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the long-lasting impact of concussions, “Slap Shot” has found itself straddling a fine line between enduring comedy and outdated cinema.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.

“He’s a big dummy — wonderful guy,” said Henry Boucha, a former NHL player and member of the Minnesota Fighting Saints who also played with Carlson and remains friends.

Boucha said he was once hit so hard on the ice that “I had to look at my jersey to see what color I was wearing” to remember what team he was playing for. As for Carlson’s health, he said: “We don’t know how it’s going to be.”

And the movie?

“Ahead of its time,” said Boucha.

‘Cartoon violence’

The players and actors from “Slap Shot” said that the movie has endured in part because it threaded the needle between comedy and cold truth.

Allan Nicholls played team captain Johnny Upton in the film, and now is the artistic director for the New York Film Society in Abu Dhabi. “With a large expat population, [there] is a huge hockey presence here in the desert,” Nicholls said in an e-mail. “Here I am captain Johnny Upton living in Abu Dhabi and being invited to hockey games” and signing autographs.

Nicholls said those trying to connect the game’s concussions to “Slap Shot” are missing the point.

“The film is timeless,” he said. “Sure it is violent at times, but it is cartoon violence.”

The movie has many memorable moments — and its biggest fans can recite the dialogue by memory.

When the Newman-led Charlestown Chiefs take the ice before a game, one of the Hanson Brothers punches an opponent in the face, knocking him down during warmups. The two teams immediately begin brawling, littering the ice with discarded gloves and sticks. An announcer, wearing a red-checked sport coat, tells listeners: “There’s no one to stop it because there are no officials [yet] on the ice. What has come over the Charlestown Chiefs?”

Despite Newman’s star power, the Hanson Brothers — with their long hair, thick black glasses and penchant for wrapping their knuckles with tin foil before a game — stole the show.

Movie remains popular

The movie, directed by George Roy Hill, who also directed “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” lives on.

John Lindberg, a financial planner in Minneapolis, has a Minnesota Fighting Saints jersey once worn by Jeff Carlson, and has loaned it to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minn. On the Hanson Brothers website, one fan wrote that he planned to have a copy of the film buried with him when he died.

“It’s great to know that we’ll be going to your grave with you,” the brothers replied.

Joe McMahon is a former equipment manager for the NHL’s New York Islanders, and his Lee and Aidan McMahon Foundation raises money for liver, brain tumor and hospice charities. The foundation has used Chris Murney, who played Tommy Hanrahan, the movie’s hapless goalie, to help raise money. An autographed Hanrahan jersey, said McMahon, is still one of the most sought after items when former NHL players come to his charity golf tournament and auction.

But the foundation, unlike the film, deals with life’s realities, McMahon said. “That stuff at the NHL level didn’t exist to that extreme [as in the movie],” he said.

Murney agreed, and said that whatever the movie’s final legacy, it was fun to make.

“When I auditioned for the movie, all I had to do was swear at someone — yeah, that was it, just lay into someone,” he said. Murney said the part was his “as long as I could swear and skate and [not] hit the money guy [Newman].”

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