BY MIKE MASTOVICH
A group of police officers prepared to contend with a large crowd and perhaps a traffic jam.
The marquee, in capital letters, stated: “Filmed in Johnstown, Paul Newman, Slap Shot.”
But the anticipation and hype didn’t translate into a packed theater for the “Slap Shot” premiere in Johnstown 30 years ago.
The Westwood Plaza Theatre was a little more than half full, even though hundreds of movie goers were expected to attend – many of those hoping to catch a glimpse of their town or maybe even themselves as extras in the movie that had been filmed here a year earlier.
After a slow start, “Slap Shot” has aged well. In three decades, its following has grown, even reaching cult status in some parts.
Released by Universal Studios exactly 30 years ago today, “Slap Shot” is one of the most rented sports movies ever.
Sports fans recite lines without hesitation.
The story of the foul-mouthed but likable hockey players who went from worst to first has put Johnstown on the international map.
“It’s amazing how it took to people,” said Allan Nicholls, who played Charlestown Chiefs captain Johnny Upton. “I think it’s because it was one of those films that didn’t talk down. It talked to people. People could involve themselves and relate a lot better.
“There are so many big-budget films that are done for mass entertainment,” added Nicholls, a video producer from Burlington, Vt. “They achieve that and that’s fine. People would never think of getting in touch with the former actors in those films. Because this one was so down to earth, gritty and real, it made itself available for that.”
In the movie, Paul Newman’s character, aging Charlestown player-coach Reg Dunlop, brings the zany, bespectacled Hanson Brothers on board to reinvigorate the Chiefs and their fans with a rowdy brand of hockey and fighting.
Director George Roy Hill paired established performers such as Newman, Michael Ontkean – the skilled scorer and college graduate Ned Braden – and Strother Martin – stingy Chiefs GM Joe McGrath – with a group of up-and-coming actors and hockey players.
“It was a great script. It was so close to reality,” said actor Yvon Barrette, the Charlestown Chiefs goaltender, Denis Lemieux, perhaps best known for the line, “Who own da’ Chiefs?”
“It was almost a documentary,” said Barrette, a native of Quebec. “For the Hanson Brothers, that movie was almost like their life story. It was what happened to the Johnstown Jets hockey team. I think that’s what made the movie so popular. It was a good mix of athletes and actors. Both helped each other.”
Home sweet home
Nancy Dowd wrote “Slap Shot” after spending part of the 1974-75 season with the Johnstown Jets. Her brother, Ned, played for the North American Hockey League championship team that captured Johnstown’s last professional hockey title.
Ned Dowd portrays Syracuse Bulldogs thug Ogie Ogilthorpe in the movie.
The Jets inspired the movie, so it was only fitting that Johnstown provide the setting.
“Nancy Dowd was insistent to Universal Studios that the film be shot here,” said Johnstown’s Denny Grenell, a retired bank executive and well-known promoter of the city. “That was one of her wishes. There was really no ‘ifs’, ‘ands’ or ‘buts’ that that movie was going to be filmed here.
“Once they got here, John Rubal, who was executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, got me involved. We promised Universal Studios everything under the sun and we hadn’t even talked to anybody.”
Most of the hockey scenes were filmed at Cambria County War Memorial Arena. Central Park, downtown streets, bars and hotels were used for various shots, and Bethlehem Steel’s mills in Franklin Borough provided a backdrop for a movie in which 10,000 steelworkers “were about to be put on waivers” after layoffs.
“The town struck me at first. ... I saw a lot of drug stores, bars and churches, and I spent a lot of time walking around,” said actor Andrew Duncan, who as Chiefs broadcaster Jim Carr, used sports banter to provide viewers important background information in a natural manner.
“We would walk to work. It was like a dream. There was camaraderie. Everyone was paid the same except the big stars. The rink, they had 750 extras, local townspeople, and they were having as much fun as we were. It was a great shoot. I think the town was overwhelmed by us. We had a great time. People invited us in.”
Filming opened on March 22, 1976, and continued through June 9 that year.
In addition to the actors, Johnstown Jets players participated in many of the hockey scenes.
Some of the filming occurred during a Jets’ playoff run that ended early in an upset by Philadelphia. Some questioned whether the Jets were distracted by the movie.
But the hockey players filled a void.
“They had guys like Donnie Most (Happy Days), Peter Strauss (Rich Man, Poor Man) and Nick Nolte (48 Hours), a variety of professional actors who could not fill the role to make it as authentic as they wanted it to be,” said Dave Hanson, who still reprises his Hanson Brothers act with Jeff and Steve Carlson during dozens of appearances each year.
“I think at the time it wasn’t a big deal to us. We were just kind of going with the flow of things and didn’t realize what it all was or how important it was.”
Actors took the hockey serious.
Practices and skating sessions preceded filming. One practice nearly ended Barrette’s part in the film.
“We were just about to start the shooting of the movie. It was the last Saturday that we were rehearsing our hockey lines and we were on the ice,” Barrette said. “We were missing some equipment for my knee. Someone came through the blue line and took a slap shot. I made the save but my knee was badly injured. I had to go to the hospital. I was laying on the ice and there were tears in my eyes.
“I told myself it was all done and they were going to pick somebody else. The doctor told me I would have to be on crutches for three weeks. (The actors) all came to the room, and George Roy Hill came too, just to tell me that Denis Lemieux was my part and they changed the order of shooting. I was on crutches 11/2 weeks instead of three. I saw what a team it was and I knew it was special.”
Hooked on ice
After playing Tim “Dr. Hook” McCracken in “Slap Shot,” actor Paul D’Amato later had roles in “The Deer Hunter,” “Suspect” and “F/X” as well as multiple guest appearances on “Law & Order.”
But “Slap Shot” was his first film, and his first line was an unprintable, vulgar insult to Newman’s Dunlop, who had put a bounty on “Dr. Hook’s” head.
“Part of the reason that ‘Slap Shot’ has lasted this long and has gotten the notoriety is that we had a great script and everybody worked as hard as they could,” said D’Amato, who works in Manhattan. “Most of all, we did our own stunts, our own skating. There were no special effects. That’s part of the reason that it’s stuck around. There was nothing flashy. We weren’t trying to outdo the last action movie. It’s a beautiful story. It’s an action film, but a real human-action film, not a car-chase film.”
While most who followed the rough-and-tumble Jets of the 1970s agree that “Slap Shot” is a mostly accurate portrayal, some of the outlandish scenes were more fiction than fact.
Former Jets forward John Gofton, 63, a construction equipment rental manager from Tillsonburg, Ontario, offered a first-hand perspective. Gofton played Hyannisport player Nick Brophy.
“It’s exaggerated. Some of the stuff happened, but not quite as severe as they said,” Gofton said. “Some of it was made up. Some of the scenes were real, like the guys fighting in the stands. That really happened.
“Nobody shows up on the ice drunk,” said Gofton, whose movie character was tipsy and wet himself after being checked into the boards by the Chiefs’ Braden. “That was made up. The brawls at the end were a little exaggerated but we had fights that naturally happened. You can’t make that up.”
Brothers in arms
For the Hanson Brothers, the game continues.
Steve and Jeff Carlson and Dave Hanson appeared in “Slap Shot II: Breaking the Ice,” a 2002 sequel that couldn’t equal the original.
But the Hansons have an even better gig. The trio makes numerous promotional and charity appearances. They had an advertising deal with Budweiser. Their act has played throughout the United States and Canada, and more recently, Europe.
“It’s even bigger now. It’s growing constantly,” Carlson said. “With the Web site, merchandise is just storming out of the office. We’re getting calls constantly for appearances. It’s not slowing down. We tapped into the European market. We’ve been to Germany twice in the last two years and just south of London, England, we played a game.
“In St. Louis we helped raise over $500,000 for charity in a one-night event with other celebrities.”
A group of other “Slap Shot” alumni has tapped into their hockey past to raise money. Ken “Toe” Blake of Orange County, Calif., has helped assemble cast members to play in golf tournaments or sign autographs. The appearances have generated more than $50,000 in four years.
“It’s terrific that people are willing to take these old photographs and have me sign it, and these guys sell them and all the profits go to charity,” said actor Christopher Murney, who played Long Island Ducks goalie Tommy Hanrahan. “It’s an amazing thing that 30 years later these things still have an effect. This isn’t just a movie we did 30 years ago. This can be a good thing. It’s a two-way street. It makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something. You give something, it gives back.”
“Slap Shot” debuted exactly 30 years ago, but ironically didn’t open in Johnstown until March 25, 1977. The opening night crowd might have been thin, but the movie aged well.
By May 1977, in its seventh week in Johnstown, “Slap Shot” averaged three times the theater’s normal business. In Canada, “Slap Shot” out-earned the year’s biggest movie, “Jaws.”
Decades later, “Slap Shot” is probably even more popular. Most professional hockey players have seen it. DVDs and VHS tapes replay the movie during long bus rides in the minors.
Even ESPN’s Reel Classics has featured “Slap Shot.”
“The short answer is no, we didn’t see it coming,” D’Amato said. “The long answer is we worked so hard on it. Everybody cared about the game. I’m not surprised, but at the same time I’m floored by it.”