A few nights after one of their players was injured by a dirty hit, the Johnstown Jets plotted to exact some revenge on Buffalo’s Greg Neeld.
An all-out brawl broke out during warmups and the North American Hockey League game was postponed, much to the dismay of ownership and presumably the fans at a sold-out War Memorial Arena. It just so happened that director George Roy Hill was in the arena that night, cameras rolling. The real-life minor league fight was simply further inspiration for his 1977 movie “Slap Shot,” ranked No. 5 in a vote by the sports staff of The Associated Press on the Top 25 sports movies of all time.
Bawdy, bloody and irreverent, the movie is a wild ride through the final season of the fictional Charlestown Chiefs, a loser of a team in a blue-collar town with thousands of factory workers facing layoffs. The team is on the chopping block and things are grim until aging captain Reggie Dunlop, played to perfection by Paul Newman, figures out the Chiefs can at least draw fans — and maybe land a buyer — if they abandon “old time hockey” and goon it up with the rough stuff from the bespectacled Hanson brothers and their mostly eager teammates.
“It’s one of those iconic movies that has so many spots in it where the words come up and you use it in dressing rooms and stuff all the time,” said longtime NHL coach Bruce Boudreau, who actually played for the Jets and has a non-speaking role in the film.
Long gone from hockey is the fighting and rampant cheap shots practiced by the Chiefs. That doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t resonate today, far from it. Like all the great ones of this ilk — from “ Caddyshack ” to “Bull Durham” and more — it is filled with lines that will never be forgotten.
Players still joke about putting on the foil for a fight. Someone is always the “chief punk” on the other team. Who can forget “the unfortunate Denny Pratt tragedy” or letting ‘em know you’re there? Doesn’t every league have an Ogie Oglethorpe?
“Anybody who’s played the game can still relate to it in some capacity because as much as it’s changed, a lot of it is still the same,” said Christian Hanson, the son of Dave Hanson and a veteran of 42 NHL games with Toronto between 2008-2011. “A lot of guys playing midget hockey, junior hockey, minor league hockey have gone through a lot of the bus trips and the playing cards on the bus and being on the road with the guys.
So relatable that three-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie Marc-Andre Fleury remade Denny Lemieux’s famous opening scene about penalties. Edmonton star Connor McDavid called it “a movie that you can watch 100 times and still laugh at.”
The hockey classic stemmed from the screenplay of Nancy Dowd, who visited her brother, Ned, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, when he was a player during the 1974-75 season. He used his tape recorder to capture locker-room life and she took it from there.
“I had to be true to the milieu (of minor league hockey players),” Dowd told The AP at the time. “That’s the way they talk.”
It was the way they lived, too. Dunlop’s apartment in the film? That was Boudreau’s actual pad, picked because it was the messiest of any player’s. The also film captures life in the minors off the ice — the long bus trips, the downtime in bars and motels. The characters are just characters, in every way, with no big plot twists to worry about.
Boudreau recalls spending as much as 10 hours a day in uniform waiting to shoot a scene, how brutally real some of the big hits were and the night he got to spend with Newman, Hill and Dave Hanson in the film room.
“Paul turns around to me at the one point and he said, ‘This is gonna be a great movie,’” Boudreau said. “He was right.”
Christian Hanson said his father and teammates didn’t realize that at the time. The acting gig was just a second job between North American Hockey League games.
“It was one of those things where they couldn’t find enough actors that could skate, so they figured that they would kind of give auditions to the guys that the characters were based off of,” he said. “They knocked it out of the park and so they cast them.”
Nick Nolte and Peter Strauss were among the actors who tried out and fell short because they couldn’t skate; Al Pacino didn’t even get a look. The child-like Hansons were based on the Carlsons, but only brothers Jeff and Steve were in the movie because Jack was called up to the World Hockey Association.
Jack Carlson was replaced by former teammate Dave Hanson, who still joins Jeff and Steve to make appearances as the Hanson brothers.
Christian Hanson didn’t see “Slap Shot” for the first time until he was 13 — it wasn’t a family ritual to watch it — but the retired forward thinks of it as part of the fabric of playing hockey.
“Somebody will throw out a line from ‘Slap Shot’ and everybody understands it,” he said. “It’s one of those things that transcends generations. The coach can be in the room giving a speech, and then all of a sudden one of the guys rattles off something that the Hanson brothers said when they were sitting in the locker room before the game and everybody gets a chuckle.
“I think it’s pretty neat that even to this day it’s something that still holds true in locker rooms.”
The Associated Press is presenting a one-of-its-kind Top 25 of sports movies, a suggestion of what to put on the screen while stuck at home. This is, of course, what we do at the AP: We rank things. So, 70 writers and editors around the world voted on the best in the history of sports cinema.
More on the AP Top 25 poll of sports movies: https://apnews.com/Sportsmovies
Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press