Slap Shot: To Sustain A Way Of Life, One Has To Imagine.
At first blush, Slap Shot’s story line feels like a cliche. In the film, Charlestown Chiefs’ team captain Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) is struggling to save his comically inept semi-pro squad from a looming fire sale.
However, Reggie is not your typical fading great, as is the case with most soft-screwball films in which a once dominant veteran mentors a quirky cast of natural athletes to victory (Major League and even Bull Durham come to mind).
In Slap Shot, there is no argument that Reggie is or ever was a “great” hockey player. Pushing fifty (Newman was 52 when he took the role), Reggie’s defining feature is not as a skilled skater or strategist, but as an old codger who enjoys life on the road with eccentric teammates who aren’t the least bit coachable.
The combination of Reggie’s age, lack of skill, and crappy paychecks blurs the definition of what “hockey” means in Slap Shot. In Reggie’s eyes, “hockey” is less a game of skill that can lead to victory than it is a means toward the only way he wants to live his life.
Reggie can’t win within the lines at his age, so he has to imagine them differently. Consider the following iconic scene, in which Reggie releases the Hanson Brothers — an otherworldy trio of bespectacled, man-child goons signed by ownership on the uber cheap — from the bench. The Hansons represent the height of Reggie’s frustration for a game that has no longer promised to sustain his career under the normal rules.
The Hansons may be doing the moving, but Reggie’s rascally eyes direct the scene. Meanwhile, the younger, rule abiding Ned Braden (sitting next to Reggie) gazes disapprovingly. Ned still has a valuable stake in operating from inside the lines, while Reggie — close to thirty years Ned’s senior — cannot afford this luxury.
It is highly questionable if Reggie could be written today, let alone win his generational battle against Ned. Our currently rigid, information age based understanding of sports leaves less to the imagination, giving way to a tamer and more statistical interpretation of the game both in sports writing and in film.
For instance, take the lightly offbeat but ultimately uninspired Slap Shot offshoot, Goon (2012). Here, Doug Glatt (Sean William Scott) is a “enforcer” who fights against other disruptive goons to maintain order in the rink, and to protect the team’s franchise draft pick. Doug’s brawls are humorous, but they are all confined to a typically linear approach: a playoff bound team, a girlfriend, etc. etc.
Doug has no interest in blurring the nature of the game on any level. In Slap Shot, on the other hand, Reggie’s position well outside the realm of rote imitation lends to the albeit gratuitous violence’s translation into zanier, more figurative terrain.
Yes, Slap Shot depicts brawling at absurd levels of mayhem. But it takes a wily old-timer like Reggie to reveal that when youthful imitation gives way to good old imagination, even the most undesirable conditions can change for the interesting, if not the better. And when we are talking the land of celluloid, isn’t that what we all ultimately crave?: