The following article was original posted to Talkbacker on May 21, 2014. It's now being reposted here at The Supernaughts in honour of tonight's NHL pre-season game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins. That game is being held as part of the Kraft Hockeyville USA celebrations taking place in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, home of Slap Shot and the Charlestown Chiefs. Enjoy!
Each edition of Rink Reviews will present a film that features ice hockey predominantly, either as a major plot device or constant surrounding presence. Along with an overview of the main events and assorted background information, each film will be critiqued and scored on the basis of its entertainment value and overall depiction of the greatest sport on earth.
SLAP SHOT (1977)
In the past I’ve often complained about the absence of a true top-tier, triple A hockey film. Sure, there are a few great hockey movies and a bunch of good ones, some of which could be considered fan favourites or even cult classics, but I always felt like hockey didn’t have that defining moment of excellence on film. The other four major team sports (baseball, basketball, football, and soccer) each have a number of excellent films, while individual sports, such as boxing, have amassed a hoard of outstanding features, likely due to the relative ease of adapting a more singular experience to the screen.
Whereas other sports have competition for that top cinematic interpretation, hockey simply has Slap Shot, the consensus pick for over 35 years. Yet I always felt that this was simply a by-product of it not having a legitimate challenger more so than it being a truly superb film based on its own merit.
In preparation for the inaugural edition of this series, I recently rewatched Slap Shot, for the first time on Blu-ray, and I quickly came to the realization that I was wrong. Slap Shot isn’t just a great film or merely the best hockey movie by default, it’s a truly amazing portrait of the sport and its players at a specific point in hockey’s history. It has everything a brilliant sports movie needs; excellent characters and acting performances, highly entertaining in-game action, real drama behind the scenes, ample doses of comedy, and, arguably the most important of all and toughest to pull off effectively, unpredictability. I won’t go so far as to say it’s the greatest sports film of all time (can anything top those boxing films?), but I will contend that it’s the best team sports movie ever made.
Slap Shot is the story of a down on its luck minor league professional hockey team, the Charlestown Chiefs. Being a chronic loser both on and off the ice, the team’s manager, Joe McGrath, cuts costs any way he can and forces the players into embarrassing promotional appearances as a means of drumming up support. This doesn’t sit well with Reggie Dunlop, the Chiefs’ aging player-coach, especially when McGrath adds the Hanson Brothers to the roster. Shocked by the Hanson’s immature mindset and goon behaviour, Dunlop sees it as nothing more than a joke and refuses to play them.
Dunlop soon grows concerned about the team’s future when he hears about the closure of the local steel mill, as that coupled with their poor attendance and performance could spell their doom. This is confirmed when Ned Braden, the Chiefs’ college-educated star player, overhears McGrath looking for a new job, at which point Dunlop confronts McGrath only to learn that the Chiefs will fold at the end of the current season.
Hoping to meet with the team’s owner but being unable to determine who exactly that is, Dunlop devises a plan to help save the Chiefs by planting a rumour with sports news writer Dickie Dunn that a group from Florida is looking to purchase the team. Furthermore, to improve the chances of an actual sale, Dunlop begins provoking fights on the ice in order to influence a more reckless, aggressive style from his teammates. Lastly, Dunlop unleashes the Hansons, who quickly become fan favourites due to their propensity for fisticuffs and excessively violent play.
Thanks to Dunlop’s actions, the Chiefs experience a remarkable turnaround. They win more games, increase their fanbase, player confidence improves, and a real buzz surrounds the team. But while the rest of the players embrace the shift in tactics, Braden rebels against it by continuing his clean style of play, even as Dunlop attempts to goad him into being more aggressive by flirting with Braden’s unhappy wife Lily. Eventually she leaves Braden, but even that won’t make him fight, so Dunlop staples him to the bench. Braden responds by joining the radio broadcast of the game and losing it live on air.
Despite the Chiefs advancing to the Federal League’s championship game, no real progress is made on a sale, so Dunlop resorts to blackmailing McGrath into finally revealing the team’s owner, Anita McCambridge. Dunlop then meets with Anita, who informs him that his actions have had the desired effect of making the team more attractive for sale, but not enough to make the profit worthwhile, so she’s still better off folding the team for a tax write-off. This apathy towards the team infuriates Dunlop, causing him to maliciously insult Anita before storming off.
Prior to the start of the championship game and after making amends with Braden, Dunlop tells his teammates the truth; the Chiefs are history, he lied to them, conned them, and they’ve been nothing but clowns this whole time. He proceeds to condemn the way in which they’ve played. It makes a mockery of the sport and he won’t play his last game that way. Dunlop successfully riles the team up to win the championship with good, clean, “old-time hockey” and the Chiefs head out to face the Syracuse Bulldogs.
However, the Bulldogs have shown up ready to fight, having replaced most of their original lineup with a roster full of enforcers. They proceed to beat the Chiefs all over the ice while the Chiefs refuse to fight back, attempting to win the game cleanly, much to the dismay of their fans. McGrath is also stunned by this development and rushes down to the team’s locker room after the first period to tell them that they’re blowing their shot at the big time as scouts from the NHL are in attendance and they didn’t come here to see a bunch of pussies. When play resumes, the Chiefs abandon “old-time hockey” and the game erupts into a full-scale brawl.
Again, Braden won’t have any part of it, but while sulking on the bench he unexpectedly spots Lily in the stands, who appears to be enjoying the game’s chaos. As both an act of affection for his wife and to protest the ongoing carnage, Braden skates around the rink while performing a striptease, which causes both teams to stop fighting and stare in disbelief. The Bulldogs are particularly offended and their leader, Tim “Doctor Hook” McCracken, demands the referee put an end to this freak show, to which the referee refuses and McCracken sucker punches him. This prompts the referee to rule that the Bulldogs forfeit the game and the Chiefs are awarded the championship.
The film concludes the following day with a championship parade in Charlestown while Dunlop reveals that he’s accepted a new coaching position in Minnesota and once he’s settled in he plans to bring Chiefs players with him. It’s a bittersweet ending as the townspeople come together to celebrate the team’s victory and bid them a final farewell.
As you can see, Slap Shot has a lot going on for a sports film and it’s far from your typical cliché riddled story of an underdog overcoming adversity through a change in tactics/personnel to win the big game. Oh, wait, it actually does follow that common sports movie trope at a base level, only it does so in such an ingenious manner that it never once feels like something you’ve seen before. Slap Shot appears to head down a familiar path on numerous occasions, yet almost always surprises you with an unforeseen development that makes perfect sense.
This is all thanks to an outstanding script by Nancy Dowd. Yes, a woman. Normally I wouldn’t even think to bring up a writer’s gender because it usually doesn’t matter, but in this case I think it’s a fact worth talking about. Hockey, like most professional sports, is generally seen as a man’s domain. The players are men, the coaches and managers are men, the media and broadcast crews are dominated by men, and, of course, the fans are mostly men. Yet somehow this woman came along, practically out of nowhere at the time, and crafted an original, honest film that manages to capture the brutal reality of the sport better than any before or since. In all honesty, I don’t think a man could have written Slap Shot, or at least not a male hockey fan. Pride would have certainly prevented that ending, as no man is going to allow his sport to be reduced to a laughing stock, tarnishing the championship game and awarding victory based solely on a technicality as opposed to a hard-fought triumph of masculinity.
To be fair though, Dowd did somewhat luck into having the perfect inspiration for the film; her brother Ned played hockey for the Johnstown Jets, a low-level minor professional league team. Dowd spent time with the Jets as research for her script and used the team as the basis for the Chiefs, creating fictional players based on real life counterparts (many of whom appear in the film, but more on that later) and incorporating the potential sale of the Jets as a major plot point. She also patterned the made-up city of Charlestown on Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which had its very own steel mill that was teetering on the edge of closure.
Nevertheless, elements alone don’t make a script and Dowd deftly fills in the gaps with slightly exaggerated characters and violent actions, crude humour, vulgar yet realistic banter, running gags, clever solutions, and biting social commentary. Hockey was the solid foundation and she never strayed too far from it, with every thread tying back to the sport in some way. Even the romantic subplots are directly connected to hockey. Ned and Lily Braden are at odds due to her disdain for Charlestown and their mutual unfamiliarity with a life in professional hockey, while Dunlop’s life on the road led him to become a womanizer, costing him a marriage with Francine, a woman he’s still interested in. Dunlop also uses his playboy lifestyle to his advantage in messing with both his teammates and the opposition. Then there are the puck bunnies; female fans that are more attracted to the players than the sport itself, a common sight at any hockey game.
Dowd’s attention to detail even caused problems, especially when it came to language. While the script was first making the rounds in Hollywood, there was talk that her name must be a pseudonym for a male writer. The players spoke in such an offensive manner, including constant F-bombs of not just the four-letter word variety, that the film was a tough sell. Kids looked up to athletes and this wasn’t an image that most were familiar with. However, it was the truth, this was how they talked behind the scenes and they still do to a certain extent. Nowadays almost everyone knows this thanks to sports reality shows and ever expanding media coverage, but back then it was uncommon for authentic “locker room” chatter to escape its secure confines.
Choosing to work with this script was George Roy Hill, famed director of The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, among others. I’d bet on my life that you will never see a more talented and popular director take on the challenge of a hockey movie. Despite Hill’s success, he was often dismissed by critics for not having a trademark style, genre hopping, and making impersonal films. He also hated publicity and purposely avoided it, which likely ruffled a few feathers in a time when directors were superstars.
Hill was an actor’s director and a gifted storyteller, but possibly above all he knew his limits and what he wanted. Being largely unfamiliar with hockey, he kept Dowd present throughout filming to ensure they did justice to the sport. Hill recruited frequent collaborators Paul Newman and Strother Martin for two of the film’s key roles and was keen on using real professional hockey players in many of the minor supporting roles.
Hill’s most important directorial decision was to film Slap Shot in an up close, intimate manner. For the on-ice scenes this placed the viewer right into the thick of it, which was a sight unseen for even most hockey fans at the time. Televised hockey, even until recently, has largely stuck with a sweeping back-and-forth horizontal viewpoint of the action that’s pulled back far enough such that roughly one-third of the rink is visible at all times. While this is perfect for following game action, it’s not overly exciting in a cinematic sense. Slap Shot took you over the boards and down to ice level, bringing you face to face with every punch, hit, and smear of blood.
This style continued into the off-ice scenes as well, allowing for the characters to be front and center. Everything going on around them spurs emotional responses and those responses, sometimes subtle, sometimes brash, are the focal point throughout. The pressure is on the actors to sell the scenes and that’s asking a lot from a cast full of relative unknowns and non-actors outside of Newman and Martin. Yet they all deliver on the mark, led by exactly who you would expect; Paul Newman in an exceptional performance as Reggie Dunlop.
Newman may have better technical, more celebrated performances, but you’ll never find one where he’s having more fun than in his portrayal of Dunlop. There is a look of pure joy that pops up on Newman’s face at numerous times and you can’t help but smile whenever Dunlop is thrilled by the carnage he helped create or delivering another line of filthy dialogue. Newman is quite simply loving every minute of it.
However, it’s the scene near the end between Dunlop and the team’s owner that really showcases Newman’s acting chops. As Anita explains the financial situation of the team, Dunlop’s emotions quickly fluctuate between happy excitement, confusion and disbelief, quiet despair, and finally outright rage, which subsides once he’s back in his car, succumbing to defeat and embarrassment. It’s arguably the best and most important scene in the movie, but largely forgotten about due to its relative subtlety compared to the reckless nature of the film’s more legendary moments.
The rest of the cast is excellent as well, beginning with the always dependable character actor Strother Martin as manager Joe McGrath. He pops up briefly throughout the film and delivers a handful of great lines, including one hilarious remark about a former player who would deliberately take penalties so he could masturbate in the penalty box.
On the media side, Andrew Duncan plays Jim Carr, the Chiefs’ local radio announcer, and he does a fine job of going from barely caring about the team in the beginning to full-on ecstatic, biased madness at the end (his announcement of the Bulldogs lineup is a thing of beauty). He’s joined by the talented M. Emmet Walsh as Dickie Dunn, the reporter fooled into writing stories about the team’s potential sale.
Leading the women is Lindsay Crouse as Braden’s wife Lily. She’s perfect as a cute, tomboy, girl next door type coping with her depression through alcoholism. Dunlop’s sort of ex-wife Francine is portrayed with honesty and wit by Jennifer Warren, while Kathryn Walker does a terrific job as the financially motivated team owner Anita. Oh, and Melinda Dillon makes a great, brief appearance as a self-professed dyke.
Finally we have the rest of the Chiefs, who couldn’t possibly have been cast any better, starting with the film’s co-star Michael Ontkean as Ned Braden. Ontkean’s background was actually very similar to his character’s, having played Division I college hockey for three years, so I’m sure that played a large part in him landing the role and doing so well with it. Ontkean’s playing experience would have been with the clean style of hockey that Braden prefers, lending an air of legitimacy to his refusal to goon it up.
Other Chiefs portrayed by actors include French-Canadian Yvon Barrette as Denis Lemieux, the team’s starting goaltender. Goalies have always been a weird breed in hockey and Lemieux makes this clear from the get go during his interview with Carr about penalties.
You’ve also got Brad Sullivan as Morris Wanchuk, the team’s biggest pervert (“Here’s to all that gorgeous snatch in Florida.”), Allan F. Nicholls as frustrated team captain Johnny Upton (“I want you to have a heart attack and die so we never have to do this again.”), and, of course, Jerry Houser as Dave “Killer” Carlson, a soft-spoken player who listens to positive-thinking records, yet embraces his new role as a goon more than anyone.
Then there are the non-actors rounding out the Chiefs and many of their rivals, most of whom don’t have speaking roles but still do a great job of being exactly what they are; tough as nails hockey players, some of which could strike fear in you with just a glare from across the ice.
That brings us to the Hanson Brothers. They’re played by Jeff and Steve Carlson, two of the brothers the trio is based on (the other, Jack, was called up by the Edmonton Oilers prior to filming), and David Hanson, who Dave “Killer” Carlson is actually based on (yes, they swapped names around for the film, so it’s a bit confusing). The Hanson Brothers and their antics in Slap Shot have become legendary, maybe even outshining the film itself with the general public. When Dunlop finally unleashes them for the first time, it’s pure chaos. They run everything in sight, hack at players lying on the ice, trip the goaltender, and swing their sticks like clubs. Then the gloves come off and it’s all out warfare, which leads to them being ejected from the game to a standing ovation from the crowd.
In spite of the anarchy, the Hansons have a unique set of principles. They make the sign of the cross before hitting the ice, obey and support their coach at all times, admire a tough opponent, and respect the national anthem, the latter being a key component to one of the film’s best scenes. After inciting a massive brawl by clotheslining an opposing player during warmups, the team’s are lined up for the performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. The referee is noticeably nervous, keeping close watch on the Hansons. He finally skates over to Steve Hanson and starts tearing into him, warning Steve and his brothers not to try anything else, to which Steve fiercely interrupts him by shouting “I’m listening to the fucking song!”, shutting the ref up instantly.
I also have to mention Paul D’Amato as Tim “Doctor Hook” McCracken, probably the most entertaining minor character in the film. He’s the main on-ice villain for the Chiefs, a notorious stick wielder “known to carve a man’s eye out with a flick of the wrist.” McCracken has a diabolical stare and backs down from no one, even in the face of having a one hundred dollar bounty placed on his head by Dunlop. He’s joined on the villain side by the undisputed “worst goon in hockey today,” Ogie Ogilthorpe (played by Dowd’s brother Ned), based on real-life goon Bill “Goldie” Goldthorpe. His reputation is used as a running gag that haunts the film up until his surprise appearance during the championship game.
One thing I haven’t mentioned is the score and that’s because there really isn’t one. All of the film’s music, which is sparse anyway, comes via organ music at the stadiums or through nearby radios, jukeboxes, and televisions. This realistic approach is great though, especially when it comes to the on-ice action. You get to hear every skate stride, shot, hit, punch, and shouting match as if you were right there on the ice too.
As a movie, Slap Shot works wonderfully. Everything comes together in perfect balance thanks to a superb script from Dowd, excellent direction by Hill, and a cast of hilarious, entertaining characters, led by a brilliant performance from Newman. That alone makes for one of the best sports films ever, nonetheless I also feel that one must consider how the film portrays the sport before one can truly assign an overall value and/or significance to it.
Slap Shot takes place during a very tumultuous period in hockey history. 1967 saw the NHL double its number of teams from six to twelve and by 1975 they had tripled that original number to eighteen. This diminished the talent pool significantly league wide, leading many teams towards building their squads in non-traditional manners, especially the new teams that were basically starting from scratch. Seeing as there weren’t enough goal scorers to go around, the easiest thing to do was to get tougher. So teams stocked up on tough guys, goons, fighters, you name it, anything to slow down the opposition, be it through mere intimidation or literally beating them physically. No NHL team did this better than the Philadelphia Flyers, commonly known during this time as the Broad Street Bullies. The Flyers would go on to win two Stanley Cup championships during the mid-70’s, essentially legitimizing goons.
In turn, this created an even more rough and tumble situation in the minor leagues. Players that had dreamed of making the NHL all their lives now had another way of getting there when talent alone had failed them; goon it up. Night after night after night players hit, slashed, and punched their way to attention, hoping each opponent they bloodied was another step up the ladder. This even started to occur in junior level hockey (especially in Quebec), where junior teams were no longer sponsored by NHL teams, leading teenage players to do anything they could to get noticed by the NHL and owners to promote fighting to help fill arenas and make money.
Soon the NHL would start to curb the increased violence by creating new penalties, such as those for instigating fights, joining fights, and mandatory helmets for all new players entering the league. This trickled down to the lower levels and in combination with the increased influx of talented players from Europe, hockey slowly cleaned up its act through the 80’s and by the early 90’s the game basically became what it is today, for the most part.
With that brief hockey history lesson out of the way, one can see that Slap Shot is a very specific interpretation of minor professional hockey during the mid-70’s and on that level it succeeds immensely. For as gruesome as the violence is, all but one instance of it (Steve Hanson’s attempt to behead a Broome County Blades player with a lunging stick swing) would have been a somewhat common sight during this time period. The events happening in such close proximity to one another would have been rare and the punishments may have been a little more severe, but overall it’s handled extremely well. Even some of the more absurd moments are based on real life occurrences, such as the stick fight, the pre-game brawl, attacking the fans, and players being arrested by police.
As for the actual hockey on display, there really isn’t much among all the carnage, but what is there is a perfectly accurate representation of hockey at this level at this time. However, I do have one gripe with it and that’s in the editing. There are a few occasions where the plays don’t line up correctly in a scene, creating actions that appear illogical as a whole. One example of this is in the film’s opening on-ice scene where Dunlop dumps a puck into the oppositions zone, immediately followed by footage of Braden corralling the puck and circling behind the net, only it’s his own net. That’s either an error or Dunlop was actually shooting the puck hard back into his team’s own zone (difficult to tell with the camera angle), which wouldn’t make any sense. The blame for this lies with Dede Allen, an Academy Award nominated film editor who could probably use the excuse that she didn’t know much about hockey. I won’t go too hard on her for it though as the film is edited quite well overall and the few minor inaccuracies such as this don’t hurt the final product.
What Slap Shot does best of all though is nail the life of professional hockey players. The film manages to touch on just about everything in this world and much of it is still relevant today. The big issues are at the forefront, such as the reality of a washed up player, troublesome ownership and management, life on the road, and the many off-ice challenges. Slap Shot also hits the small details: The awkward, dull, and/or textbook player interviews; the abusive fans, the puck bunnies, and the player targeted fandom; stitching players up on the bench and sending them right back out there; and nothing whatsoever being off-limits in smack talk.
Another small detail I love is how Dunlop’s real-life player references are for guys from “old time hockey” of the 30’s and 40’s. Eddie Shore, Toe Blake, and Dit Clapper were all popular players in their time, but casual fans in the 70’s wouldn’t recognize the names and a lot of fans today wouldn’t either. Mentioning the big names of the 50’s and 60’s, like Gordie Howe or Bobby Hull, would have connected more with audiences, but it wouldn’t have been an accurate representation of who Dunlop grew up idolizing. It’s a nice touch for hardcore hockey fans like myself.
One final item I would like to discuss before bringing this article to a close is a somewhat valid complaint levied against the film that has become more prominent in recent times. Slap Shot has other points of criticism besides this one, such as a lack of structure and overall narrative (wrong: it’s clearly built around the potential collapse of the team and Dunlop’s efforts to save it), dated low-brow humour reminiscent of late-70’s, early-80’s sex comedies (incorrect: it’s ageless jock humour and it pre-dates those films anyway), and romantic angles that serve no purpose (false: they motivate characters and provide fuel for conflict), but I’ve already sufficiently dealt with and dismissed those issues. This other, more important issue is with the film’s use of gay slurs.
It’s a fair complaint because it’s true; gay slurs are used frequently in Slap Shot. Homophobic slurs may be the preferred term, but I feel that implies a more vindictive nature to the remarks that isn’t necessarily true here. Yes, the players say “faggot”, “cocksucker”, and “queer”, sometimes in a disparaging manner, but it’s used as a form of masculine gender policing or an insult towards heterosexuals. The fact is the movie never pointedly targets homosexuals in a hateful manner and this is confirmed by Dunlop’s interaction with a lesbian and his later comments towards McGrath, who may or may not be gay.
The strangest thing about this criticism is that another, more recent hockey movie, Goon (considered the best hockey film by some critics, to which I disagree, but I’ll deal with that in a future edition of this series), uses gay slurs just as frequently as Slap Shot, more so if you include the word “gay” itself, yet it’s often praised for its handling of the subject matter simply because it features a gay character whose honour is defended physically by his brother. That more blatant approach is all well and good, but that doesn’t change the fact that Slap Shot displayed similar virtues in a more subtle manner.
Anyway, even if you don’t agree with my assessment, there still isn’t any reason for this criticism to be targeted at the film or held against it. That’s because the truth is that this is a very real portrayal of how guys, jocks especially, talk among themselves. That’s how it was back then, that’s how it was when I was around it, and I’m sure it’s still prevalent today, despite all the good work that You Can Play has done since 2012. I’m not saying I condone this sort of thing, far from it, but you can’t dock marks from a film for doing or saying something you may find offensive or morally object to when the film is merely showing you societal truths.
In closing, Slap Shot doesn’t sugarcoat anything. It’s an extremely dirty, honest look at the professional sport of hockey during a time when violence was the game’s primary selling point. It’s in your face, it’s blunt, and it doesn’t turn a blind eye to the reality of life in hockey. Slap Shot is one of the finest examples of sports storytelling you’ll ever see and it’s unlikely you’ll ever see something like it again in today’s safety obsessed PC sports climate. Hockey fans of today now commonly refer to the goon era as “old-time hockey”, many even yearning for a return to it, irony that would not be lost on Dunlop, Braden, and the rest of the fabled Charlestown Chiefs.
Depiction of hockey
Next time on Rink Reviews: The Mighty Ducks