“ I think that went very well…”
And with that, few movies let you know exactly how it’s gonna go right form puck drop…uh, opening scene…as well as Slap Shot. The hilariously awkward, local TV calibre interview with goalie (and proud French Canadian) Denis Lemieux tells you all you need to know about this rag tag team and their story, while enlightening the uninitiated on the ‘finer points’ of the game.
It’s filled with memorable lines, most of which can’t be printed here, (Even Paul Newman noted he never swore much before the movie but afterwards his language was “Right out of the locker room.”), that have become part of hockey lexicon, endearing (or at the very least memorable) characters, solid advice for any player looking to depart his current team, and the odd time even some hockey, as it moves with great pace from one set piece to another.
Written by Nancy Dowd, who’d win an Oscar a few years later for Coming Home, she based much of it on her brother Ned’s experience as a minor hockey player in the 70’s. The Charlestown Chiefs in the film were based on the Johnstown Jets (Pennsylvania) for whom he played, and most of the characters were essentially just guys from the roster/league, including legendary tough guy, and all time hockey name, Ogie Ogilthorpe, (named after ‘enforcer’ Goldie Goldthorpe…Seriously.) It was directed by George Roy Hill who previously directed star Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid and The sting, taking home a Best Director Oscar for the former. Shockingly none won for their efforts here…
Upon its release in 1977 it met with a fairly positive critical reception, (some loathe to praise its crass nature but admitting its undeniable comedic effect) but it wasn’t exactly a box office success. So how’s it become such a cult classic? Aside from the quotable dialogue, one of the many brilliant things it manages to do is perfectly encapsulate the entire world of semi-pro hockey, from the small town setting, the interminable bus rides, the fly by night nature of many teams in the era, the threat of folding or relocation, to highlighting many of the crude, misogynistic, thuggish, or ‘overly amorous’ sort who populated the rosters. It epitomized “old time hockey!” mantra of the 70’s, (Eddie Shore sadly couldn’t cameo…) popularized by the Big Bad Bruins and Broad St. Bullies (which may get you a lifetime ban in today’s NHL) though its light hearted ending is an incredible foil to the madness. It speaks to a time when player coaches could still be considered, at least in the minor leagues…though let’s not give Eugene Melnyk any more cost saving suggestions…The rough and tumble blue collar town of Charlestown whose very livelihood is at risk is juxtaposed perfectly with the Chiefs own struggles, and if we’re being honest, it’s that un-PC nature that’s made it such a fan favourite. And full credit to Dowd for this. Why sugar coat reality?
The premise for the Chiefs story is straightforward, if the local mill gets shut down there likely won’t be enough of a crowd to keep the team in Charlestown and therefore the owner would sell the team, or as we find out let them fold and use them as a tax write off. In order to win back fans in an attempt to keep the Chiefs from moving, player coach Reg Dunlop (Paul Newman) resorts to goon hockey, employing eccentric GM Joe McGrath’s newly acquired Hanson Brothers (and their toys) amongst other cheap tactics in order to win games. This starts to win over some fans but ultimately will it be enough to save the team?
The team’s star player, and intellect, Ned Braden, is frustrated with this vicious style and wants no part of it. He’s also going through a rough patch in his marriage and his wife Lily, who’s feeling in a rut, wants to settle down and leave this lifestyle behind. The same goes for Reg whose former wife Francine cares for him but can’t stomach hockey life. Reg concocts a story about a buyer in Florida to keep their spirits up, and convince them to play as hard as they can for spots, even capturing a Federal League Title, keeping his dream alive, at least a little longer. Even Lily comes around and brings herself to support the team, if only for Ned’s sake.
Despite all the comedy, at its heart the story’s about Reg, a man desperately clinging to the only thing he’s ever really known, the game, even to the point of deluding himself, as he’s terrified to think about what he’d do, or who he’d be without it.
These poignant insights/moments aside, ultimately it’s base, purposely low brow and a true classic! If you haven’t seen it, should you miss the chance?…. Never, never.