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Nancy Dowd, a Smith-educated French major from Framingham, Mass., was a fledgling writer living in L.A. when she�got a call late one night in 1974 from her little brother, Ned, a Bowdoin grad who was playing for those Johnstown Jets of the now-defunct NAHL. Ned was drunk, and he had bad news: The Jets were on the block. When she asked who owned the club, he said he had no idea.
"It was incredible to me that my brother did not know who owned his team," she wrote recently in a letter posted by madbrothers.com, a website devoted to Slap Shot (not to be confused with hansonbrothers.net, which the Hansons prefer). "If you didn't know who owned you, what did you know? . . .�I bought a cheap ticket 'back East' . . .�back to a rusting mill town, back to lowered expectations, back to narrowness and shuttered minds. And I wrote Slap Shot."
For all its scabrous humor Slap Shot was at times grim. It ends with a victory parade down the main street of a dying steel town; a parade attended by small children who will grow up and leave if they want to find work; a parade that passes beneath a theater whose marquee advertises the movie Deep Throat.
Critics didn't quite know what to make of Slap Shot when it was released in February 1977. The Wall Street Journal's Joy Gould Boyum seemed at once entertained and repulsed by a movie so "foul-mouthed and unabashedly vulgar" on one hand and so "vigorous and funny" on the other. And while the sight of Ontkean's character disrobing to his protective cup as a high school band played Strip Tease might have made audiences laugh so hard they lost their water, it displeased Time's Richard Schickel, who regretted that "in the denouement [Ontkean] is forced to go for a broader, cheaper kind of comic response."
Three decades after Schickel's lament, Slap Shot stands as one of the best sports movies ever; SI rated it No. 5 in 2003. It has aged more gracefully than bigger-grossing pictures of its vintage. The director was the late George Roy Hill, a Minnesotan--and a close friend of Newman's. "He sent me the script on a Wednesday; I called him back Friday," recalls Newman, now 82. "It's foul, but it's got it," he told the director. "Let's do it."
Of working with Carlson, Carlson and Hanson, Newman says, "They were very professional, and they were completely crazy. We drank a lot of beer."
Slap Shot yields fresh delights with each screening. That's no surprise, considering the movie's supporting cast. Strother Martin played the Chiefs' skinflint owner, Joe McGrath, whose between-periods tantrum ("We're loooosin'! They're buryin' us alive! . . . All my years of publicity, all the fashion shows, the radiothons, for nothin'!") required a dozen takes. Not because Martin kept screwing it up but because no one could keep a straight face during his rant.
There's also Andrew Duncan, whose exquisitely unctuous sportscaster, Jim Carr, declaims with increasing alarm as Ontkean disrobes, "He's not fighting! No, he's--Ned Braden is starting to take off articles of his uniform!"
It is the rare sports movie that resonates with the athletes whose lives it would presume to reproduce. Slap Shot's passages have entered the lexicon of hockey players, many of whom recite its lines with the fluency, and the passion, of a preacher spouting Scripture. Harvard coach Ted Donato, 38, played for the Crimson, then spent 13 years in the NHL. His generation so revered Slap Shot, he says, that "it wasn't uncommon in college, and then in the NHL, for guys to quote the movie five, six times a day. One guy would start a line--'You guys the Hansons?'--and five or six guys would finish it: 'F------ machine took my quarter!' "
Some players on Donato's team last season were born 12 years after Slap Shot came out. Yet even they parrot dialogue. "I'll ask the guys before a game how they're doing," Donato marvels, "and they'll say, 'Puttin' on the foil, Coach.' "