From the very first scene of Slap Shot, the classic hockey film makes its stance clear: The way everybody talks about sports is bullshit. Denis Lemieux, the befuddled language-challenged Charlestown Chiefs goalie, is on television talking to broadcaster Jim Carr, who is trying to get fans to bring their kids to come out and see the team by asking Lemieux about basic hockey moves like icing, and slashing, and high-sticking. But Denis just can't seem to make himself family-friendly. "Against the rules. You know, you're stupid when you do that. Just some English pig with no brains." By the end, Denis is oddly existential about the penalty box. "You go to the box. Two minutes by yourself. You feel shame. And then ... you get free." Then he cross-checks the announcer again.
With surprisingly little fanfare, Slap Shot turned 35 years old last month. I know I'm getting older and this is going to keep happening, but I remember people talking about Slap Shot a lot more a decade or so ago than they do today. Back in 1998, when I worked at The Sporting News in St. Louis, our hockey editor always played us a five-minute clip of Slap Shot right when the playoffs started to get everyone fired up. It always worked. But I really don't hear it talked much about anymore. Hockey fans are still crazy about it, but in the culture as a whole, it doesn't even reach Major League-levels of ubiquity. Maybe if Paul Newman had been as much of an asshole as Charlie Sheen.
But while parts of Slap Shot are seriously dated (particularly in matters of facial hair and costume design; someone made Paul Newman—Paul Newman!—wear a brown leather suit) and while the movie itself isn't quite as great as everyone remembers (it wastes a lot of time on female characters it doesn't really care about), I think when it comes to sports, it's the only movie I trust to understand what sports is really about. Sports is not a series of storylines, or an Olympic clash of athletes at their peak, or some sort of allegory for how we should all live our lives, a set of role models representing the best our world has to offer. It's about a bunch of dumb guys traveling from town to town and punching each other for our amusement and diversion. It's a sideshow, a carnival, and one that, at the end of the day, has enough sentiment attached that some rich owner can write it off as a tax break and it all goes away. It is product, pure and simple. There are many great sports movies—Bull Durham remains the best—but Slap Shot is the only one that has ever understood that essential fact: This is an ugly, stupid business.
It's not just other sports movies that try to hide this fact. It's sports themselves. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell makes a huge show of handing down severe punishments to New Orleans Saints coaches for incentivizing players to hurt opponents, as if he's protecting an essentially safe game, as if these were rogue elements propagating some savage scheme that would never, ever be welcome in the Sacred Arena of Sports. Slap Shot is having none of it. Paul Newman's player-coach Reggie Dunlop needs to promote a home game, so he gets right on the radio and says he'll personally give $100 bucks to the first of his players who "nails" an opposing player. He even calls it a bounty! Naturally, the arena is full that night of fans thirsting for blood. Slap Shot doesn't pretend to flatter you the way the NFL and sports today do, a reassuring "oh, we know, you don't want watch us for the violence, you watch us for COMPETITION!" It knows that's why you're here. The NFL lies and pretends everything is fine; keep watching. Slap Shot will have no such hypocrisy. You want it, you'll pay for it, you'll get it.
There's ostensibly a "winning streak" for the Chiefs, but Reg doesn't care about the wins so much as he does the turnstiles; he thinks if the team keeps winning—and keeps fighting the opponents every night—it'll make enough money to stay afloat and allow him to continue avoiding the real world outside of sports. There's a great moment when a car full of Chiefs fans passes him on the street and honks. "Go get 'em tomorrow night, Chiefs!" Reg smiles and yells "yeah" before recoiling once they're gone. "This shit's fuckin' wearing me out," he says. Team loyalty, community relations, the bonding power of sports ... they're all just strategies to move product. (Ultimately, the joke is on Reg. The team's owner doesn't like hockey and has too much money to care one way or the other.)
The movie's primary contribution to pop culture is the genius of the Hanson brothers, three bespectacled earnest yokels whose default mode is Cheerful Annihilation. Thirty-five years later, they're still terrific characters—I love the way they react to opposing trash talk with a Jerry Lundegaardian "OK then!" before just decking guys once the whistle blows—and the movie only truly comes to life when they're onscreen. They're the immediate fan favorites, not the namby-pamby Tom Brady-esque Ned Braden college boy, not the grizzled vet Reggie, and why wouldn't they be? They give us blood; they give us our money's worth. There's really nothing much more pure "sport" than the broken faces of the Hanson brothers as they walk through the crowd, basking in applause after they've been ejected for brutally beating the other team for no reason. When Ron Artest runs into the stands looking for someone, anyone to punch, he's an out-of-control thug; when the Hanson brothers do it, it's hilarious! Yes, one is fact, and one is fiction, but we're talking about visceral reactions here. Do you really think Ron Artest is an awful person? Did you then? Or did you watch video of that fight over and over and over? In the world of Slap Shot, there are no commissioners trying to secure the bottom line by pandering to "respectable" corporate sponsors, "getting tough" on out-of-control athletes. When the Hanson brothers are thrown in jail, Reg simply bails 'em out and they're on the ice the next day. And nobody cares. This is what sports are really like, when you wipe away all the marketing and brand management and liability shifting. This is what people truly value. This is without bullshit.
You couldn't make Slap Shot today, obviously. (Goon, which opens Friday and is currently available on demand, is a perfectly respectable hockey comedy that still pretends there's something "wrong" with all the fighting.) It's too cynical, too plain-faced about what sports is, about what fans want, about what makes this whole business wheel keep turning. At the end, in a big locker-room speech before the big game, Reg says he's gonna play it straight this time, no fighting, just "old-school pure hockey." Then he learns there are NHL scouts in the crowd, and he knows what they want: The fighting commences again. The big leagues know how to do it.
Or, as Jim Carr puts it during another epic Hanson brothers fight: "Broome County [the opposing fans] is just visibly upset by this disgusting display ... so come on down and get your seats for the next home game! Bring the kids! We got entertainment for the whole family!"