NHL concussion suit has movie 'Slap Shot' straddling a fine line

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 8, 2014 - 11:28 PM
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From left, Steve Carlson, Jeff Carlson and Jack Carlson during Minnesota Fighting Saints training camp in 1977.

Jack Carlson earned a reputation as a National Hockey League tough guy, and the Minnesota native and his brothers helped inspire the violent, and comedic, hockey movie “Slap Shot.”

But there was no humor to be found when Carlson and eight other plaintiffs, including three fellow Minnesotans, filed a lawsuit last month against the NHL over concussions. The action, the latest of several legal attempts to link the game’s violence to head injuries, alleges that the NHL created a blood-soaked image that glorified fighting and ignored the long-term health effects on players.

The lawsuit took things a step further — accusing the NHL, the media and fans of promoting the game’s brutish image and adding that “there is a glut of hockey dramas and comedies that use violence as their central thesis.” Released in 1977, “Slap Shot” was named by Sports Illustrated as one of the top five sports movies ever — and the best hockey movie.

As the NHL, medical researchers and former players grapple with the long-lasting impact of concussions, “Slap Shot” has found itself straddling a fine line between enduring comedy and outdated cinema.

Carlson was intertwined with the making of “Slap Shot” — his brothers, Steve and Jeff, were two-thirds of the goon-like Hanson Brothers. Their over-the-top fighting, and the presence of Hollywood icon Paul Newman, made the movie a must-see for generations of hockey fans.

Dave Hanson, who grew up in St. Paul, was the third Hanson Brother in the movie, taking Jack Carlson’s place at the last moment when Carlson was unavailable. To those who would now take issue with the violence in “Slap Shot,” Hanson says: “Hey, come on. It’s slapstick comedy. It’s kind of like the Three Stooges.”

But Hanson, who also played in the NHL, said reality is a different matter. “There’s probably, certainly, a lot of merit to a suit being filed,” he said.

Hanson Brothers live on

Nearly 40 years after the movie was made, the fictional Hanson Brothers still make public appearances, often raising money for causes such as concussion and Alzheimer’s research.

Yet trading on the past to promote the present can be dicey. Earlier this month, the Hanson Brothers were at the Scotiabank Baycrest Pro-Am, an annual hockey tournament in Toronto held to raise money for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia care.

The event included an appearance by NHL legend Gordie Howe, who Carlson’s lawsuit said carried the nickname “Blinky” because of the lasting effects of head trauma suffered during his career.

Tiffany Astle, a spokeswoman for the event, said sponsor Baycrest Health Sciences would not comment on “Slap Shot,” or how it relates to player injuries.

Kerry Goulet, co-founder of the Stop Concussions Foundation, a Canadian charity for whom the Hanson Brothers have also raised money, said the movie is still celebrated because it falls into a “that-was-then, this-is-now” category.

“I think you could make the movie [today], but I don’t think it would be received as well,” he said.

“In those days, [we] almost were ignorant to the fact that we were doing damage to our brains,” said Goulet, a former hockey player.

Steve Carlson, who operates a hockey school, said through a spokeswoman that he would not comment on his brother’s lawsuit. And Jack Carlson, in an e-mail, said he would not discuss the legal action until the NHL responded.

The 116-page lawsuit includes images of players being taken off the ice on stretchers, and also lists Minnesotan Michael Peluso and former Minnesota North Stars Brad Maxwell and Tom Younghans as plaintiffs.

Though the lawsuit doesn’t specify Carlson’s injuries, it says he “was, has been and will continue to be damaged as a result of the NHL’s misconduct.” Carlson and his co-plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages from the NHL, but the lawsuit does not specify an amount.

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