SPRING TRAINING MONTH #2: Slap Shot, by George Roy Hill (1977)

Type of Media: Film

Many sports stories don’t strive to be more than testaments to the human spirit. Whether it’s through an underdog team rallying to grasp victory or an old pro falling because they spent more time in the game than they should have, these are stories to inspire you. And then there’s Slap Shot. Slap Shot doesn’t care about inspiring you. With fairly ugly characters and a dim look at humanity, Slap Shot is a dark comedy about a failing hockey team in an industrial town that is actually a tale of time leaving people behind and big business screwing over the little guy, and it is the Network of sports movies.

Slap Shot follows Reggie Dunlop, player-coach of the losing Charlestown Chiefs minor league hockey team. His season starts off rough when he learns that a) the local mill is closing, putting 10,000 workers out of a job and inevitably hurting ticket sales, and b) his only new players for the season are the Hanson brothers, a trio of dimwitted and highly aggressive man-children. After losing the first game of the season Reggie learns that the Chiefs’ owner plans to fold the team after the season ends.

Reggie starts trying anything he can to win games and turn the team around, starting with insulting opposing players to distract them. Eventually he gets so desperate he puts the Hansons in, who proceed to ignore scoring in lieu of pummeling the other team, which makes the crowd go wild. Seeing the crowd’s reaction, Reggie starts reshaping the Chiefs around the Hanson brothers’ goonery, encouraging his players to start as many fights as possible. The Chiefs quickly develop a rabid hometown following, and their matches begin devolving the sport into less of a game and more of a brawl on ice.

A deeply cynical movie, Slap Shot doesn’t let Reggie or the Chiefs succeed like other sports movies do. While they do manage to increase their popularity, they do it by turning their games into bloodbaths and clowning around rather than playing good hockey. Seeing them become hometown heroes by beating people up and adopting nicknames like “Killer” is depressing, in a 'losing your faith in humanity' kind of way. Even more depressing, though, are the personal lives of the players, particularly their wives. While their husbands are out on away games, spending their free time watching game shows in motel rooms and lurking bars, the circle of hockey wives spend all of their time drinking and commiserating. You actually sympathize for Reggie’s ex-wife Francine, who throughout the story Reggie tries to win back, for escaping that life.

After a description like that, you may wonder how Slap Shot is a comedy. While Charlestown and the Chiefs are doomed, what you’re watching is their last hurrah. The Chiefs players are rough and vulgar, trading snappy dialogue laced with sex and vulgarity with a casual air that made audiences blush when Slap Shot premiered in 1977, and the Hanson brothers are cartoonishly goonish and suggestible. With this film’s cult status, if you’ve ever hung around hockey fans you’ve probably heard a Hanson brothers quote or two without even realizing it. There’s a sense of rebellion to the movie, as the Chiefs and their fans get pushed around by the owners that control their fates and use the rink to get their frustration out, even if it’s ultimately fruitless.

Even though Slap Shot is often thought of as a movie for hockey fans, because the plight of Charlestown mirrors a lot of Rust Belt towns with disappearing job opportunities it’s an oddly appropriate movie for the current age in America. If you’re looking for a dark comedy, I definitely recommend you take a look.