As a sports fan, I know that it's nearly impossible to explain to people who don't like sports what the appeal is, let alone convince them to join you in your enthusiasm. Fortunately, there are movies out there that, in one way or another, explain something about the sports fan experience. This is one of them.
While there are very few sports movies are about hockey (and the only hockey movie most people can name is The Mighty Ducks), the majority of non-Disney hockey movies are both pretty great and totally underrated. There’s the more recent Goon, which isn’t Oscar-caliber per se but is still way more deserving of attention, and Mystery, Alaska, that pond hockey movie by David E. Kelley that I swear I remember thinking was both surprisingly good and the one time I’ve found Russell Crowe charming.
The king of all hockey movies and one of the best sports movies of all time is Slap Shot, the 1977 comedy written by Nancy Dowd (who also wrote Coming Home, Ordinary People, and, under a pseudonym, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, which I will surely write about in detail some other time). While some sports movies appeal to the fan’s question for glory or the thrill of victory, Slap Shot is a different kind of sports movie: one that celebrates the losers more than the winners. At the end of the day, as much as we all like routing for a winner, the sensation of proud losing is much, much more relatable.
Our hero, Reggie Dunlop, is Paul Newman at his most handsome and also ‘70s, sporting both freshly-greying hair and a patchwork leather suit, Reggie just wants to keep playing hockey, and since the only team that will have a player as old and on-the-way out as him is the gritty, minor league Charlestown Chiefs, he has to figure out how to save the team from being dissolved. The team, of course, is a ragtag group of losers, from the aging Reggie to the famous Hanson Brothers, three childlike men brought to the team to beat the shit out of people so the team will become popular enough to be sold.
So much about the movie, from the violence of the hockey fights to many of the jokes about sex and race to the pace of the film itself, are examples of the best that ‘70s filmmaking has to offer. Nowhere is that more obvious than at the end of the movie, which refuses to wrap everything up in a bow. It’s hilarious and tragic at the same time, with marriages breaking up and making up, and Reggie moving on while the town breaks down, and his hopes remaining high even as his circumstances remain crap.
Slap Shot doesn’t just celebrate losers, but the thrill of the game over the thrill of victory. If the cycle of futility continues, than that just speaks to the grit and fight of everyone involved. When you know the odds of your beloved team winning championships every year are slim to none (even for the Yankees, especially this season), you have to learn to value effort over results. Slap Shot doesn’t just give you insight into fandom, but into a sort of Chekhovian perspective on life, where winning and losing mean little in the face of just forcing yourself to get up and struggle for one more day.