So how did the 1970s – a decade known for its nihilistic cinema – give birth to some of the best sports comedies in history? With ease, irreverence, and cynicism. In the big four—baseball (The Bad News Bears), football (Semi-Tough), and basketball (Fast Break) and hockey—arguably the best was Slap Shot (1977), a foul-mouthed rowdy take on a minor league hockey team about to fold. Directed by George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), it starred Paul Newman as the veteran player-coach of a team that desperately tries to keep afloat with hilarious results. Screenwriter Nancy Dowd based much of the screenplay on her brother’s experiences playing minor league hockey. This lent a great deal of authenticity to the hockey-player hijinks on and off the ice. The film received mixed reviews when it was initially released but has gone on to become a much-beloved cult film and is considered by both GQ and Sports Illustrated to be one of the best sports films ever made.
Right from the start, the film sets a satirical tone with an amusing television interview as the Charlestown Chief’s goalkeeper (Yvon Barrette) explains in his thick French-Canadian accent the fundamentals of several key penalties in hockey and what happens to a player when they commit one of them: “You do that you go to the box. Two minutes by yourself. You feel shame and then you get free.” This scene gives us an audacious little taste of what’s to come.
The Chiefs are a bad team having a worse season. Attendance is poor and those who do show up are either wives and girlfriends or fans that openly mock the players. To make matters worse, the local mill is on the verge of closing down and team owner Joe McGrath (Strother Martin) plans to fold the team after the current season ends. Salvation comes in the form of the Hanson brothers who show up with knuckles full of tin foil and suitcases filled with toys. They are dumb goons that player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) benches immediately in disgust (“They’re retards!” he complains to McGrath). With nothing to lose, he decides to stick it to his so-called boss and goes to the press (a local reporter played by none other than M. Emmet Walsh) and “spills the beans” a.k.a. feeds him lies about how the team is going to be sold and move to Florida.
Reggie also decides to start playing dirty out on the ice (to win games, of course). Telling one rival team’s goaltender that his wife is a lesbian (“A lesbian!”) sends the guy into a blind rage. He discovers that the crowd loves watching violent hockey…and to this end he lets the Hanson brothers play. They are the answer to all his prayers as they viciously body-check opposing players, trip their goalkeeper and even do the same to the referee when he’s not looking. You name the infraction and they do it and in style. As a result of their dynamic style, the Hansons become folk heroes to Chief fans (and to this day are loved on fan pages far and wide). It’s not hard to get caught up in their goonish behavior, especially if you can remember the aggressive style of NHL teams like the Philadelphia Flyers, known as the Broadstreet Bullies in the ‘70s and beyond.
In addition to the main dilemma, the film also follows the rocky relationships of Reggie and his estranged wife Francine (Jennifer Warren) as he tries to rekindle the romance between them, and the team’s top scorer Ned Braden’s (Michael Ontkean) lackluster marriage to his bored wife Lily (Lindsay Crouse). One gets the feeling that these relationships are doomed to fail because the men are still boys, trying to grow up. Hill presents a few nice scenes where the wives and girlfriend commiserate over their hockey-playing significant others, lamenting over their lot in life in a particularly poignant scene scored to “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” by Elton John. It is this element that almost balances out and even comments on the goonish behavior depicted in the hockey sequences.
Paul Newman does a wonderful job conveying his character’s world-weariness. For Reggie, the Chiefs folding is the end of the line. He’s too old to be traded to another team and if he does continue in hockey, it will be as a coach. He’s burnt out – physically and mentally. And yet there is still a spark of the wily con man as he concocts a story to make the team more valuable – and more inspired. Special mention should go to Reggie’s god-awful fashion sense, which hilariously dates the film as he sports all varieties of hideous polyester: bellbottom pants, a garish collection of shirts with patterns on them that are beyond tacky, and a fur and leather jacket that makes Newman look like a pimp. Slap Shot also contains an impressive amount of cursing, a lot of it coming out of Newman’s mouth, which came as quite a shock to his fans at the time (as he was not known to be a potty mouth), but the homophobic and sexist language reflected how minor league hockey players really spoke.
Michael Ontkean (Twin Peaks) is believably convincing as the smartest player on the team – and the only one who objects to the Chiefs’ new style of violent play, even when Reggie threatens to bench him. As Ned tells Reggie at one point, “I’m not gonna do it. I’m not gonna goon it up for ya.” He recognizes that his teammates are playing for the wrong reasons and they’re turning the game into a joke. Initially, we’re not quite sure what motivates Ned. He looks like he’s just passing time but until what? He’s a college graduate and easily the most self-aware of anybody on a team content to take life one game at a time. Ontkean is able to convey the sense that Ned wishes he could be more like his teammates (he participates in their after-hours poker games) but he’s too smart and wants something more.
In a nice touch, Maxine Nightingale’s disco hit single, “Right Back Where We Started From” is the recurring theme music of sorts for the Chiefs. It is ubiquitous early on, playing over shots of the team bus heading to their next game and even in the background. To go with this memorable music are some truly beautiful shots courtesy of cinematographer Victor J. Kemper (Husbands), like the one of Reggie being dropped off at his house at dawn. In the background we can see the mill churning out smoke – it is at once beautiful and depressing. We know that in a matter of days it will shut down and many people will be out of work…but the light of day turns a poignant gun-metal blue.
During the first hockey game, director George Roy Hill places the camera on the ice with the players so that we are in the action, immersing us in the game. The camera gets right in there on the action so that you feel every hit and dodge the punches thrown in every fight. You can also see the actors doing most of their own skating, shooting, and body-checking along with actual players that were cast in the film.
Nancy Dowd’s script is full of wonderful little touches that provide insight into the minutia of the game, which lends to its authenticity. For example, we see how the Hanson brothers tape foil to their knuckles before every game in case they get into a fight. Another memorable bit is the fight that breaks out between the Chiefs and a rival team—during warm-ups, so there are no officials to break it up! Hill then cuts to the National Anthem being played and the Hansons all bloodied, listening intently while the referee watches them suspiciously, even going so far as to warn one of them to which he responds with the now oft-quoted line, “I'm listening to the fucking song!”
One thing that makes Slap Shot stand out in its genre is the strength of the scenes that take place between the hockey sequences. This isn’t just footage of the guys bonding and pulling wacky antics—it’s also the relationship between Reggie, Ned and Lily. She hates being stuck in a one-horse town and feels that Ned is wasting his time playing hockey…while Reggie finds himself attracted to her and can’t understand why his teammate treats her so poorly. Lindsay Crouse brings a smart grittiness to her character. Lily is Ned’s intellectual equal but is constantly infuriated with him for the way he treats her (he shows his St. Bernard more affection). So why does she put up with it? Why doesn’t she just dump him and take off? I suppose she still loves him…but the friction of their relationship is hastily glossed over during the film’s feel-good finale.
Dowd’s screenplay is an affectionate satire of hockey but can also be read as a fascinating treatise on gender politics. In the film, the women are portrayed as consistently smarter and more mature. Reggie’s estranged wife always looks elegant and comes across as intelligent, having already planned out a future for herself away from the dying town. In a surprising twist, the team’s secret owner turns out to be a woman who has the power to sell or save the team. Meanwhile, the men are presented as silly stereotypes: the crude horndog, the pretty boy interested only in cute groupies, and the Hanson brothers who play with race cars in their spare time and mindlessly do whatever their coach tells them. Out of the men, only Ned—an intriguing, enigmatic character—hints at a more progressive view of the opposite sex. He not only refuses to play like a thug but in the final game openly mocks what his team has become with a show-stopping form of protest that is easily one of the film’s highlights, as he demonstrates just how absurd the game of hockey has become.
Slap Shot follows the sports movie template of a team of misfit players, loveable losers that when faced with a dilemma that threatens their very livelihood, gets their act together, and try to turn things around. The film’s knack for showing the inner workings of a sports team in an accurate and heartfelt way anticipated future sports movies like Bull Durham (1988), which does for baseball what Slap Shot did for hockey. And much like Ron Shelton’s film, Slap Shot comments on the inherent silliness of grown men acting as boys while also commenting on the absurdity of the level of violence in the sport. As the season goes on and the Chiefs start winning, the games get more and more violent – on both sides of the blue line. This spills over to the fans as they not only fight in the stands but outside the rink before the game has even started!
Slap Shot’s origins came from an unlikely place. Los Angeles-based writer Nancy Dowd received a late night phone call from her brother in 1974. At the time, he was playing for the Johnstown Jets of the now-defunct North American Hockey League. He was drunk and told her that the team was folding. She asked him who owned the team and when he admitted not knowing she went back east and wrote Slap Shot after spending part of the 1974-75 season with the Jets. She actually spent a month traveling with the team and at other times had her brother set up a tape recorder in the locker room and on the bus in order to capture how these guys talked and interacted with each other.
Many of the hockey antics depicted in Slap Shot are based on actual events. For example, the pre-game bench-clearing brawl happened in the mid-‘70s in a playoff game between the Jets and the Buffalo Norsemen. Another scene has one of the Hanson brothers get hit in the face with a set of keys and he and his siblings go into the stands to find the person who did it. In a game against the Mohawk Valley Comets, Jets player Jeff Carlson took a cup of ice to the face and he went into the stands with his brothers Steve and Jack. Jeff and Steve went on to play two of the three Hanson brothers in the film with Dave Hanson (who also played for the Jets) playing the third sibling.
Director George Roy Hill, who had worked with Paul Newman previously on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973), gave the actor the script on a Wednesday. Newman called him back on Friday and told the director, “It’s foul, but it’s got it. Let’s do it.” He had skated frequently during his childhood and kept up with it occasionally over the years but still spent seven weeks training. He found that shooting the hockey scenes to be fun but grueling work: “This has been the toughest physical film I’ve ever done. And believe me, I’ve done some rough ones.” Several young, up and coming actors tried out for the Ned Braden role, including Nick Nolte and Peter Strauss, but none of them could skate well enough. Strauss even broke his leg trying to learn. Michael Ontkean, who was a former hockey player at the University of New Hampshire, got the part.
Not surprisingly, Slap Shot divided critics when it first came out. Newsweek magazine’s Jack Kroll found it to be “tough, smart, cynical and sentimental.” In his review for the Washington Post, Gary Arnold called it “a joyride conducted by drivers who betray an undercurrent of hostility toward their passengers.” Furthermore, he felt that “The profanity expresses more that documentary fidelity to the vocabulary of jocks. It's an aggressive outlet for the filmmakers, too. Once you hop on, it's advisable to concentrate on the gratuitously funny aspects of the ride and to avoid taking the hostility personally.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby found that the film had “a kind of vitality to it that overwhelms most of the questions relating to consistency of character and point of view.” He added, “Much in the manner of Network, you know that it's an original and that it's alive, whether you like it or not.” Pauline Kael felt that Newman delivered “the performance of his life.” Oddly enough, Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford criticized the screenplay: “The dialogue by Nancy Dowd is as puerile as it is unnecessarily vulgar. Apparently Nancy Dowd believes that male camaraderie can be instantly created with a whole lot of garbage mouth.”
Like many sports comedies made in the ‘70s, Slap Shot ends with Reggie and his team winning yet also losing. They win the league (albeit on a technicality) but the team is no more, leaving many of its players with uncertain futures. Think of Rocky (1976) where Rocky Balboa lost to the champ but went the distance; or The Bad News Bears (1976) failing to win the championship but demonstrating grit and determination. This non-traditional view of what it means to “win” was the hallmark of many sports movies from this decade and reflected a prevailing mood of the era. It wasn’t until Star Wars (1977) that people got tired of this view and wanted more escapist, idealistic fare and this became reflected in sports movies in the 1980s with efforts like Hoosiers (1986) or Major League (1989) where the protagonists win and there is no question that things end on a high note. That being said, Slap Shot still casts a long shadow with any new hockey film inevitably being compared to it, from films that only reference it, like Happy Gilmore (1996), to outright homages like the recent Goon (2011), or the instantly forgettable Slap Shot sequels (two so far). None of them come close to the bawdy fun or the authenticity and fire of Hill’s film, an insanely quotable classic that appeals both to the hardcore hockey fan and to fan.