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Slap Shot: How The Hanson Brothers Hijacked Paul Newman's Hockey Classic

Entertainment | February 25, 2021

The most dangerous trio on the ice. Source: IMDB

When Paul Newman made the hockey comedy Slap Shot, he might not have expected to lose the spotlight to the Hanson Brothers. It's a funny script, Newman plays a good character, and the movie is entertaining from start to finish -- but the thing about it that sticks with audiences is the outrageous trio of Jeff, Steve and Jack Hanson.

There are sports movies and then there's Slap Shot. This 1977 comedy about the Charlestown Chiefs, a flailing minor league hockey team that eschews good sportsmanship in favor of a roughneck, blood-and-guts style of playing that turns them into local legends. On one hand, Slap Shot is an underdog story about a group of never-weres and also-rans who come together to spit in the face of success, but it's also about the Hanson brothers.

There is no Slap Shot without the Hanson brothers, a trio based (and played by two of the three) on the real life Carlson brothers. Sure, Paul Newman stars in the film but it's the Hanson brothers that fans are still talking about. With their coke bottle glasses, toy car sets, and knuckle dragging brand of on-ice enforcement, this trio of gangly goons are the heart and soul of Slap Shot.

The Hanson brothers were the real deal

source: Universal Pictures

The Carlson brothers are a trio of real deal tough-as-nails brothers hailing from Virginia, Minnesota, who were played hockey all their lives -- long before they were in front of the camera. The brothers were playing for the Johnstown Jets during the 1975-1976 season, right before the Slap Shot production came to Johnstown, Pennsylvania to begin filming.

Initially all three Carlson brothers -- Jeff, Jack, and Steve -- were set to portray fictional versions of themselves, but when Jack was offered a spot on the Edmonton Oilers for their run in the 1976 WHA playoffs, his role was filled by Dave Hanson, another player from the Jets. When the guys hit the ice for the film they weren't tasked with doing anything that was all that different from their work in the WHA. They were nasty, they talked trash, and they hit people. Steve Carlson, who plays Steve Hanson in Slap Shot, explained:

You talk about real life hockey, well, Slap Shot is real life hockey. We did get arrested by going into the stands. We did jump a team in warm-ups in real life. We did fight often. My brothers (Jeff and Jack) and Dave Hanson, they were the ones who were the enforcers. When the puck was dropped and the gloves came off, that how’s the game was played back in the Broad Street Bully days.

Cruel summer

source: Universal Pictures

There's a world where the Carlson brothers and Dave Hanson don't star in Slap Shot. Where they go off to join teams during their playoff runs before returning to the Jets or another WHA team. Instead, as Steve Carlson says, the trio "negotiated for about five seconds" and joined the cast of the greatest hockey movie of all time. For this trio of miscreants, getting paid about the same to make a movie was essentially being paid to take a summer vacation. Carlson continues:

We made $12,000 to play hockey with the Minnesota Fighting Saints. Our first three paychecks bounced. The chance to make almost what we did as a player for almost three months' work [filming the movie]? Now, I don't have to work that summer.

By starring in Slap Shot rather than going off to play for a few more months, the Carlson brothers and Dave Hanson were able to rest up and make some money while play-acting their game-tested aggression on the ice to make the film look much more realistic. 

Putting on the foil

source: Universal Pictures

Much of the fun of Slap Shot is watching the Hanson brothers wreck shop on the opposing teams through a creative means of beating in their skulls. In the film, the brothers wrap their hands in tin foil and athletic tape to make their punches that much harder. Watching at home through the haze of a VHS tape it's easy to think that this was the way things were done in the '70s, but the Carlson brothers were much more inventive than tin foil.

Jeff Carlson told Sports Illustrated that the brothers would use a nail file to "rough up" the knuckles on a pair of golf gloves before placing them on a radiator to harden them up. Then, the brothers made sure that they were in the game as early as possible to make sure that they were able to use the rough, hardened gloves before their sweat softened them.

The foil may have been an invention of screenwriter Nancy Dowd, but the visual of these skinny ice freaks with tin foil taped to their hands has inspired a number of enforcers and tough guy players. Even if they can't actually foil up before a game, people still quote "putting on the foil" before hitting the ice.

The brothers actually played with toy cars

source: handout

One of the weirdest parts of Slap Shot shows the Hanson brothers playing with race car sets and toy cars. It's odd to see these legit adults playing with toys, but that just adds to their whole man-child on the ice thing. While the tin foil was a creation of screenwriter Nancy Dowd, the toy car sets were just a part of every day life for the players on the Jets.

In the mid-'70s The Carlson brothers lived in a house with Dave Hanson and a player named Guido Tensei. Every Sunday night the players would take the furniture out of the third floor and set up multiple toy car race tracks. They'd bring the rest of the team over along with a keg and place bets on which cars would win a race around the apartment.

The guys were looked down on when the film was first released

source: Universal Pictures

Since its release Slap Shot has taken on cult status. People in the hockey world, sports fans, and casual viewers alike love this movie, but when it was released in 1977 that was hardly the case. It was too vulgar, there was too much violence, and the film was panned in the trades. On top of that, the Carlson brothers were treated like pariahs for making hockey look like a sport for meatheads with a deathwish. In 2017, Steve Carlson explained:

When it came out, I was playing for the New England Whalers. We didn't get blasted but we got frowned upon by the hockey world because [people thought] we were making a mockery of the game. But, that was the way the game was played in the old American League when they changed the name to the North American Hockey League. The puck was dropped and the gloves came off, that was just the way it was.

This line of thinking has since changed. Not only are the Carlson brothers and Hanson beloved in the world of hockey now, but Slap Shot is a revered sports film. People love watching these guys wreck shop on the ice.

The Hanson brothers are coming to your town

source: Universal Pictures

After the cameras stopped rolling and the fanfare ended, the guys behind the Hanson brothers all went back to playing hockey in the WHA. Dave Hanson played two season in the NHL, one with the Detroit Red Wings and another with the Minnesota North Stars. Steve Carlson played with the Los Angeles Kings for a season, and his brother Jeff kicked around the minor leagues until the mid 1980s. They each went on to have normal jobs - Steve runs a power skating school in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Jeff is an electrician, and Dave manages a sports facility.

As normal as their lives sound, the former players also make dozens of personal appearances as the Hanson brothers every year. The appearances began as a way to send off Steve Carlson with a bang in his final season as head coach for the Memphis Riverkings. The Hanson brothers reunion drew such a crowd that the three guys made it a regular thing. Steve Carlson says that he loves being a Hanson brother, not just because it makes people happy, but because it finally brought him, his brother, and his friend financial security after decades of grinding it out on the ice.

Tags: Hockey | Movies In The 1970s | Paul Newman | Slap Shot | Sports | What Did They Do?...

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.