Slapshot defies expectations as a sports movie by avoiding clichés and the predictability of a big final game.
The story is about men who happen to be hockey players instead of working at the local mill. This allows screenwriter Nancy Dowd and director George Roy Hill to focus on characters with some hockey action. Unlike other by the book sports movies, “Slapshot” features a fascinating bunch of characters, each with their own personality.
A charismatic Paul Newman plays team leader Reggie Dunlop, a man with as many problems off the ice as on. Dunlop’s marriage to Francine (Jennifer Warren) is disintegrating and no amount of his charms can rectify the situation. The team’s lack of success on and off the ice also becomes an albatross around his neck.
The players are tough guys on the ice but struggle mightily against their female opponents at home, including Ned and Lily Braden’s (Michael Ontkean and Lindsay Crouse) on and off again relationship. Then, there’s Yvon Barrette’s hilarious Denis Lemieux, the nervous French goaltender and of course the Hansons (Jeff and Steve Carlson and David Hanson), three looney brothers who are as comfortable playing with toy cars in their hotel room as they are ramming over the opponent players on the ice.
It is this emphasis on the characters that distinguishes “Slapshot” from the typical sports movie that usually focuses on building up to a big final game. The hockey action relates to the team’s misfortune and to each individual player. That leads to some funny moments on the ice such as Dunlop taunting an opposition goaltender and Ned performing his famous striptease.
“Slapshot” has some clever writing and editing, like when Dunlop refers to the Hansons as a (expletive) disgrace. The next shot is of the announcer telling fans to get tickets to the next game, “we got entertainment for the whole family” just before someone gets hit in the head by a puck (courtesy of one of the Hansons).
The movie also nails the interplay between players in the dressing room. As a journalist, I have witness very similar camaraderie, even at the National Hockey League level. I remember some of the banter between players after a game in Toronto and the friendship within that dressing room. Not exactly things you hear on the television broadcast!
“Slapshot” remains as entertaining as when it was first released in 1977, combining humor on and off the ice with strong drama dealing with factory and team closures. It definitely measures up as one of the best sports movies, scoring a hat trick for audiences.