guide us through the acting part of the film and we would help him with the hockey scenes,” Carlson recalled. “He would come to us for advice on what a coach would do or a player would do in this situation.”
And Carlson sees Newman’s performance as a transformational moment in the acclaimed actor’s career.
“You notice that he never won an Academy Award until after Slap Shot?”
Stop The Madness … For A Period Or Two
In the end, the Chiefs reach the Federal League championship game and for a while they try to win without the violence. But when they hear that NHL scouts are in the crowd, they turn on the old Charlestown charm. Mayhem ensues.
The Chiefs win it all, but the team is still doomed. And for slugging their way to the title, Dunlop is rewarded with a big-league coaching job and announces plans to bring his guys with him.
Leitch loves the ending, but the critic still puts one movie higher on his list of greatest sports movies of all time.
“Bull Durham is the one that feels like a spiritual cousin of Slap Shot in a lot ways. You can tell when a movie is pretending to love baseball or pretending to love sports. You can always tell that.”
And that might explain Slap Shot’s endurance. Carlson and Hanson went on to play in the NHL, but their roles in the movie had much more staying power. Along with Jeff Carlson, they’ve traveled the world making appearances in character, and still do up to 40 events a year. But even the Hansons acknowledge that there are other great sports movies besides Slap Shot.
“Yeah, Slap Shot 2 and Slap Shot 3,” Carlson said with end-of-the-discussion authority.
And so we wish a happy 35th birthday to Slap Shot with all its pucks, profanity and punches. It’s a hockey movie that lives on frozen in time.