Gene Collier: Forty years since Oscar snubbed 'Slap Shot'
February 26, 2017 12:00 AM
Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press
Fans dressed as the Hanson Brothers from the movie "Slap Shot" yell at players and referees at a Minnesota Wild game in in 2014. Even 40 years after it debuted, the movie, filmed in Johnstown, Pa., continues to have a strong presence in hockey culture.
By Gene Collier / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
No one embedded with the Hollywood royalty at tonight’s Oscars or even in the global television audience is likely to spare a stray thought for the worst injustice in the history of the Academy Awards, probably because almost no one shares the following opinion:
“Slap Shot” got jobbed.
A loving cinematic monument to the raw essence of hockey, framed by the ribald lawlessness of the minor league game in the 1970s, the film that starred Paul Newman as an end-of-the-line player/coach and Johnstown, Pa. as itself was released 40 years ago this weekend.
As you might never imagine from Saturday’s commemorative celebration in and around the Cambria County War Memorial, home of the long-defunct Johnstown Jets on whom Nancy Dowd’s rollicking script was not-all-that-loosely based, “Slap Shot” was not Best Picture of 1977.
“Star Wars?” Oh puh-lease. Plainly, if Luke Skywalker had any stick-handling skills at all, he’d have stolen the Oscar that year from “Annie Hall,” which was another round with Woody Allen’s ensemble of intellectuals in their incessant neurotic Olympics.
Only slightly less shocking — no Oscars would be forthcoming for “Slap Shot 2: Breaking the Ice,” “Slap Shot 3, The Junior League,” or “Slap Shot 4: Quantum of Solace,” which I just made up. Not 2 and 3, just 4.
“For “Slap Shot 2,” we were best supporting actors at the DVD Premiere Awards, and you can look that up,” Steve Carlson said over the phone from California this week. “And you notice Paul Newman never won an Oscar — all the millions he made — never won an Oscar until he’d been exposed to the Hanson Brothers.”
Even from the opposite side of the country, Steve Carlson comes through the phone with his rhetorical fists up, still stepping effortlessly in and out of character, mostly because it’s a very short step. He just can’t help it.
“When we did the film we were playing for the Johnstown Jets and they couldn’t get actors to do our roles,” he said. “We did it because it meant we would not have to work that summer. We did it after a hard, long negotiation that lasted five seconds.”
Four decades on, “Slap Shot’s” quasi-twisted ethos has informed and tickled and in its weird way validated multiple generations of players and fans alike, and even today’s youngest NHLers consider the crown jewels of the film’s histrionic/hysterical dialogue to be the game’s semi-official language.
“I’ve never been in a locker room where everyone hadn’t seen ‘Slap Shot,’” said Penguins defensemen Justin Schultz, who wasn’t even born until 1990. “If you didn’t see it, there’s something wrong.”
In “Slap Shot,” there was something wrong with just about everybody associated with the Charlestown Chiefs, most of all with the aforementioned Hanson Brothers, three brawlers in black-rimmed glasses who were based on three real-life hockey playing brothers – Steve, Jack, and Jeff Carlson. Before filming started, Jack Carlson was called up to the Edmonton Oilers, leaving the filmmakers one Hanson short. To the rescue came another Johnstown Jet, conveniently named Dave Hanson, the same Dave Hanson who now runs the Island Sports Complex at Robert Morris University.
Should you find the preceding paragraph confusing, perhaps this clarification from Dave will help.
“Jack was viscously tough,” Dave said in his office on Neville Island this week. “Jeff was a guy that would hit you with one sledgehammer punch and put you down, but Jack would hit you with 15 sledgehammers. Jack got called up halfway through the season and still came in third on the Jets in penalty minutes behind Jeff and me.”
Yes, in real life.
“We all lived together,” Dave said. “And when you’re 20, you pick up each others’ stupid antics.”
That would explain, possibly, the almost child-like wonder the Hansons brought to the production, even showing up in Johnstown with toys in their suitcase, but Steve Carlson has a more literal explanation.
“On Sunday afternoon in Johnstown, Pa., which was a dry town then, nothing was open,” Steve said. “In our apartment building, Dave and Guido (Tenesi, a one-time Penguins draft pick) lived on the third floor. Jeff, Jack, and myself had the second floor and the land lady was on the first. So for Sunday we’d take all the furniture off the third floor and set up a big track for our race cars. Saturday we’d buy a keg of beer — I mean some milk and cookies — and we’d play all day Sunday.”
When they were not playing, they were playing hockey, and when they were playing hockey, they were not playing. The Carlson brothers, Dave Hanson, and many of the players on the Jets and throughout the North American Hockey League thrived in an arena of barely controlled mayhem. The violence in “Slap Shot” is purposefully over the top, but in uncomfortable truth, not by much.
“Ninety percent of that movie is real,” Hanson said. “We had brawls in warm-ups. We won a playoff series because the other team wouldn’t come out of the locker room to play the third game of a best-of-three. We had a game in Utica where the cops knocked on the door of the locker room, walked us across the street to the police station in our uniforms, and put us in jail.”
All of that happened, and a lot more that never made it into Dowd’s screenplay.
“We were playing the Beauce Jaros (the NAHL franchise from Quebec] in Johnstown, and that team was itself a movie that should have been made,” Hanson remembers. “They had Gypsy Joe Hardy, a big Frenchman — we fought every time we played, and they had Gilles ‘Bad News’ Bilodeau [aka Tarzan, aka Zombie]. He was built like Jack Ham. So him and Jeff Carlson get into it in front of the penalty boxes and the PA announcer’s booth, which was between the penalty boxes. There was no glass above the boards there in that era. So Gilles has Jeff bent over the boards backwards into the announcers booth, and Jeff reaches back and grabs the PA mic and starts hitting Bilodeau in the head with hit. So over the PA you hear ‘Boomph, boomph, ba-boom, boomph!’
“We always joked to Jeff after that, ‘You don’t know it, but you were the founder of rap music.’”
The next day, notoriously frugal Jets GM John Mitchell, portrayed in the film by Strother Martin, handed Jeff a bill for the microphone.
The violence and near-gleeful vulgarity in “Slap Shot” were primarily responsible for the film’s poor critical response, and the movie wasn’t terribly well received among the Lords of the Game either. But 40 years is a long time. Soon after technological game changers VHS and DVD arrived, the film was on its way to genuine and probably everlasting affinity.
“About five years ago I was at Hockey Hall of Fame,” said Doc Emrick, NBC’s incomparable play-by-play man and himself a Hall of Famer. “In the gift shop they have the full-fledged, $200 jerseys, Jean Beliveau’s No. 4, Bobby Orr’s No. 4, Mario Lemieux’s No. 66, and then there are several Chiefs jerseys and a Tim McCracken (aka Dr. Hook of the fictitious Syracuse Bulldogs in the film’s climactic scene). That would not have happened in the years after the film came out.
“It has a lot to do, I think, with the culture of hockey. Even today with all the millionaires, hockey benefits from the down-to-earth nature of the players that are in it. They’re millionaires who still come to work on a bus.”
Emrick said that for years NBC’s primary hockey producer, Sam Flood, would play a clip from “Slap Shot” 60 seconds before show time to psyche the broadcasters, always including Maxine Nightingale’s “Right Back Where We Started From,” the soundtrack’s main musical component for no apparent reason and no, I can’t get it out of my head so thank you very much.
Last weekend, the Hanson Brothers were in Milwaukee and Buffalo, and before that, Anchorage, and every year since the early ’90s, they’ve been skating the earth spreading goodwill in the name of hockey. They’re bigger than ever. The film has grossed about $30 million.
“It doesn’t matter whether we’re in Europe or Australia, the fans are there and we’re just very honored and humbled by it,” said Carlson. “In Milwaukee, we were there before a 7 o’clock [Admirals] game; we started signing autographs at 6 o’clock and we signed until there were just a few minutes left in the third period. We make sure we do a handshake and talk to everyone in line.”
Carlson and his wife spend most of their time in California fielding requests and coordinating the travel. China wants the Hanson Brothers. Japan too. But they’re in their ‘60s, and for Dave Hanson, that Pittsburgh-to-Tokyo run doesn’t hold quite the glamour it might have a decade or two ago.
“But then you get there and it’s just exhilarating, and it’s fun,” Hanson said. “And what’s cool is that we’ve developed a charitable heart. We try to pick places we want to go with ways to help people raise money. You go into a place like Redvers, Saskatchewan, a little farming village, to help raise money so they can keep their curling rink open. You go to the Los Angeles Forum, sell the place out, raise a half million dollars for a children’s hospital. Really rewarding.”
If Hanson and the Carlsons have any regrets even remotely associated with “Slap Shot,” it’s that the kinds of characters who lit up the screen in 1977 no longer exist in today’s game. That’s probably a good thing for those with an interest in an evolving culture, but there is still a vague sense of loss there.
As for additional regrets, you should note that the late great film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, asked by David Letterman if they ever regretted giving a film a bad review, both said yes, “Slap Shot.”
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