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Slap Shot is a 1977 comedy film directed by George Roy Hill, written by Nancy Dowd and starring Paul Newman and Michael Ontkean. It depicts a minor league hockey team that resorts to violent play to gain popularity in a declining factory town.
Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) is the aging player-coach of the Charlestown Chiefs hockey team in the fictional Federal League. A perennial loser for years, the team's manager Joe McGrath (Strother Martin) has resorted to extreme cost-cutting techniques and embarrassing promotional antics to keep local interest alive. During a hopeless season, the Chiefs pick up the Hanson Brothers, bespectacled violent goons with childlike mentalities, complete with toys in their luggage. Horrified at being given players who seem stupid, immature, and unreliable, Dunlop initially chooses not to play them.
When the local mill announces its imminent closure, making 10,000 workers unemployed, Dunlop makes several attempts to learn the identity of the team's anonymous owner, but is deftly deflected by McGrath each time. When McGrath accompanies them on an away game, top scorer Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean) overhears him attempting to get a job with another team. Dunlop confronts McGrath, who confirms that the Chiefs will fold at the end of the season.
Determined to save the team, Dunlop starts provoking fights at games and the Chiefs start to win games. In a moment of desperation, he lets the Hansons play and discovers that their aggressive fighting style enthralls the fans. He begins retooling the Chiefs as a team of goons, and attendance quickly increases. Capitalizing on this growing interest, he plants a false story with eccentric sports news writer Dickie Dunn (M. Emmet Walsh) that a Florida retirement community is interested in purchasing the team, in order to bolster the confidence of the players and to hopefully inspire an actual sale.
Most of the players, such as Dave "Killer" Carlson (Jerry Houser) embrace the shift, but Braden, a college-educated player with a clean style, resists every chance to fight. Braden's failing relationship with his bored wife Lily (Lindsay Crouse), puts further strain on him, and Dunlop feigns interest in her to provoke Braden. After realizing that she is truly depressed and falling into alcoholism, Dunlop establishes a friendship between Lily and Francine (Jennifer Warren), Dunlop's ex-wife.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs' tactics get them into legal trouble and make them a number of enemies, in particular, the Syracuse Bulldogs and their mercurial leader Tim "Doctor Hook" McCracken, who is determined to pummel Dunlop after a humiliating defeat. While the Chiefs' success has gained a huge hometown fanbase and secured them a shot at the championship, it fails to make any real progress in a sale of the team. Dunlop blackmails McGrath into revealing the identity of the team's owner: a wealthy widow named Anita McCambridge (Kathryn Walker). Dunlop visits McCambridge, who admits that she cares little for hockey, and while Dunlop has made the team a viable commodity for a sale, she would rather fold it to procure a tax write-off. Appalled at her indifference, Dunlop insults her and storms off. Completely defeated, and with the realization that the championship will be his last game, Dunlop decides to abandon his efforts and end his career with a clean win. He admits his deception to the players and manages to get them on board to play their final game straight: "old-time hockey."
The Syracuse Bulldogs, the Chiefs' opponents, have abandoned their original lineup except for McCracken and stocked their roster with an assembly of the most notorious enforcers in Federal League history. The Chiefs are pummeled in the first period, and McGrath storms into the locker room and angrily informs them that the stands are full of NHL scouts. Hearing this, Dunlop and the Chiefs, except for Braden, change their minds and turn the remainder of the game into an all-out brawl.
While sitting on the bench, Braden spots Lily in the stands with Francine. Enthralled by her makeover and attendance, he skates out to center ice and strips off his uniform, prompting the arena's band to accompany him with "The Stripper." Both teams stop fighting and stare in amazement at the striptease, more offended by Braden's antics than their own. McCracken demands that the referee put a stop to it. When the official refuses, McCracken sucker-punches him, causing the referee to declare a forfeit, thus giving the Federal League championship to the Chiefs. The team celebrates by parading around the ice with the championship trophy, carried by Braden, wearing nothing but skates and a jockstrap.
During a championship parade in Charlestown the following day, Dunlop flags down a departing Francine and informs her that he has accepted a job as the coach of a new team, the Minnesota Nighthawks, and that he intends to bring Chiefs players with him. She bids him goodbye and drives off, and he is left claiming to Braden and Lily that she will be coming to Minnesota "for sure."
The original screenplay by Nancy Dowd is based in part on her brother Ned Dowd's experiences playing minor league hockey in the United States in the 1970s, during which time violence, especially in the low minors, was the selling point of the game.
Dowd was living in Los Angeles when she got a call from her brother Ned, a member of the Johnstown Jets hockey team. Her brother gave her the bad news that the team was for sale. Dowd moved to the area and was inspired to write Slap Shot. It was filmed in Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; central New York (Clinton Arena in Clinton, New York, Utica Memorial Auditorium in Utica, New York and the Onondaga County War Memorial Auditorium in Syracuse).
Nancy Dowd used her brother Ned and a number of his Johnstown Jets teammates in Slap Shot, with Ned Dowd portraying Syracuse goon "Ogie Ogilthorpe." He later used the role to launch a career as a Hollywood character actor, an assistant director and eventually a line producer. The characters of the "Hanson Brothers" are based on three actual brothers: Jeff, Steve, and Jack Carlson, who played with Ned Dowd on the Jets. The character of "Dave 'Killer' Carlson" is based on then-Jets player Dave "Killer" Hanson. Steve and Jeff Carlson played their Hanson brother counterparts in the film. Jack Carlson was originally scripted to appear in the film as the third brother, Jack, with Dave Hanson playing his film counterpart, "Dave 'Killer' Carlson." However, by the time filming began, Jack Carlson had been called up by the Edmonton Oilers, then of the WHA, to play in the WHA playoffs, so Dave Hanson moved into the role of "Jack Hanson," and actor Jerry Houser was hired for the role of "'Killer' Carlson."
Paul Newman, claiming that he swore very little in real life before the making of Slap Shot, said to Time magazine in 1984:
Newman also stated publicly that the most fun he ever had making a movie was on Slap Shot, as he had played the sport while young and was fascinated by the real players around him. He also said that playing Reggie Dunlop was one of his favorite roles.
Yvan Ponton and Yvon Barette (who played forward Jean-Guy Drouin and goaltender Denis Lemieux, the two French-Canadian players in the film) dubbed their own voices for the film's translated French version. The film is one of few mainstream American films that was translated in colloquial Québécois French and not Standard French. Heavy use of French-Canadian language and foul language has made this version of the film a cult classic in French Canada, where lines from the movie such as "Dave est magané" ("Dave's a mess") and "Du hockey comme dans le temps" (lit., "like hockey from the times" – "Old Time Hockey") are common catch phrases.
The movie was filmed in (and loosely based around) Johnstown, Pennsylvania and utilized several players from the then-active North American Hockey League Johnstown Jets (the team for which Dowd himself played) as extras. The Carlson Brothers and Dave Hanson also played for the Jets in real life. Many scenes were filmed in the Cambria County War Memorial Arena and Starr Arena in Hamilton, New York, the Utica Memorial Auditorium (used as "Peterborough" where the pre-game fight occurs and where a Hanson reprimands the referee for talking during the anthem), Onondaga County War Memorial in Syracuse, New York (used as "Hyannisport" where the Hanson Brothers charge into the stands to accost a fan and are subsequently arrested), and in other Johnstown locales. Coincidentally, the Johnstown Jets, and the NAHL, folded in 1977, the year Slap Shot was released.
Although much of the movie takes place during the fall and winter seasons, when hockey is in season, filming at the Utica Memorial Auditorium took place during the month of June 3rd-4th Similarly, in Johnstown, Paul Newman is wearing a coat as though it should be cold, but there is no snow on the ground and the trees are in full bloom.
The Reggie Dunlop character is based, in part, on former Eastern Hockey League Long Island Ducks player/coach John Brophy, who receives homage by his last name being used for the drunken center of the Hyannisport Presidents. Coincidentally, Brophy would later coach Dave Hanson, who played Jack Hanson, with the Birmingham Bulls in 1978.
In one scene, announcer Jim Carr remarks that Ned Braden is "a college graduate...and an American citizen!" — both unusual distinctions for a pro hockey player of the time. In real life, actor Michael Ontkean played hockey for and graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1970.
Syracuse Bulldogs rookie goon Ogie Ogilthorpe, who was mentioned throughout the film but never actually seen until the final playoff game, was based on longtime minor-league goon Bill "Goldie" Goldthorpe. Like Ogie Ogilthorpe, Goldie Goldthorpe is also infamous for his rookie season in professional hockey (1973) when as a member of the Syracuse Blazers he amassed 25 major fighting penalties before Christmas.
The Blades in the film were based on the Broome Dusters. One scene in the film was specifically drawn from events that occurred in Binghamton. In the movie, the Hanson brothers wear black-rimmed, Coke-bottle eyeglasses, and in one game, get into a fight immediately after the opening faceoff. In reality what happened was that both Jeff and Steve Carlson wore those type of glasses, and did get into a long fight right after an opening faceoff. Coach Dick Roberge told the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, "We got into Binghamton about two or three weeks before the playoffs. In the team warmup, we're out there and all the Binghamton players came out with the plastic glasses and big noses, every one of them, poking fun at the Carlson brothers. We went back in the dressing room and the boys said, 'Coach, as soon as that puck is dropped, we're pairing up.' We had one heckuva fight. They went about 30 minutes until everyone got tired. We met them again in the finals (1974–75) and beat them four straight."
A scene in the film shows the Hanson brothers jumping the Peterboro Patriots during pre-game warm-ups. This scene is based on events in a mid-1970s North American Hockey League playoff series between the Johnstown Jets and the Buffalo Norsemen. The Jets had a black player on their roster, and during a playoff game held in North Tonawanda, New York (a northern suburb of Buffalo where the Norsemen played their home games), a Norsemen fan held up a derogatory sign stating that blacks should be playing basketball. The next game in the series was held in Johnstown, and the Jets retaliated by attacking the Norsemen players during the warm-ups, with a huge brawl erupting. The Norsemen players and coaches then returned to the dressing room and refused to come out to start the game. The game was awarded to the Jets by forfeit, as was the playoff series since the "win" gave the Jets the needed number of victories to capture the series.
Another scene from the movie is also based on a real-life event. In the film, Jeff Hanson scores a goal and is hit in the face by a set of keys thrown by a fan. The Hansons then go into the stands after the fan and Jeff Hanson punches out the wrong fan. After the game, the Hansons are arrested for the incident. In real life, a similar incident occurred in Utica, New York in a game between the Johnstown Jets and the Mohawk Valley Comets. Jeff Carlson was hit in the face by a cup of ice thrown by a Utica fan and he went into the stands after the fan with his brothers Jack and Steve. All three were arrested and Dave Hanson gathered the money for bail for the Carlson brothers.
Film critic Gene Siskel noted that his greatest regret as a critic was giving a mediocre review to this movie when it was first released. After viewing it several more times, he grew to like it more and later listed it as one of the greatest American comedy movies of all time. The Wall Street Journal's Joy Gould Boyum seemed at once entertained and repulsed by a movie so "foul-mouthed and unabashedly vulgar" on one hand and so "vigorous and funny" on the other. Michael Ontkean's strip tease displeased Time magazine's critic, Richard Schickel, who regretted that, "in the dénouement [Ontkean] is forced to go for a broader, cheaper kind of comic response." Despite the mixed reviews, the film won the Hochi Film Award for "Best International Film". Paul Newman himself stated on many occasions that of all the films he'd been in, Slap Shot was by far the most fun and his personal favorite.
Critical reevaluation of the film continues to be positive. In 1998, Maxim magazine named Slap Shot the "Best Guy Movie of All Time" above such acknowledged classics as The Godfather, Raging Bull, and Newman's own Cool Hand Luke (which received a backhanded tribute when Newman's character, while the Hansons were being bailed out of jail, stated to the booking officer that "most folk heroes started out as criminals"). Entertainment Weekly ranked the film #31 on their list of "The Top 50 Cult Films".
In the 2007 50th Anniversary Issue, GQ named Slap Shot one of the "30 films that changed Men's Lives." In the November 2007 issue of GQ, Author Dan Jenkins proclaimed Slap Shot "the best sports film of the past 50 years".
Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a "Fresh" rating of 85% based on 26 reviews, with the critical consensus stating "Raunchy, violent, and very funny, Slap Shot is ultimately set apart by a wonderful comic performance by Paul Newman."
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