By John H. Foote
Nancy Dowd would spend months on the road with minor hockey teams, soaking in the atmosphere of life waiting for the call to “the show” – the big league, the NHL – though most of the players are resigned to being minor league lifers. Her script for Slap Shot was one of the most profane and vulgar of the decade, but as a former goalie I can also say among the most accurate. Dowd beautifully captured the bus rides from town to town, the games in run down arenas, the rabid fan base for these minor league teams and the blue-collar towns where the players resided, living among their fans as near heroes. It remains a brilliant screenplay, often hilarious, but always biting in its dramatic accuracy.
George Roy Hill directed Slap Shot as a rollicking good time, something new to audiences in that it was about ice hockey, but he also made an authentic film about this great sport.
Paul Newman is Reggie Dunlop, a past his prime player coach for the Charlestown Chiefs who can see the end of his playing days fast approaching. Reggie is a born hustler, always on the make, looking for his next scheme. With a losing team, he knows he has to do something rash so, bit by bit, he turns the team into a freak show, a group of brawling fools who turn the game into one long fist fight. Ripping a page from reality, the Chiefs become what the Philadelphia Flyers became in the seventies, winning two consecutive Stanley Cups with muscle, fearlessness, great goal tending and did I mention the fights? If you so much as bumped into a Flyer player you were going to have six of them on you, beating the hell out of you. Was it hockey? Well, they won games by intimidation, no question, and many from that team are enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The point is, they won.
The Chiefs are not headed for anything of the sort, in fact the owner of the team is folding the team because it makes financial sense. Reggie gets wind of this and begins a rumour of a sale, giving the team a new direction and hope, all based on a lie. Reggie hopes to bring attention to the team and himself, but he gets far more than he expects.
When the General Manager, portrayed by the wonderful blustery Strother Martin, brings in three brothers, goons essentially, Reggie is inspired. At first offended they are even on his team, (“They brought their fuckin’ toys with them!”) he quickly sees their value when on their first shift they positively massacre the other team. Wearing thick glasses, the Hansons hammer their opponents senseless, bringing the crowd to its feet, and suddenly something new is in town. Like the punishing Philadelphia Flyers of the mid-seventies the Chiefs become feared. The Chiefs begin to win because the trio of goons terrify everyone they play, plain and simple.
Not everyone is happy with Reggie’s strategy. His star player Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean), the leading scorer in the league, refuses to goon it up for anyone. Turns out Braden is having troubles at home with his wife, who is living with Reggie. Seems the star player is a wee bit kinky in the bedroom and she is not always crazy about it.
As the Hansons become local idols, Reggie spins his lie even wider until he meets the haughty owner and his vulgarity gets the best of him. She is frosty, all about money, leaving Reggie no choice to tell her exactly what he thinks of her, making no friends in the process.
The final game rolls around and dejected, embarrassed, Reggie asks the team to dig down and play old time hockey, no fighting, no cheap shots, just hockey. Unfortunately, the other team has stacked the deck, enlisting some of the most vicious goons to ever play the game. From the start, they attack the Chiefs, who will not fight back.
Given Reggie’s permission to fight back the game turns into a series of violent fist fights until no one is skating, just fighting. Spotting his wife in the stands, dressed up, Braden breaks into a huge smile and skates to centre ice. Slowly skating around the ice, he begins removing his equipment, performing an on-ice strip tease, obviously one of his kinky fantasies, which clearly has an effect on his wife. Piece by piece comes off until only his skates and jockstrap remain, as the crowd roars and the referees call the game giving the championship to the Chiefs.
The team might be finished but there is now interest in Reggie as a coach and his players. The old player has pulled it off.
What struck me about Slap Shot the first time I saw it was how exceptionally realistic the film really was. Hockey players of the sixties and seventies were really like this, before money came along and altered the sport. Guys would play because they loved the game, a love born on Canadian lakes and ponds from a very young age. When my brothers and I were young, we would gather at nine in the morning, our trio joining the other kids on the pond until dark, until you could no longer see the puck. Going home, our legs would ache, burning with pain, but the next day, we were right back at it. I loved hockey, I loved being a goalie, I loved watching the greats Bobby Orr, Goldie Howe, Gerry Cheevers, Bernie Parent, the brothers Esposito, the Great Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Mario Lemieux, Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, right up to Sidney Crosby and Mitch Mariner, hockey was with movies, the very air I breathed.
Director George Roy Hill got so much right with the film, and not a single thing wrong. Oh, perhaps he could have mentioned the players desire to get to the NHL or WHA, the two pro leagues at the time, but instead he chose to explore the life of a lifetime minor leaguer. The endless buses between towns, arenas of ten thousand rather than twenty, the missing teeth, the stitching of men on the bench or in the dressing room, the shell shocked little French goalie destroying the English language and that colourful, vulgar locker room talk, is all captured to perfection in this hysterical comedy, one of the finest comedic films ever made.
Paul Newman did all his own skating, never once using a double or stuntman and gives one of his finest performances. There is something lived in and bone weary about Reggie Dunlop, a hockey lifer still thinking of greatness when clearly his career is winding down. He manipulates his players – hell, everyone around him – creating a team out of misfits that defy the odds and win. Watch the devilish glint in his eye, like a little kid caught doing something he should not? Michael Ontkean, a former professional hockey player also did his own playing and skating in the film, giving the film a degree of authenticity many sports films do not have. Smooth skating, with deft puck control, Ontkean as Braden is a rising star who just might get called to the NHL; a wonderful performance. The on ice taunting of each other, the trash talking, the threats, the violence, the arrogance of some players, the pretty rink bunnies, all trusting each other as a team, is all in the film.
Hill brought it all together an uproarious comedy with heart and some very good performances but the greater credit should go to a Nancy Dowd for her authentic screenplay. You can almost feel that blast of cold as the players step on the ice, smell the stale sweat in the musty old dressing room, and feel every bit of pain these guys go through. Dowd won an Oscar the following year for her breathtaking screenplay Coming Home (1978) but certainly should have been nominated for Slap Shot.
Incredibly many of the lines are instantly recognized more than forty years after the film.
“Putting on the foil…”.
“Who own da Cheef?”
“They brought their fucking toys with them!”
Laugh out loud funny and, until Miracle (2004), the best film ever made about hockey.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.