Slap Shot (1973) is probably the most enduring hockey movie ever made (sorry, Most Valuable Primate) and the lion’s share of that popularity can be attributed to how decisively it skewers the culture surrounding the game and its fans. Paul Newman stars as veteran player-coach Reggie Dunlop, a man who excels in neither of his official capacities and whose losing team, the Charlestown Chiefs, is on the verge of being liquidated, ostensibly since Charlestown’s local mine is closing and fan attendance has sharply dropped. Reggie would love to have a crack at changing the owners’ minds and securing his team’s future in another city- hopefully somewhere down in sunny, warm Florida. But unfortunately, nobody seems to even know who the owners are.
Obsessed with appeasing the invisible owners of the Chiefs, Reggie invents a story about the team being sold to a retirement community at the end of the season and encourages his players to give it their all to make the playoffs (a feat he hopes will drum up interest in a real sale). This proves fruitless, as the Chiefs are as inept as ever, until three new rookies arrive that pique Reggie’s MacGyver-esque imagination. While he is upset at first upon learning that the three Hanson brothers are, ahem, mentally challenged (the brothers spend most of their off-time racing Hot Wheels around a makeshift track in their shared hotel room), Reggie soon unearths their potential: sensing the impossibility of making the playoffs legitimately, he turns the unquestioning, innocent Hanson trio into the most vicious goon squad the sport of hockey has ever seen, much to the displeasure of his for-the-love-of-the-game captain.
Predictably, the team becomes a sensation overnight. In the clip above, we see the extent of the Chiefs’ bastardization of hockey: before the match even begins, one of the Hansons blindsides an opposing player with a haymaker to the face and the ice, without any referees yet arrived, turns into bedlam. In a wonderful quick shot, the Chiefs booster club chants and claps delightedly, unfazed, as if it’s all part of the game. When subsequently warned by the referee during the national anthem, one of the Hansons fires back that he’s “listening to the fucking song!”
The cynicism inherent in the film is hammered home in a climactic scene in which Reggie, having improbably made the playoffs, finally uncovers the identity of the Chiefs’ owner, a rich widow living in the suburbs named McCambridge who knows and cares nothing about hockey. Ironically, while she acknowledges that Reggie’s myriad efforts have made selling the Chiefs a completely viable option, it’s now more lucrative for her to fold the franchise anyway for a simple tax write-off. McCambridge is Slap Shot‘s analogue of Noah Cross, a woman with far too much money and power whose only interest seems to be in maintaining it.
Reggie’s hopeless quest and the Chiefs’ play mirrors the state of hockey in the early 1970’s, particularly in the minor leagues, where violence was the key ticket-selling point. Team owners were concerned far less with the honorable play of the game and far more with the number of fans attending home matches; a sad thing considering how little money was to be made in minor league hockey anyway (little enough that a franchise is a mere write-off in the film). But the perpetuation of that system always rested on the shoulders of the fans who clamored for more bloodshed and were bored by the idea of a full game without at least one break for fisticuffs.
Slap Shot is a rare example of good comic cynicism, a film which offers no resolution to the problems it presents except a hearty shrug and a smile. A meditation on the pitfalls of our nation’s other other sport, it is, as Sklar would say, “personal, political, [and] commercial” all at once.