In addition to my work at The Hockey Writers, Sunbelt Hockey Journal, and my own blog SoCal Puck, I’m also the Associate Editor of a film review site called Cinema Beach. “Hockey at The Movies” is an ongoing series that will revisit titles both classic and not so classic in the relatively small world of hockey-centric cinema. Enjoy!
The “Best” Hockey Movie of All Time?
Human beings love to quantify things as “the best.” This is true of just about anything – best song ever, best athlete ever, best slice of pizza ever…you get the idea, because you’ve done it before – we all have. One “best ever” scenario that hockey fans consistently debate back and forth is, “what’s the best hockey movie of all time?”
Well, if you’ve been paying attention for the last 35 years, you’ll understand that it isn’t really even a debate so much as it is a convenient way to steer a conversation towards talking about the film that most hockey people already regard as the best hockey movie of all time: “Slap Shot.”
Just how revered is “Slap Shot” within the hockey community? Consider this: as revealed on December 28th edition of the “Marek vs. Wyshynski” podcast, Nashville Predator play-by-play man Pete Weber revealed that, no joke, he has a DVD copy of “Slap Shot” in every room of his house. That’s normal behavior, right?
This may seem excessive, but then maybe you’ve forgotten just how beloved “Slap Shot” is amongst hockey people. And so, to get this puck sliding, without further adieu, I present to you, the theatrical trailer:
What It’s About
It’s hard to imagine there being any self-respecting hockey fans who have yet to see “Slap Shot,” and yet I personally know a handful of “hockey people” for whom a reference such as, “And then you feel shame,” would represent little more than grammatically-lacking sentence. If you count yourselves among these poor souls for which the pleasures of “Slap Shot” remains a mystery, this is for you:
The Charlestown Chiefs are a struggling blue collar town-based minor league hockey team playing in the fictional Federal League. Led by player/coach Reggie “Reg” Dunlop (Paul Newman), the Chiefs are a motley crew seemingly allergic to the concept of winning and, indeed, in danger of being folded. When incorrigible General Manager Joe McGrath (Strother Martin) acquires Jeff, Steve, and Jack Hanson, a wild, bespectacled trio of goon brothers with an unhealthy interest in toy cars, Reg, initially reluctant to integrate them into the team, soon realizes that violence and on-ice antics attract fans, which generates revenue, which may just allow the Chiefs to keep operating.
However, when star player Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean) voices his concerns over the rapidly devolving style of play employed by Charlestown, Dunlop is left having to reckon within himself the value of gate receipts versus the intrinsic value of putting a respectable brand of hockey on the ice.
Cast and Crew Info
Directed by: George Roy Hill
Written by: Nancy Dowd
Cinematography by: Vic Kemper
Film Editing by: Dede Allen
Starring: Paul Newman, Strother Martin, Michael Ontkean, Jeff Carlson, Steve Carlson, Dave Hanson
As a Film
By the time 1977 rolled around, the world had been in the midst of change for the better part of a decade. Although “Star Wars” was about to hit in a big way and in doing so officially usher in the era of the blockbuster, cinema was still riding a wave of gritty realism born from the counter-cultural movement of the late 60s and initially kicked off in cinematic form by Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” and Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider.” American New Wave auteurs such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Sidney Lumet were making films from, of, and for the people. Violence, sex, and crude language suddenly had a place in film previously unimaginable to ‘square’ types. What better environment, then, for a film depicting the hardscrabble life of minor league hockey?
Although George Roy Hill had held down a directing career since the mid-50s, he finally “arrived” when his anti-Western “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was released in 1969. That film – sprawling story, classic themes, musical interludes, and all – proved to be an instant classic, and announced the arrival of a major talent on the scene in Hill. He’d go on to direct films as diverse as “The Sting,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and “The World According to Garp,” but it was perhaps the tiny, little sports film known as “Slap Shot” that, at least according to Jonathan Jackson’s, “The Making of Slap Shot,” Hill reserved the most affection for when looking back upon his career in Hollywood.
To a modern day viewer, “Slap Shot” may appear a little slow to spark, crudely made, and rough around the edges, but to a filmgoer in 1977, it must have been shocking. The cartoonish violence depicted in the film is so absurdly over the top and yet matter-of-fact, and the language so blue that the film came perilously close to receiving an ‘X’ rating from the MPAA. Beyond the superficially shocking qualities of its plot, Hill’s film is one that took the audience ‘to the ice,’ so to speak. By consistently positioning his camera right in the middle of the action – not only on the ice, but also in the locker room, on the bus, and within the very DNA of what it was to be a minor league hockey player in the 1970s – Hill and his cinematographer Vic Kemper succeeded in pulling no punches and achieving a remarkable level of realism – a quality that had long been lacking in sports films.
It helps, of course, that “Slap Shot” is an uproariously funny film full of eminently quotable lines and classic set pieces (see: Ned Braden’s on-ice striptease). Veteran film critic Pauline Kael thought that Newman’s turn as Dunlop was “the performance of his life – to date.” For his part, Newman considered his role as Dunlop to be “a lot closer to [him] than [he] would care to admit – vulgar, on the skids.” In the same 1982 Sports Illustrated interview, Newman also acknowledged that “Slap Shot” remained “one of [his] favorite movies.”
As a Hockey Film
The affection held for “Slap Shot” throughout the hockey community cannot be understated – in fact, it can border on cultish devotion. Walk into any hockey locker room, anywhere in North America, and announce that you’re “puttin’ on the foil,” and what you will have effectively done is single-handedly create a “Slap Shot” quote-a-thon that might just last the whole night through.
“Hey Hanrahan! She’s a dyke! I know, I know! She’s a lesbian, a lesbian, a lesbian!”
“They brought their fuckin’ TOYS with ‘em!”
“Bleed all over ‘em. Let’em know you’re there.”
“You do that, you go to the box, you know. Two minutes, by yourself, you know and you feel shame, you know. And then you get free.”
And so on and so forth.
What is it about “Slap Shot” that engenders such a loyal following? As the generally accepted theory goes, it’s a film that clearly “gets” hockey culture – to a degree rarely seen in any sports film, let alone in a film that focuses on what is usually thought of as a “niche” sport. This is a credit due in large part to the authenticity with which George Roy Hill and Co. casted their actors. Almost all of the hockey players featured in the film played at least some level of minor Pro hockey – even Michael Ontkean was a star forward at the University of New Hampshire in the ECAC, putting up 63 goals and 111 points in 85 games.
Because hockey and the culture that surrounds it is so insular (and indeed, at times, seemingly inaccessible to outsiders), it’s a sport that hasn’t been done “right” very often on film, and when it is – well, what you get is something akin to the cult of “Slap Shot.”
In terms of the quality of the actual on-ice action, “Slap Shot” simply doesn’t even compare to more recent films like “Miracle,” or even “Mystery, Alaska,” but what hockey people appreciate so much about the film isn’t the accuracy with which the gameplay is depicted, but more so the accuracy with which the culture surrounding the sport is depicted.
Simply put, for every “Slap Shot” there’s a half-dozen “hockey” films in name only – your “MVP: Most Valuable Primate,” your “H-E Double Hockey Sticks,” even your “Slap Shot 2: Breaking the Ice” and “Slap Shot 3: The Junior League.” When a film so clearly gets it right, as “Slap Shop” does, one thing is bound to happen: hockey people will notice and begin showering praise.
Behind the Scenes
A few interesting tidbits from the production:
♦ Writer Nancy Dowd’s brother Ned Dowd was a minor league hockey player for the Johnstown Jets of the NAHL – the very real team and city upon which the film’s Charlestown Chiefs were based. Before writing the screenplay, Nancy spent time living in Johnstown, hanging around the team and eventually accrued enough material and experience to write with the authenticity and loving attention to detail that makes the film so special to hockey fans.
♦ Ned Dowd actually has a part in the film as arch villain Ogie Ogilthorpe of the rival Syracuse squad.
♦ Although Paul Newman was in his early 50s when the film was made, he did most, if not all of his own on-camera skating during production. He thought that his “teammates” wouldn’t respect him if he brought in a stunt double to do his skating for him. It’s likely that the film also would have felt significantly less authentic.
♦ Former Washington Capital and current Anaheim Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau was a real-life member of the Johnstown Jets while the film was being made. Not only was the apartment he shared with Dave Hanson the basis for Reg Dunlop’s apartment in the film, but Boudreau was also a featured extra in the game against Hyannisport. He’s number seven, and can be seen in the background of almost every shot throughout the sequence.
Why It Is (Or Isn’t) Worth Your Time
Seriously? You aren’t convinced by now? Chances are, you’ve already seen “Slap Shot.” If you haven’t though, stop whatever it is you’re doing (trust me, whatever it is, it’s less important), sit down, watch, and enjoy what is widely considered to be the best hockey movie of all time.
While it may be impossible to say with objective certainty whether it is or is not the best hockey film ever, one thing is certain: “Slap Shot” is at the very least the most beloved hockey movie of all time – and it’s not even close. In watching it, you’ll be doing yourself a major service – if only so as to be able to hold your own in the “Slap Shot” quote-a-thons sure to break out whenever a group of hockey people gather together.
Convinced? Good. I just hope I captured the spirit of the thing.