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Slap Shot, a Minor League Hockey Comedy with Big League Laughs, Turns 45

A failing ice hockey team finds success with outrageously violent hockey goonery.

Slap Shot out slaps… out swears… out laughs…

Studio-produced sports movies, these days, almost always tend towards the inspirational, usually adapting a true story to the sort of thing that easily fits the Disney template. Sometimes they’re about a particularly brilliant player, coach, or executive (think Moneyball), and other times they’re somewhat revisionist about real events (like I, Tonya.) 

The 1970s, alas, were a different time, and we got films like Slap Shot, a raucous comedy about brawl-filled minor league hockey. It’s the best movie ever made about its sport; you can have your Miracle

The film starred a huge star at the time, Paul Newman — even though he was in his 50s and noticeably too old to play a hockey player — and was directed by George Roy Hill, the director of classics The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Those movies certainly aimed for prestige, but Slap Shot, to its credit, did not. 

This most male of movies, meanwhile, was written by a woman, Nancy Dowd, who was inspired by the hockey stories of her brother, Jeff Dowd. Dowd would win an Oscar two years later for Coming Home

Released in February of 1977 — 45 years ago this week — Slap Shot was the story of the Charlestown Chiefs, a minor-league hockey team in a dying New England town. Newman played the team’s player/coach, Reggie Dunlap, while future Twin Peaks costar Michael Ontkean was younger team star, Ned Braden, a guy with no interest in fighting. It was an era of hockey in which some players wore helmets but most didn’t. 

Slap Shot movie
Image: Universal Pictures

The team and town are struggling so much that they’re facing de-activation  after the season, so Reggie comes up with an idea: “goon it up.” Led by the mayhem-seeking trio the Hanson Brothers (David Hanson and Steve and Jeff Carlson), the Chief adopt a playing style that’s all-brawling, all the time, leading their team to both huge popularity and massive notoriety. In one scene that prefigures the Malice at the Palace in 2004, the Hansons even go into the crowd, drawing the attention of law enforcement. (In another scene, Newman places a bounty on an opponent.)

Yes, it’s very much a film of the ’70s, for good and ill. The pace is slow, compared to the cinema of today, and the plot takes some time to get going. And there’s some pretty ugly language throughout, especially of the homophobic variety.

But the film celebrates an outlaw spirit that hasn’t been a part of sports, or sports movies, in quite some time. The closest thing among recent films is 2011’s Goon, with Seann William Scott, and its 2017 sequel. The first one is both the world’s second-best movie about minor league hockey and the second-best in which the hero is a bar bouncer (after Road House.) 

Slap Shot

Not that Slap Shot doesn’t have occasional echoes in real life. The final scene, in which Ontkean’s character does a striptease on ice, was frequently referenced when shirtless Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Antonio Brown danced in the end zone during a game this year. 

Might we get a Slap Shot-like movie soon? 

A real-life minor league hockey team, Danbury Trashers, emerged in 2004 and carried out a scheme similar to the one in the movie, emerging a violent style of play and setting a league record for penalty minutes in the United Hockey League. 

The team was, unlike the Chiefs, connected to organized crime, leading to their quick demise. But the team was the subject of a Netflix Untold documentary, “Crime and Penalties” last year, and Cooper Raiff, who made the fantastic Sundance film Cha Cha Real Smooth, is attached to direct a feature about the Trashers. 

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Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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