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WEIRD & WILD: Paul Newman hits the ice for 'old-time hockey!'
October 17, 2008  | By Diane Werts
slap shot paul newman.jpgOne more Paul Newman post, and I'm done. (For now, anyhow.) The late actor won Oscars, made millions for charity, and did much more to be remembered for. But I'm willing to wager he'll live longest in fans' hearts for one performance that snooty cineastes might be too inclined to discount.

Slap Shot.

The foul-mouthed, two-fisted hockey comedy, yes. But it's THE movie of the sport. And while hockey may not be the biggest sport (except in Canada), it's likely the one with the most dedicated fan base -- fans who loooove their somewhat marginalized game and loooooove this movie with a compulsive passion. I know because I'm one of them, with an annual viewing of Slap Shot something akin to revisiting a shrine, reciting the lines along like prayers, paying ritual homage to the core of the sport we adore.

Now this 1977 classic is available on-demand through Oct. 23 in many Starz cable households -- and in HD, too! It's also airing on digital cable/satellite's RetroPlex channel Saturday, Oct 25 at 11:20 p.m., Oct. 30 at 3:15 p.m., and the night of Oct. 30 at 1:15 a.m. (If you miss it, the 25th anniversary DVD with extras is just $10 here, and well worth it.)

Starring as a not-as-smart-as-he-thinks player/coach for a two-bit team in a podunk town, Newman absolutely nailed the game's feisty esprit, its rhythm and flow, and the knockabout nature of its working-class workforce and fandom. Not to mention the brawling, in all its bench-clearing '70s glory. And the skating, in which the then 52-year-old looked surprisingly like a lifer on the ice. Reunited with director George Roy Hill from The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the pair recreated those hits' warmth and warped wit, along with the cameraderie, here of a minor-league team in a dying mill town that needs something to believe in. Which adds social commentary to the story, too.

hanson brothers.jpgNot that that's why we watch. There are, of course, the immortal Hanson brothers, the adolescent trio of long-haired, four-eyed brawlers forever "puttin' on the foil" to punch opponents lights out (or pummel vending machines that "took my quarter!"). There's the promotional "exposure" of an ill-fated players' fashion show. There are the machinations of Newman's Reggie Dunlop when he fears the team may be folding, and his byplay with old Cool Hand Lukenemesis Strother Martin as the team's wheeler-dealer manager (with the story about the guy who purposely got himself sent to the penalty box so he could -- well, play in a different way). And last but not least -- spoiler alert! -- there's the climactic on-ice striptease by hot bod college boy Michael Ontkean, as the team plays desperately for the championship and a modicum of self-respect.

But all the details of the game (and the life) are what make Slap Shot resonate so enduringly. Amid the fireworks and fistfights lie evocative characters studied movingly in their devotion to the ice and each other. Newman, Hill and scriptwriter Nancy Dowd -- in the '70s, nobody believed a woman (!) could write something this bleeping vulgar -- are so deep inside the hockey persona that fans feel immersed in this movie. We know this game, and these people, and they know us, and how we feel about them. Hockey, even in its major league form, is probably still the sport closest to its fans and least impressed with its own (arguable) importance.

Of course, Slap Shot is also just rudely, crudely, gut-bustingly funny. As the 1977 theatrical trailer accurately opined (watch it here), "There's never been a film like Slap Shot. There may never be another."


1 Comment


Jim Dougherty said:

Amen. Slap Shot was, and is, an important cultural statement. During my years as a hockey referee, I always smiled at kids that weren't born when the film was released reciting every line verbatim. I heard Paul Newman in a interview many years ago say the Reggie Dunlop was more like him than any character he ever played.

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