NHL Network Radio celebrates 40 years of Slap Shot

Slap Shot
Paul Newman in Slap Shot.

40 years after its initial release, Slap Shot still holds a place of reverence in the hearts of most hockey fans.  A product of a now distant world (filmed in 1976, released in February of 1977), the cars and the haircuts and wardrobes and the music have visibly aged, but the heart of the movie is timeless.

Think about it; with the notable exception of the 1980 Winter Olympics’ Miracle on Ice victory by a bunch of plucky American college kids, the sport of ice hockey hardly warranted much print/screen time in the Lower 48.  Outside of hockey-specific publications, the majority of times it received attention was when something bad happened.  Violence on ice (and the 1970s had their share of such stuff) proved the old maxim, if it bleeds, it leads.

Which didn’t do much to grow the great game that we all love.  The news that Hollywood was wading in with a movie about a minor league hockey team that brawled as much as anything, well, that didn’t sit well with the hockey establishment.  Even when it was revealed that acting legend Paul Newman would be involved, and respected film director George Roy Hill would helm the project, there were furrowed brows throughout hockey at the perceived black eye the sport would once again receive.

When Slap Shot was released on February 25th, 1977, much of the initial reaction was one of revulsion.  The on-ice violence was bad enough, but the language, and the portrayal of women!  Disgusting.  And unrealistic.  That was the official word from hockey watchers, and the world at large.  The belief was Paul Newman would want to pull an Alan Smithee and have this movie struck from his impressive film resume.

In reality, years later, reminiscing about his career, Newman made a point of emphasizing that Slap Shot was the most fun he ever had making a movie.

And it shows on screen.  The then 51-year-old actor (who always looked a bit younger than he was) re-learned to skate for the role and was proud he did most of his skating scenes on screen.  The anti-hero/adultescent role fit him like a glove, and his joy in playing head coach/player Reggie Dunlop is infectious.

Newman wasn’t alone in his affection for Slap Shot.  Talk about a word of mouth campaign; initially reviled by the hockey community, Slap Shot was gradually embraced and has now ascended to exalted status in not only hockey, but in the greater sporting world.  On almost every list of Best Sports Movies, Slap is near, or at the top, of each one.  Even by non-hockey fans.

Slap Shot has been called one of the greatest “guy movies” of all time, up there with classics such as The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard.  Which is ironic, considering a woman wrote the script, and had the initial idea for the entire exercise.

Nancy Dowd was fascinated by tales her younger brother Ned would spin about his time playing for the NAHL’s Johnstown Jets, and the aspiring screen writer tagged along to get a birds-eye view of the unvarnished world of professional hockey.

She wrote about the friendships, and the rivalries, and the blue language, and the sex, and the violence.  Some of it seemed to be presented in an almost cartoon-like fashion to lessen the sting, but that’s all in retrospect.  Recall that at the time of release, Slap Shot was seen as yet another exhibit of the Decline of Western Civilization.

It was a mirror, and ask anybody involved in the minor leagues then (and now?), and Slap Shot was more of a documentary than a fictional film.  To the point, many minor hockey legends (Connie Madigan, Mark Bousque, and the Carlson brothers) played semi-fictional characters based on themselves.

The parts of Slap Shot that still ring true all these many years later is the comradery between teammates, and the fans’ lust for action, ahh, okay, maybe blood.

And for all the enjoyable antics of the Hanson Brothers, and Denis Lemieux, and fashion shows, and bus trips in the Iron Lung, make no mistake about it…the strongest characters in Slap Shot aren’t the guys from the Charleston Chiefs, or Strother Martin as the general manager, or even Ogie Ogilthorpe.

It’s Jennifer Warren (who plays Reggie Dunlop’s estranged wife) and Lindsay Crouse (who is Ned Braden’s wife), two women who have put up with the trials and tribulations of being a hockey wife and put up with their husband’s wandering eyes.  And survived. Just like the city of Johnstown, renamed Charleston for the film.  Part of the so-called Rust Belt of the Eastern United States, Johnstown, Pennsylvania has persevered through far too many major floods, and the devastation of the economic downturn.  Yet the residents of the city march on, and stand in for many North American communities, who find their voice and outlet through their sports teams.

With all this in mind, Peter Berce decided it would be appropriate for Under Review to put together an hour-long tribute to Slap Shot and those involved in the seminal film.  For starters, what did we have in the system?  Turns out Scott Laughlin had interviewed actor Yvon Barrette (goaltender Denis Lemieux) a couple of years ago, and most of that interview was still relevant.

What would a look at Slap Shot be without one of the Hanson Brothers?  Some keyboard work turned up Steve Carlson, who is inundated with tons of such requests, but was more than kind to speak with us for 20 minutes one Friday afternoon.  We ended up with more material than we could squeeze into the hour-long show.

I tracked down, or so I thought I did, Nancy Dowd, but she never returned any of my inquiries, and we’re told that is to be expected.  Unlike the rest of us, many of the people involved in the making of Slap Shot have moved on to other projects over the decades, and may have tired of talking about the film.

The Making of Slap Shot was published in 2010, and is a highly enjoyable recounting of how this little movie improbably when from idea to script to Hollywood film.  Jonathon Jackson wrote the book and was kind enough to join us for a segment.  His knowledge of every aspect of Slap Shot is first-rate, and he attempted to get actor Michael Ontkean (Ned Braden) to speak with us for a quick five-minute segment.  No luck.

We did get Nashville Predators’ broadcaster Pete Weber to chime in with his recollections of the North American Hockey League, and how Slap Show was received at the time.  And as a bonus, none other than minor-hockey legend Connie Madigan joined us to reveal how he ended up with a cameo near the end of the film as Ross “Mad Dog” Madison, one of the feared Syracuse enforcers.

All of these folks retain their affection for Slap Shot, and are proud of their association with one of the greatest sports movies of all time.

One personal note.  I watched Slap Shot again this past weekend.  The gags still work, the great lines still crackle, and the Hansons still steal the show.  But Lindsay Crouse!  Your hair was perfect before you got that bad perm.  Breaks my heart every time.  That aside, Slap Shot is still perfect after all these years.

You can hear this special Slap Shot celebration:

Thursday, Feb 23rd at 2 pm ET
Friday, Feb 24th at 10 am ET and 5 pm ET
Saturday, Feb 25th at 7 am ET and 1 pm ET
Sunday, Feb 26th at 10 am ET and 6 pm ET