charlestown chiefs, dickie dunn, dr. hook, eddie shore, george roy hill, hanson brothers, joe mcgrath, lindsay crouse, m. emmett walsh, maxine nightingale, moose jaw, ned braden, oglethorpe, ontkean, paul newman, reg dunlop, slap shot, strother martin, toe blake
Slap Shot (1977) is my favorite movie of all-time. There. I said it. I make no apologies for this. It is not the technical best film of all-time. It is not the best acted film of all-time. However, it is the one film that I can return to at any given time and it can still make me feel as good as, if not better than, the first time I watched it. Its comedy endures, its humanity endures and its fashion endures…well, perhaps not that part. It is the finest example of why I watch movies and it will forever occupy that coveted #1 spot in my all-time top 10.
Slap Shot follows a hockey team, the Charlestown Chiefs, based in a town where the local iron mill employs the vast majority of its inhabitants. The players on the team are as blue collar as the mill workers – journeymen working a job to get paid and survive, some putting more into it than others. Past his prime player-coach Reg Dunlop (played masterfully by the best actor of his generation, Paul Newman) is the architect of the fifth place Chiefs. Reg is a local celebrity who once played with great players like Toe Blake and Eddie Shore. However, it’s clear he’s way past his prime, both as a player and a coach.
The players seem to just go through the motions of being hockey players and are the subjects of hurled insults from the fans who likely come as much to heckle them as to cheer them on. League-leading scorer Ned Braden (played by David Lynch-fave Michael Ontkean) is an ace on the ice, but off the ice is another story. He and his booze-fueled wife Lily (played by a young Lindsay Crouse) are at odds with their lifestyle. Ned was all-Eastern at Princeton, but loves playing hockey. Lily wants nothing more than to leave the dingy arenas of minor league hockey for a more stable environment far from mill towns like Charlestown.
Around Dunlop and Braden circle a cast of the most sordid characters: Denis Lemieux, the French Canadien goalie prospect who has an “allergy” to fans who attend the games, sex-crazed Morris Wanchuk, playboy Billy Charlebois (from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan – best name for a town ever?), willing-to-please-the-coach-at-any-cost Dave “Killer” Carlson and none more famous than the bespectacled Hanson Brothers – Jack, Steve and Jeff. The Hansons come to the Chiefs in a trade from the Iron League, notorious for its vicious fights. But after Dunlop spots them in their hotel room playing with toy cars and putting foil on their knuckles before their first game (pictured above), he’s convinced there is something wrong with them and they are banished to the bench.
When word is out that the steel mill that supports the vast majority of the town’s populace is closing, the status of the Chiefs’ existence comes into question. After general manager Joe McGrath (frequent Newman collaborator Strother Martin) unexpectedly makes a road trip with the team, it is announced that the Chiefs will fold after the season is over. The whole team panics, unsure of their futures. Braden, with his college degree, at least has a backup if another team doesn’t sign him. Captain Johnny Upton (played by long-time Altman 2nd Unit director Allan Nichols) sums of the bulk of their situations – “fucking Chrysler plant, here I come!” Dunlop makes a last ditch effort to save the team, however. After being told by his ex-wife that he needs to retire and he can no longer count on hockey anymore as he is no good as a coach and can’t make the Chiefs win, he adopts the “I’ll show them” attitude. He begins by installing the Hanson brothers in their first game after Carlson is ejected for fighting. And this is where everything changes. The Hanson Brothers don’t disappoint. They wreak havoc on everyone who steps on the ice, pulling no punches, literally, even when a referee intervenes. They are all ejected from the game, but the once morose fans are injected with excitement and enthusiasm by this new display of violence, a typically American reaction. And it spirals from there. The Chiefs begin a winning streak and cultivate a larger and larger fan base, winning fans hearts at home and terrorizing them on the road. Fans fill the stadium wherever they go and the Chiefs are enjoying a period of prosperity that they haven’t seen in years. The players hopes are inflated when Dunlop gives local sports reporter Dickie Dunn (whom this site is named for, played by character actor M. Emmet Walsh) a scoop that the Chiefs are on the verge of being sold to an investment retirement group in Florida. But this is all smoke and mirrors put forth by the far-more-crafty-than-you-would-think Dunlop. He’s really just trying to find out who the real owner of the team is in an attempt to save his own ass and hopefully those of the rest of the team by making them profitable.
Meanwhile, Braden, who is a scorer not a “goon” (as those who are prone to fighting are called in hockey), refuses to play the new Chiefs strategy. He tells Dunlop, “We win cos I score goals.” Dunlop retorts “Oh, kiss my ass. We win cos I make ’em crazy!” And he benches Braden. On top of this, Lily has left Ned and concentrated on herself for once. And this drives Ned crazy.
After blackmailing McGrath, he is finally able to locate the owner, Anita McCambridge (played by Kathryn Walker). After a back-and-forth, she admits that she could sell the Chiefs as there has been some interest; however, her accountant tells her it’s better to fold the Chiefs and take a tax loss. Infuriated, Dunlop delivers one of the most memorable lines of the film, one perhaps best left for him to say.
That evening the Chiefs are to play in the Federal League Championship against the Syracuse Bulldogs. Dunlop has had a change of heart, though. He tells his team the that he made the Florida deal up. “You know, we ain’t hockey players. We’ve been clowns. We’ve been goons! We’re the freaks in a fuckin’ sideshow.” And they vow to play their last game together playing old time hockey, the way it should be played, a notion that is constantly echoed by Maxine Nightingale’s anthem “Right Back Where We Started From” throughout the film.
However, in retribution for an earlier altercation with their captain Don “The Hook” McCracken, the Bulldogs have gone out and signed the games most legendary goons and cementheads – Gilmore Tuttle, Andre “Poodle” Lussier, Ross “Mad Dog” Madison, Clarence “Screaming Buffalo” Swamptown, and the biggest goon of all, Ogie Ogilthorpe (based on real-life goon, Bill “Goldie” Goldthorpe).
The final game is rife with humor and an unexpected resolution as the colorful cast of characters battle it out putting the proverbial cherry on top of what, to me, is the most fun ride in sports film history. Director George Roy Hill and cinematographer Vic Kemper (whose work also includes Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky) did such a great job capturing the on-ice action. They are literally able to situate the viewer in the middle of all of the crushing checks and scoring rushes.
“She’s just scrappin'” is one of my favorite lines of any movie (and so perfectly delivered by Newman). It sums up so much, not just about Lilly Braden, but of the other characters in the film as well. These characters have to claw and scratch, and yes “scrap”, to get everything they’ve got, which isn’t much. It is also a phrase that can sum up blue-collar-to-the-bone Charlestown and most of its inhabitants. Kemper’s shots of Charlestown are bleak, filled with gloomy, grey skies, rowhouses, mill workers and dingy bars filled with drunks watching soap operas in the middle of the day. One of the few shots where we see the opposite is when Dunlop goes to Anita McCambridge’s house. In her world it is sunny, birds are chirping, grass is green, and a Volvo station wagon filled with groceries sits in the driveway. All is well on her side of the tracks, which is quite a contrast for the 10,000 mill workers who’ve been placed on waivers.
This line also could have easily applied to the film’s screenwriter, Nancy Dowd, who based the film on her brothers exploits in hockey’s minor leagues and specifically playing for the Johnstown Jets. Writing in Hollywood has largely been a man’s game. And writing about tough guys sports like hockey? Forget about it. Dowd brought a compelling story with incredibly colorful characters to light and for that I am eternally grateful. She should be cheered on high. This film has been the source of endless entertainment for me, my family and friends. How many quote sessions have we had? How many video game characters have we named after its characters? Too many to count.
It is also an honest portrayal of blue collar people, tough economic times and making the most of what situation you are in. The lessons put forth in this movie are ones that are still important today, perhaps most importantly summed up by words of The Bard – “to thine own self be true; And it must follow, as the night the day; Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Paul Newman called this his favorite film role and when that is taken in context, that speaks War and Peace-sized volumes. This from the man who played Butch Cassidy, Fast Eddie Felson, Hud Bannon, Luke Jackson, Ben Quick, Henry Gondorff and Lew Harper. Perhaps he likes it so much because he got to spend nearly all of his off-ice time in the film in a sweet caramel colored leather suit. Maybe not. It’s hard to believe that Al Pacino was considered for this role (and Nick Nolte for the Braden role). Good thing Pacino couldn’t skate.
This film endures to this day and is widely regarding as one of the best sports movies of all-time. In my opinion, it’s the best movie of all-time…and my opinion is pretty damn good.