|Old-time hockey indeed
By Jeff Merron
Special to Page 2
"Slap Shot," which turned 25 on March 25, might seem like the silliest, most outrageous piece of sports fiction that Hollywood has come up with. Turns out, it came pretty close to the real world of minor-league hockey, circa mid-1970s.
In real life: The Chiefs are modeled after the Johnstown Jets, who played in the Eastern Hockey League and North American Hockey League from 1950-51 to 1976-77. Screenwriter Nancy Dowd's brother, Ned, played for the Jets, and she spent a month traveling with the team, and at other times had Ned set up a tape recorder in the locker room and on the bus to capture what life looked, felt and sounded like for the Jets.
In reel life: It's hockey season, but there's no snow on the ground, the grass is green, the trees are green ...
In real life: During hockey season in Johnstown, there would normally be a lot of snow on the ground, the grass would be brown, the trees leafless. But the film was shot between April and June 1976, which accounts for the spring/summer-like atmosphere.
In reel life: The Chiefs hometown of Charlestown is dependent on factory jobs that are being eliminated.
In real life: The Jets hometown, Johnstown, Pa., was a steel and coal mining town dependent on mills. Its factories were also closing in the 1970s and 1980s.
In reel life: They're the Hanson brothers -- Jeff, Steve, and Jack.
In real life: Jeff, Steve, and Jack Carlson played together on the Jets -- on the same line. Dave Hanson also played on the Jets, and the four shared a house together for a time. When it came time to cast the movie, Jack was off playing in the World Hockey Association, so Hanson got the part playing Jack. And all three movie "brothers" took the name of Hanson. Jeff Carlson plays Jeff Hanson, Steve Carlson plays Steve Hanson, and Dave Hanson plays Jack Hanson. If this isn't confusing enough, Ned Dowd, Nancy's brother, appears in the movie as Ogie Oglethorpe, a dreaded opponent.
In reel life: At the start of the film, Chiefs goalie Denis Lemieux is on a TV show demonstrating illegal moves.
In real life: As the Carlson brothers and Hanson point out in their DVD commentary, when Lemieux demonstrates high-sticking, what he's really showing is a cross-check. When he shows slashing, it's really hooking. And when he demonstrates spearing, it's actually butt-ending.
In reel life: The Jets general manager, McGrath (played by Strother Martin), says, early in the film, "This is the last season. It'll be announced tomorrow."
In real life: The Johnstown Jets played their last season in 1976-77, then missed the 1977-78 season because the Johnstown flood of 1977 damaged their ice-making equipment. They returned for two more seasons in 1978-79 and 1979-80 (as the Wings and Red Wings, respectively), but the team went out of business from 1980-81 to 1987 as the town struggled through a severe economic downturn.
In 1988, hockey returned to Johnstown with the Chiefs (named after the team in the movie), who compete in the East Coast Hockey League.
In reel life: The Chiefs are a hapless team who turn into winners when faced with the possibility of extinction.
In real life: The Jets weren't hapless, but had finished fifth the season before their 1974-75 championship season. On Jan. 19, 1975, the Jets were still in seventh place, but won 23 of their last 31 games to make the playoffs. They went on to win the Lockhart Cup, first beating the Cape Cod Codders, three games to one in the first round of the playoffs. (After the series, Steve Carlson, who had been suspended for the season after a brawl in Johnstown in late March, was reinstated.)
The Jets then beat the Syracuse Blazers in seven games in the semifinals, and finished their title run with a four-game sweep of the Binghamton, N.Y., Broome Dusters in the finals. According to the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat's account of the Game 7 victory over Syracuse, "After the game, Syracuse fans went after the three officials ... (who) were escorted to their cars in their officiating clothes by police, as fans gathered near the dressing room." The fans were upset about a penalty call against one of their players late in the game.
In reel life: In a fashion show near the beginning of the movie, one outfit is called the "Omar Sharif" look.
In real life: Omar Sharif, who became a Hollywood icon in the 1960s with star turns in "Lawrence of Arabia," "Dr. Zhivago" and "Funny Girl," is blessed with one of the greatest names in showbiz, so it's a pleasure to hear it come up. Sharif was born in Egypt as Michel Shahoub, and changed his name when he converted to Islam. In the 1960s, he gained a reputation as an exotic-looking, jet-setting playboy, so, in the mid-1970s, evoking the name of Sharif in a fashion context would make sense. Hockey players strutting the runways isn't unheard of, either. In his DVD commentary, Jack Carlson says he did a fashion show in Hartford, when he was playing for the New England Whalers of the WHA. Sharif's film career waned in the 1980s and 1990s, but his bridge career took off. He's a world-class player.
In real life: Indeed, Mrs. Carlson popped out her boys almost like a metronome in the 1950s. Jeff Carlson was born on July 20, 1953; he was followed 13 months later by Jack, on Aug. 23, 1954. One year and three days later, on Aug. 26, 1955, along came Steve. So, at the start of the 1974 season, the Carlson brothers were 19, 20 and 21.
In reel life: The Chiefs are "goons" who play dirty and fight at just about every opportunity.
In real life: The Jets (and the North American Hockey League in general) piled up the fights and penalty minutes. John Gofton, a Jet who plays Nick Brophy (the sloshed center of the Hyannisport Presidents) in the film, told ESPN radio's Todd Wright that the movie "was a little exaggerated, but we used to have fights galore."
The Carlson brothers and Hanson were cast to type. During the 1974-75 championship season, Jeff Carlson led the team in penalty minutes with 264 in 64 games, Jack Carlson was second with 248, and Hanson third with 242. On Jan. 15, 1976, Hanson added to his legacy by setting a team record for most penalty minutes in a period -- 38 -- with four minor penalties, two majors, a misconduct and a game misconduct.
In reel life: Paul Newman plays Reggie Dunlop, an aging player-coach, who's lived in Charlestown and played minor-league hockey forever, it seems.
In real life: The Johnstown Jets were coached to their 1975 title by Dick Roberge, who played 17 seasons in Johnstown (and appears in one scene as a ref who throws Dunlop out of a game), but Dunlop's character was probably inspired by Long Island Ducks player-coach John Brophy. The Ducks, who folded in 1973, played against Johnstown in the Eastern Hockey League, and Brophy did a lot of coaching from the penalty box. He also had a reputation for brawling -- he was once suspended for hitting a referee. The film gives a nod to Brophy by giving the Presidents center his last name.
In real life: Newman probably swore as much (or little) as any other guy ... until "Slap Shot." Then life began to imitate art. "There's a hangover from characters sometimes," he told Time magazine in 1984. "There are things that stick. Since 'Slap Shot,' my language is right out of the locker room."
In reel life: On the team bus, Dunlop drinks Schmidt's beer.
In real life: Ah, Schmidt's. A Philadelphia-brewed beer from back in the days when local breweries still meant something, Schmidt's, which was cheap and "tasty," was affectionately known as "Schuylkill swill," after the river that runs through Philly. The Schmidt's brewery closed in 1987, after the label was sold. G. Heileman Brewing/Pabst now makes Schmidt's, Schmidt's Ice, Schmidt's Red Lager and Schmidt's Light. The Hanson brothers and Carlson say in their DVD commentary that the Jets really drank Stroh's and Schmidt's and Iron City beer. But during the filming all they had was Stroh's and Schmidt's.
In reel life: The Hanson brothers wear black-rimmed, Coke-bottle eyeglasses, and in one game, get into a fight immediately after the opening faceoff.
In real life: Jeff and Steve Carlson wore those glasses, and did get into a long fight right after an opening faceoff. Roberge told the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, "We got into Binghamton about two or three weeks before the playoffs. In the team warmup, we're out there and all the Binghamton players came out with the plastic glasses and big noses, every one of them, poking fun at the Carlson brothers. We went back in the dressing room and the boys said, 'Coach, as soon as that puck is dropped, we're pairing up.' We had one heckuva fight. They went about 30 minutes until everyone got tired. We met them again in the finals and beat them four straight."
In real life: Nick Nolte "was trying like crazy to get the part," Allan Nicholls (who played Chiefs captain Johnny Upton) told ESPN Radio's Todd Wright recently. But, said Nicholls, director George Roy Hill was looking for actors who could skate (and apparently Nolte couldn't while Ontkean had played three years of college hockey at New Hampshire). Rumor has it that Donnie Most, who played Ralph Malph on "Happy Days," also tried out for the part.
In reel life: Before a game, Braden is wearing new blue gloves before he's introduced to the crowd. Then he skates out wearing old brown gloves. A few seconds later, he's wearing the blue gloves again.
In real life: Even a striptease artist like Braden (we'll get to that later) couldn't make such a quick switch without some help from the film editors.
In reel life: Braden's girlfriend looks at a statue of a brown dog in a park in downtown Charlestown, and asks Dunlop, "What's the story on that dog?" He replies, "That's the dog that saved Charlestown in the 1938 flood."
In real life: "Morley's Dog" is a real statue in Johnstown, but Reggie's got his facts backward and his century wrong. The cast iron statue, made in the 1860s, was a fixture in the Morley family yard until 1889, when it was swept away in a flood that killed 2,209 people. It was recovered, and has been on display in downtown Johnstown for a long time, although it had to be put behind a chain-link fence to protect it from vandals. There is talk of a "hero dog" of the 1889 flood, who went by the name of "Romey" and may have saved some lives, but the statue is not of him.
In reel life: Chiefs radio broadcaster Jim Carr wears a terrible, obvious toupee. Near the end of the movie, Ned Braden says to Carr, "Why do you wear that rug? It's just sensationally ugly!"
In real life: Andrew Duncan, who played Carr, did not wear a toupee in real life. But Carr, said the Carlsons and Hanson in their DVD commentary, was modeled after Johnstown sportscaster Bill Wilson, who, they say, wore a wig.
In reel life: The Chiefs fight all the time.
In real life: "When I played for the Jets I didn't play in one game when there wasn't at least one fight," Dave Hanson told the Vancouver Sun last year.
In reel life: The Chiefs intimidated opponents with their rough play and brawling, and started winning games and drawing huge crowds.
In real life: The Johnstown Jets promotional slogan for the 1975-76 season was "Aggressive Hockey is Back in Johnstown."
In real life: The Jets played in the Cambria County War Memorial, a 4,000-seat arena built in 1950, In the fourth and final contest against Binghamton, said Jets captain Galen Head, "people were hanging off the rafters watching us play that game."
In reel life: Police patrol outside the arena with vicious dogs.
In real life: "Every visiting team had to be escorted out of town with dogs, in Johnstown. That's a fact," say the Carlson brothers and Hanson in their DVD commentary.
In reel life: The head referees wear red-striped jerseys.
In real life: In the short-lived WHA, the refs wore red-striped jerseys.
In reel life: Fights before and during the games are bloody and violent -- players really seem to get hurt.
In real life: The fights were often not as "staged" as the actors would have liked them to be. "I was injured during a fight," Yvon Barrette, who played goalie Denis Lemieux, said recently. "The danger was not from the guy you were fighting with, but other people dancing around with their skates. Skates were in the air, and that was quite dangerous." The Carlson brothers and Hanson say in their DVD commentary that when they went into the stands for one fight, the "actors" in the stands took things a bit too seriously, and really tried to take them down.
In reel life: The Hansons mix in tin foil with the tape they wear under their gloves.
In real life: The Carlsons did wrap foil around their hands, so they could cut opponents when they brawled. "They used to come into the dressing room and wrap their hands with aluminum foil under the gloves," Roberge told Myrtle Beach Golf Magazine recently. "They came up with a ruling (a month into the season) that you could not wear anything under your hockey gloves except a golf glove." In their DVD commentary, the Carlsons and Hanson deny they used foil, saying it was Nancy Dowd's idea. They do admit to wearing leather golf gloves under their hockey gloves -- after the golf gloves were "treated" by immersing them in water, getting them soaking wet, then drying them on radiators so they'd be "hard as rocks," and do the most damage in fights.
In reel life: The boys lead the team into the stands for a fight. Carr leans over to watch the fight, and, gripping his microphone, says, "Ladies and gentlemen, look at that. You can't see that. I'm on radio."
In real life: The Carlsons did go into the stands to fight against fans of the Mohawk Valley Comets in Utica, N.Y., because a fan had thrown a glass of ice at them. The Carlsons and Hanson, in their DVD commentary, say they were arrested after that fight. Technically, some fans in the arena could have been listening to the radio, and could have witnessed the fight while listening. But I just tossed that line in because it's one of my favorites, and reminded me of Ralph Kiner.
In reel life: While a brawl is going on during the final game, Ned does a striptease.
In real life: This seems to be one of the clearly fictional on-ice events in the film.
In reel life: The Chiefs start a fight with an opponent during pregame warmups, and in the championship game the Syracuse Chiefs forfeit after a fight and Ned's striptease, giving the Chiefs the victory and the championship.
In real life: According to Dave Hanson, the Jets brawled against the Buffalo Norsemen before a playoff game started, when no refs were on the ice. "They (the Norsemen) skated off the ice and went into the locker room and refused to come out to play the game, and we won the playoff series by forfeit," said Hanson.
In reel life: At the movie theater downtown, "Deep Throat" is playing, along with "Meatball."
In real life: Hmmm. This is a toughie, but sometimes hard-core research pays off. "Deep Throat," starring the recently deceased Linda Lovelace, was the first hard-core porn flick to be shown in mainstream theaters. The film was released in 1972 and became a cultural phenomenon; it could have been playing in downtown Johnstown in the mid-1970s.
"Meatball," starring Harry Reems (who appeared in "Deep Throat"), also came out in 1972, and was the second film. In case you're wondering about the plot of "Meatball," this is a description from a website you're not allowed to visit: "Harry Reems plays Dr. Schmock, a zany mad scientist who discovers Preparation X -- a formula that makes ordinary hamburger double in size and come alive! The only problem is that Preparation X has one serious side effect -- it's also a powerful male aphrodisiac! Join us in the laboratory where the good doctor is wearing out every female technician in reach!"
In reel life: While their teammates drink and play cards to relax in the hotel during a road trip, the Hansons play with toy race cars in their room.
In reel life: There's a "Pet Brick" in a locker behind Jeff Hanson.
In real life: In the spring of 1975, California advertising man Gary Dahl had an idea: Stick a rock in a box, include a booklet of "training instructions" and call it a "pet." Thus began the "Pet Rock" fad. The "Pet Rock" was introduced in August 1975, and by the time its run was over around Christmas, more than a million rocks in a box had been sold at $3.95 a pop. Hanson's "Pet Brick," apparently a substitute for the pet owner on a strict budget, was ailing last we heard of it. Jack Hanson, in a February 2001 chat at the Ottawa Senators site, was asked if he had a pet. "Yup, I have a white German shepherd," he replied. "Steve has a turtle and Jeff has a brick, which is sick."
In reel life: "Killer" Carlson says he owes part of his success to "Swami Baha" and that you can get his records anywhere.
In real life: There were lots of so-called Swamis roaming around in the 1970s, but we've never heard of Mr. Baha.
In reel life: Dunlop offers a "bounty" of $100 for the first Chief who slugs Tim "Dr. Hook" McCracken.
In real life: Marquette Iron Rangers coach "Okie" Brumm put a bounty on Ernie DuPont of the Green Bay Bobcats -- $50 to any player who knocked him down or fought him, say the Hanson brothers and Carlson in their DVD commentary. Added Jeff or Dave, "My brother Jack went after him. That's where they (the filmmakers) got it from." The Iron Rangers and the Bobcats played in the USHL during the mid-1970s.
In reel life: The Syracuse Bulldogs bring back a bunch of old-time goons in the final game.
In real life: Many of the "opponents" in the film were either active minor-league hockey players or, in that last game, real old-timers. For example, Clarence "Screaming Buffalo" Swamptown, the Bulldogs player who comes out onto the ice wearing war paint, was played by Indian Joe Nolan, who played in the Eastern Hockey League in the mid-1950s (and was banned for life, say the Hanson brothers and Carlson in their DVD commentary, although they don't explain why). Another real-life minor-leaguer who played a Bulldog was Connie Madigan (the second Bulldog introduced before the final game), who played in the minors for 17 years and had a 20-game NHL career with the St. Louis Blues in 1972-73. Mark Busque, who played for the NAHL Philadelphia Firebirds in the mid-70s, also plays a Bulldog.
In reel life: The Bulldogs wear uniforms that look awfully familiar to NHL fans of the 1970s.
In real life: The Chiefs are wearing Philadelphia Flyers unis of the period, with a different logo. In the mid-1970s, the Flyers were notorious intimidators known as the "Broad Street Bullies." Coincidence?
In real life: There is no Gilmore Tuttle, but Blake Ball, who plays the part, was known as a brawler during his 14 minor-league seasons, during which he played for, among many other teams, the Syracuse Blazers, the Jets and, for part of the 1973-74 season, the Macon Whoopees.
In reel life: Ogie Oglethorpe is a feared player among the Chiefs, known for his ruthless dirty playing, fighting and arrests. The Chiefs don't face Oglethorpe, "the worst goon in hockey," until the final game of the season because he's been suspended and in prison. Before the final game, Carr introduces Oglethorpe, saying, "This young man has had a very trying rookie season, with the litigation, the notoriety, his subsequent deportation to Canada and that country's refusal to accept him."
In real life: The model for Ogie was Bill "Goldie" Goldthorpe, who rolled up 25 majors for fighting by Christmas of his rookie year with the Syracuse Blazers in 1973. "I couldn't even shake people's hands my hands were so sore," Goldthorpe told the Vancouver Sun last year. "We started fighting a lot and having brawls. Over the course of the year, all the capers I'd been in, on and off the ice, built a character."
Goldthorpe was indeed arrested and jailed. His team had been fighting (among themselves) on the tarmac at the Green Bay airport, and when the police arrived, Goldthorpe didn't stop. So he was put in the slammer, while the rest of the team flew on to Canada. Goldthrope was released the next day and escorted across the border by Canadian immigration officials.
And Goldthorpe was feared. "He had a big blond afro and didn't crack a smile," said Dave Hanson. "He had that leather-face, stone-cold look. Goldie was one of those guys you just never knew what he was going to do. And whatever he did, you just didn't believe that he did it."
Page 2 editor Jay Lovinger wrote about Goldthorpe in the Binghamton Sun-Bulletin in 1975: "With an official trying to keep Goldthorpe out of further trouble, the pair skated around the rink, Goldthorpe gesticulating angrily at the Comet bench, and finally returning to the penalty box for another go at Bob O'Reilly. O'Reilly tried to use a chair (unsuccessfully) to keep Goldthorpe at bay. Goldthorpe, for whom this kind of thing is not a new experience, will be fined and suspended three games."
Goldthorpe played for 16 pro teams in his 10-year career, including some exhibition games with the Maple Leafs and Penguins in 1977.
In reel life: In one of the final scenes, Ned does a striptease on the ice -- and strips down all the way to his jock, revealing his buttocks, in full.
In real life: Oops. There must have been a coffee break in there somewhere. At the start of the striptease Ned is wearing long underwear and boxer shorts beneath his jockstrap -- did Ned really take off all of his underwear and put his jockstrap back on?
In reel life: Before the last game, Reggie says he wants to go out "clean" and play "old-time hockey." The names Toe Blake, Dit Clapper and Eddie Shore are mentioned in service of this cause.
In real life: Toe Blake, Dit Clapper and Eddie Shore are all hockey greats. Hector "Toe" Blake played for the Canadiens from 1935 to 1948 and was a three-time all-star and one-time MVP. Later he became one of the greatest coaches in the game. Aubrey "Dit" Clapper played forward and defense during his 20-year career (1927 to 1947) with the Bruins, and picked up three Stanley Cups on his way to the Hall of Fame. Eddie Shore was a hard-nosed defenseman and four-time MVP who played for the Bruins from 1926 to 1940.
In reel life: There's a parade in downtown Charlestown, complete with marching bands, to celebrate the Chiefs' championship.
In real life: Three high-school bands and thousands of Johnstowners turned out to cheer the Jets after they won the title, and Mayor Herb Pfuhl made team members honorary citizens.
"Closer Look" will be a regular Page 2 feature, exploring a hot sports topic in greater detail.