Saturday, May 26, 2007

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame The Charlestown Chiefs for Gooning It Up

ESPN Classic viewers enjoy regular installments of the Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame… series, hosted by Brian Kenny. As noted in three of my previous columns, the series is overly focused on real-life sports figures such as Bill Buckner and Chris Webber. To address this issue, I expanded the approach to take a deeper look at the sports controversies surrounding fictional characters. Previously I chronicled the top 5 reasons you can’t blame Apollo Creed for losing to Rocky Balboa, Charlie Brown for his sports futility, and Crash Davis for being stuck in the minor leagues.

Today I will turn my focus to the Charlestown Chiefs. Featured in the 1977 film Slap Shot, the Chiefs were a minor league hockey laughingstock under player-coach Reggie Dunlop. Their constant losing was accompanied by ridicule from the few fans who watched them take the ice. However, their fortunes turned after adopting a vicious style of play. The Chiefs fought their way to a winning streak, sellout crowds, and ultimately the Federal League championship. However, hockey purists denounced their approach as being too violent and cheapening the skill of the game

A closer examination reveals that numerous factors beyond their control influenced the Chiefs to take the goon route. I may not change your mind about the Chiefs’ role in their actions, but at least I hope to provide material to make you think – assuming you haven’t had too many hockey-related concussions. Before I get to the top five reasons you can’t blame the Charlestown Chiefs for gooning it up, here are reasons that did not make the list – the “Best of the Rest”:

Slap Shot 2: Breaking The Ice. The Chiefs had no idea that they would inspire a much-ridiculed 2002 direct-to-DVD sequel starring Stephen Baldwin and Gary Busey. I haven’t seen it, and chances are you haven’t either. So let’s move on…

The AFC West. The Kansas City Chiefs, coming off three consecutive 5-9 seasons, would finish 2-12 in 1977. So at the time, no one believed that a team called the Chiefs could beat up on anyone. Charlestown rose to the occasion to prove the doubters wrong. In the process, the team of misfit thugs became something never thought possible in Kansas City: a group of Chiefs that the Raiders would love.

Mill Closing: The closing of the mill made the financial outlook even bleaker for residents of Charlestown. But going to War Memorial Arena and seeing opposing players get their faces smashed provided some consolation. Fans who were losing their health care coverage could say, “At least I’m not THAT guy!”

Eddie Shore: Before the final game against the Syracuse Bulldogs, Dunlop tells his team to play “Old time hockey,” supposedly embracing a clean style. He repeatedly mentions Eddie Shore as a role model. In reality, Shore was a bruiser who piled up the penalty minutes and ended the career of Toronto Maple Leafs star Ace Bailey. So when the game deteriorates into a brawl, it really does honor the spirit of Shore. A parallel would be “old time basketball, like Bill Laimbeer.”

And now, the top five reasons you can’t blame the Charlestown Chiefs for gooning it up:

Reason #5: Philadelphia: The Chiefs could look to the City of Brotherly Love to see the benefits of fighting, both on the ice and on screen. The Flyers, known as the Broad Street Bullies, had recently won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles with a style to make Ogie Oglethorpe cringe in fear. Rocky was about to capture another prominent trophy as the Best Picture Oscar winner. Unlike today, that era’s sports landscape was far more receptive to fighting. And to championships in Philly.

Reason #4: Strip Tease. As previously noted, the Chiefs’ final game against Syracuse went haywire when the two goon-laden teams engaged in a full-scale brawl. The fisticuffs paused when Ned Braden, the one Chief who had balked at the thuggish style of play, skated around the ice while taking off his clothes. As a pretty boy with few scratches on him, Braden could get away with stripping instead of fighting. However, brawling was definitely the preferred option for most of the other Chiefs. No one wanted to see those guys skating around in just a jockstrap.

Reason #3: A Woman’s Touch. As professional hockey players, the Chiefs lived in a macho, testosterone-laden world. Homophobia was common, and no player wanted to be labeled as girly. However, the screenplay for Slap Shot and the book on which it was based were both written by Nancy Dowd. Also, the team’s owner was eventually revealed to be Kathryn Walker. So these he-men were actually created and owned by women. The players even had to participate in fashion shows. Their need to fight was a natural way of overcompensating and proving that they weren’t controlled by “a bunch of broads.”

Reason #2: The Hanson Brothers. The savage trio wound up as the breakout stars of the movie. Noticing the success of their goon tactics, Dunlop encouraged the rest of the team to follow suit. While their Artest-like dash into the stands was over the line, the Hansons did provide inspiration for geeks everywhere. They showed that nerdy-looking dudes in glasses could still be tough guys. Also, they might have had a sense that 20 years later, “Hanson Brothers” would make most people think of “MMMBop.” If so, their rage was completely understandable.

Still not convinced? There’s just one reason left, and it belongs to a screen legend who called it a career this week.

Reason #1: Hello… Newman. When Slap Shot was released in 1977, Paul Newman was a five-time Academy Award nominee, but he had not yet received an Oscar. Outwardly it may not have mattered to the man who portrayed Dunlop, but the frustration must have been building. At this point, the guy needed to hit some people. He couldn’t take it out on the Academy, so the Hyannisport Presidents had to bear the brunt of his aggression. Don’t be surprised if Kate Winslet takes the same approach and delivers hits for the Reading Royals. Eventually, Newman did receive three Oscars – Best Actor for The Color of Money, as well as honorary and humanitarian awards. On his behalf, Ned Braden accepted the trophies in a jockstrap.

So there you have it. Maybe I’ve changed your mind about the Charlestown Chiefs, and maybe I haven’t. But I hope I’ve at least given you some new perspectives to consider. Now let’s clear the ice for the Zamboni.