By Bruce Berlet
Steve Carlson is part of the answer to one of the great trivia questions in sports history.
Who are the two players to be on the same team as Gordie “Mr. Hockey” Howe and Wayne “The Great One” Gretzky?
Here’s a hint: He tied for the goal-scoring lead in the first season the Hartford Whalers were in the National Hockey League.
Enough suspense? The answer is Steve Carlson and Blaine Stoughton, another who preferred playing to fighting.
What, a Carlson who didn’t like to drop the gloves and try to beat up what he couldn’t beat?
“I invented ‘turtling,’ ” the quick-witted Carlson said with a chuckle while speaking of the maneuver in which an overmatched “fighter” curls “into a shell” to try to minimize the pain.
That might explain why one of the most (in)famous brother acts in hockey/movie annals could room with Gretzky in Edmonton the season before the former WHA Oilers, Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets joined the NHL.
“He’s one of the greatest players of all time, and I just happened to have the honor to room with him for the one year,” Carlson said. “He was 17 years old, and we just happened to get hooked up by circumstances. But over the years, when we’re in the same arena, we make sure we get to see each other. When he was playing in Los Angeles and was getting traded to St. Louis, we were doing a show in Buffalo and he didn’t play that night, so we sat in the locker room for a couple hours talking. And when he was the coach of the Phoenix Coyotes and we did a couple of shows there, I spent a couple hours with him afterwards.”
Steve said he didn’t see any irony in a Carlton rooming with someone who disliked fighting.
“I wasn’t shying away from fighting,” Steve said, “but between the three of us Carlson brothers, I was more the skilled one and Jeff and Jack were the enforcers.”
Carlson now owns and operates Steve Carlson Hockey, a power skating school in Sacramento, Calif., where he moved his business from Islip, N.Y.
“They’ve got plenty of ice in Sacramento, but most of it is in a glass,” Carlson said, uttering a one-line often used but never tired of hearing. “I came out here from New York because I tired of shoveling snow.”
Considering the winter in Connecticut, Carlson and brothers Jack and Jeff of Coke-bottle glasses/Hanson brothers fame in “Slap Shot” might be coming to the wrong place to play for the Whalers legends team against the Boston Bruins legends team on Feb. 19 at 4 p.m. in the “Whale Bowl,” the centerpiece of the “Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest 2011” at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. But the forecast is for a warming trend and ideal conditions for mid-February, so breaking the AHL record crowd of 21,508 in Syracuse last year for the first outdoor seems quite feasible, especially with the likes of the Carlson/Hanson brothers, who appropriately are being presented by Harvey and Lewis Opticians of Hartford.
“When we decided to move forward with Whalers Hockey Fest, I immediately contacted the Hanson Brothers to secure their participation,” said Mark Willand, Senior Vice President of Whalers Sports and Entertainment, which is hosting the event after taking business control the Connecticut Whale in September. “They are guaranteed to entertain our fans, and it’s a great bonus that Steve and Dave are also Whalers alumni.”
While Steve hasn’t been back to Hartford since he and his brothers did a Budweiser show here 20 years ago, he welcomes a chance to spread his feelings about hockey today and the memories of what is considered one of the great sports films ever and its two offshoots.
Carlson and his fiancee Vicki, run the business of the “Hanson Brothers,” the lead characters in the original “Slap Shot,” including negotiations and merchandising that includes bobble heads of the brothers from the movie that help raise money for charity.
Three brothers immortalized for their zany toughness doing charity work?
“We’ve been all around the United States and Canada, along with Germany and London,” Steve said. “We help organizations raise money for things such as children’s hockey, Special Olympics and breast cancer. We’ve raised more than $14 million.”
So the Carlsons aren’t just tough guys who go around beating up on people.
“When we go to banquets and people talk about what we’ve done in life, everyone thinks we were tough guys,” Steve said. “My brothers and Dave Hanson were tough, but I wasn’t that tough at all. I always said, ‘Thank God the movie came out because people thought I was.’ ”
And Steve and Jack Carlson combined with Brad Selwood and Mike Antonovich to form the Whalers’ famed “Coneheads,” who had cones over their stalls in the locker room and were never afraid to offer a jab.
“It’s amazing how things can work out,” Steve said. “Jack, toughest guy in the family, is in Minnesota now with Sports Ministries, and Bill Butters was in Hockey Ministries before.”
Butters is the defenseman who initiated one of the most famous and longest fights in pro hockey history when he sucker-punched Larry Pleau, the first player ever signed by the Whalers, during the 1975 WHA playoffs at the then Hartford Civic Center. It precipitated 32 minutes of non-stop action between the Whalers and appropriately named Minnesota Fighting Saints ensued, starring Jack Carlson and Nick Fotiu, who ended up fighting in the Fighting Saints bench. Steve and Jeff Carlson were with the North American Hockey League’s Johnstown Jets at the time.
“I wasn’t there, but I know the whole story because I’ve talked to Jack about it a few times,” Steve said. “It’s probably one of the great bench-clearing brawls of all time.”
Butters, also from Minnesota, was Jack’s roommate with the Fighting Saints and Whalers and played with him on the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars.
That gets us to “Slap Shot,” the 1977 slapstick comedy starring Paul Newman and a hat trick of brothers with black-rimmed glasses, scraggly flowing hair and fists of a heavyweight champion who have done more than just provide laughs and pummel the opposition – for real or on the silver screen.
The Carlson/Hanson brothers have become so famous that since March 25, 2002, there has been a Slap Shot display in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. “Slap Shot 3: Junior League” debuted on Nov. 25, 2008, causing the brothers to joke that each has his own movie. And one fan promised to have a copy of the original “Slap Shot” in an airtight container buried with him, prompting the reply, “It’s great to know that we’ll be going to your grave with you.”
“Slap Shot” remains one of the most famous films in sports history, with the Charlestown Chiefs of the fictional Federal League modeled after the Johnstown Jets, who played in the Eastern Hockey League and North American Hockey League from 1950-51 to 1976-77. Ned Dowd, who played the notorious goon Ogie Ogilthorpe in the movie, sent the Carlsons’ antics to his sister Nancy, a screenwriter who spent a month traveling with the Jets and chronicling their every move. At other times, Ned set up a tape recorder in the locker room and on the bus to capture what life was like for the Jets. She wrote a screenplay and wanted actors to play the Jets in the movie, but they couldn’t skate well enough.
Steve, Jack and Jeff played together on the same line with the Jets, and Dave Hanson shared a house with them for a while. The three Carlson brothers were going to be the Hanson brothers, and Dave Hanson was going to be Dave “Killer” Carlson. But Jack Carlson got called up to the Edmonton Oilers, who wouldn’t let him go to film, so Dave Hanson became Jack Hanson and Jerry Houser became “Killer” Carlson.
In the movie, the Carlsons again played on the same line wearing numbers 16, 17 and 18. The Chiefs were perennial losers in financial trouble because of mill closings in the town. The team is scheduled to be folded at the end of the season, and veteran player-coach Reggie Dunlop, played by the legendary Newman, has no idea who owns the team.
During a hopeless season, the team picks up the violent Hanson brothers, but Dunlop chooses not to play them. But in a moment of desperation, he brings the trio into a game to see what they can do, and their fighting and overly aggressive play excites the Chiefs’ fans. Dunlop, seeing the potential, retools the team in the image of the Hansons, who are accepted by all their new teammates except for Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean), who prefers a clean style of hockey from his college days. Braden’s depressed wife Lily (Lindsay Crouse) had difficulty adjusting and finds a sympathizer in Dunlop’s estranged wife Francine (Jennifer Warren).
To keep them motivated, Dunlop plants a story with sports writer Dickie Dunn (E. Emmet Walsh) that the Chiefs are being sold to a prospective buyer in Florida, who would move the team to sunny climes. As the Chiefs continue winning and gaining fans, Dunlop blackmails the team’s stingy general manager Joe McGrath (Strother Martin) to tell him who the Chiefs’ owner is. It turns out to be a rich widow, Anita McCambridge (Kathryn Walker), who couldn’t care less about hockey. She could easily sell the team now that Reggie has made it a success, but she can do better by folding the franchise and taking a tax write-off.
With one playoff game remaining, Dunlop tells the players he has been conning them, that there is no buyer. This is to be his last game, so he wants to go out with dignity and not like a goon. All vow to play clean, going out with “old-time hockey.” But their opponents, the Syracuse Bulldogs, have chosen to assemble the most infamous set of enforcers ever to disgrace the game. They include legendary Federal League brawlers and the dreaded Ogilthorpe.
Playing it straight, the Chiefs are battered in the first period, and in the locker room, a furious McGrath tells the players that there are NHL scouts in the stands, and some could get contracts. Hearing this, the Chiefs return to being goons and the game degenerates into a slugfest. Braden, benched by Dunlop for not wanting to fight, finally snaps and provides the signature moment of the film. He spies his wife, who has undergone a complete makeover by Francine and is wearing a sexy new dress and hairdo and even enjoying the game. Braden skates to center ice and strips off his uniform, prompting the arena’s band to play “The Stripper.” Both teams stop fighting and stare in amazement at Braden’s striptease. Violence doesn’t offend them, but this does.
Syracuse captain Tim “Dr Hook” McCracken (Paul D’Amato) demands the referee stop Braden. When the referee refuses, McCracken sucker-punches him, causing the game to be forfeited and the Chiefs to be declared champions. The team celebrates by parading around the ice with the championship trophy, carried by Braden, who is wearing nothing but skates and a jockstrap. It is revealed during a victory parade in Charlestown the following day that Dunlop has accepted a job as the coach of a new team, the Minnesota Nighthawks, and he intends to bring Chiefs players with him.
Steve’s most memorable movie moments were when the brothers arrived in town and beat up the soda machine at the bus station, and when the trio first got on the ice and showed their coach how to wipe out the other team in about 30 seconds with hits and spears before challenging the bench.
“You look at that film and see the Broad Street Bullies’ intimidation-type hockey players where what they lack in skill they gain in toughness,” Carlson said. “When you walked into the Philadelphia arena, you were down two or three goals because you’re just petrified. You don’t know what the Schultzs, the Saleskis, the Duponts and the Kelleys are going to do next.”
The movie had such success that there has been two sequels. “Slap Shot II: Breaking the Ice” starred Gary Busey and Stephen Baldwin, with cast members including former Whalers defenseman Dave Babych, future Hall of Famer Chris Chelios and Barry Melrose, now a hockey analyst on ESPN. The Hanson brothers won the Best Supporting Actors for the DVDs for the movie with a storyline similar to the Harlem Globetrotters playing the Washington Generals.
The storyline and message of the movie is hockey is a really good game so quit changing it so much to make it basically entertainment for the family and turn the NHL into “the glorified ‘No Hit League.’ ”
“That’s fine, but the point was we wanted to keep it a competitive activity,” Carlson said. “They turned it into a WWF or WWE where they faked they hit you or faked they tripped you. They just tried to change the game too much, and that’s exactly what’s happening. The NHL has switched their game from North American hockey, and they’re trying to get the European hockey where it’s pass, skating and shooting. I agree with that 100 percent, no question, but you can’t take out the physical part of the game. You have to keep that in there because hockey is a contact sport, and we believe in ‘old time hockey’ – Eddie Shore, Dick Klapper, Toe Blake – that when someone has the puck, they should be hit.
“In our days, you were allowed to hit someone until the other person touched the puck. When you passed the puck, you could still hit them. Now, when someone passes the puck, if they don’t have it on their stick, you can’t touch them. It’s one of these things where you can’t finish your check. In our days, when someone dumped the puck in your zone, you interfered to help your defensive partner get the puck. Now, you can’t touch anybody. They wanted to open up play to get more goals, but that’s not working. In the clutch-and-grab era of Gretzky and (Mario) Lemieux, Gretzky got more than 90 goals and 200 points (in a season). That’s not going to happen now, but the Europeans were crying because they don’t battle through the checks, so they’re catering to the ‘softer’ players, saying, ‘Come on, let them use their skill.’ I agree with that 100 percent, let them use their skill, but you have to battle a little also. You’ve got (the New Jersey Devils’ Ilya) Kovalchuk going through the motions because someone is hooking him. You’ve got to battle through those things and sacrifice yourself to win a hockey game, and there are too many players out there now that won’t sacrifice to win.
“Sometimes it gets very frustrating watching these games where they don’t hit anybody. Hits from behind are bad, but when you get into center ice, how many times would (former New Jersey Devils defenseman) Scott Stevens been suspended? That’s where you learn as a player that when you come across that ice, you better know somebody is coming at you. You better know who’s on the ice because they’re coming at you, and they’re going to come at you hard.”
Carlson said that’s something players in peewee hockey, when checking usually starts in the game, and the first thing you learn is that when you skate across the ice, you better have your head up.
“That’s one of the reasons that (former Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers center) Eric Lindros was hurt all the time getting blindsided,” Carlson said. “He was so big of a man playing in juniors where someone would blindside him but he was so much larger than anyone else that it wouldn’t affect him. But he gets into the National Hockey League and has those tendencies of coming across the blue line with his head down and here comes some boys just as big and just as strong and they unload on him, so that’s where his problem was.
“It’s one of these things where if you want to come across that blue line and watch a pretty pass, go ahead, but here comes a guy coming at you and he’s going to steamroll you right over. That’s the game, but hits from behind like (Pittsburgh Penguins wing) Matt Cooke should be more than a four-game suspension. That’s unacceptable, unacceptable. You can’t do that because you’re putting someone’s career and life in danger, so you have to have a happy medium.”
There’s also the issue of harder elbow and shoulder pads.
“You have to go back to the old elbow pads that just have soft filling,” Carlson said. “Now they’re using those elbow and shoulder pads for weapons. But if you go back to the softer ones, it might cause players to think twice about trying to make such a hard hit. There are many, many times where you throw a hit and it hurts you more than the guy you’re hitting.”
Carlson said much of the “softer” nature of the game can be traced to vastly increased salaries that are now held under control somewhat by a salary cap.
“Instead of giving a player $8 million a year, give them $2 million and add incentives for a certain number of goals or being a plus player,” Carlson said. “Let them work for it, which would make the team more exciting, and now the fans could come to a game and see players going all out instead of going through the motions.
“And when we grew up, all the way from the ‘ankle biters’ through high school, we wanted to win the Stanley Cup. The European players grew up playing for the World Cup, so they come over to the United States or Canada to play for $8 million, what’s the incentive to go farther? After the season, they go back and to play for their country in the World Championships, and if they win the World Cup, they’re heroes in their country and make more money. So what’s the incentive to put out here when they grew up playing for the World Cup? That’s where I have a problem catering to the Europeans. I say, ‘Let’s cater to the United States and Canada.’ I would to see them allow only three Europeans on a team like in Europe, where you’re only allowed two or three Americans on your team.
‘Half the (NHL) are Europeans, and the brand of hockey is boring sometimes. And it can be really good – when they want to play. One of the greatest players in NHL history was Jaromir Jagr – when he wanted to play. And one of the most skilled players to ever play, but he rarely played, is Kovalchuk. He has great skill – when he wants to play, and that’s sad. But they give him $5, 6, 7 million a year to go through the motions.”
Steve said Jack was the toughest of the three brothers – and the best player.
“He could play the game, but in that era, he was a monster,” Carlson said. “When you have guys like Dave Keons and the John McKenzies and the Mike Antonovichs that we played for, they weren’t large men, whereas Jack was at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds. He would have been (Boston Bruins 6-9, 250-pound defenseman Zdeno) Chara of that era. But he also was a willing combatant who wanted to fight. He enjoyed it a lot.
“Jack was kind of a scientific fighter who picked his spots. Jeff was more of a brawler. He would take five or six (punches) before he would say, ‘OK, now we’re going.’ I just sat back and watched.”
But “Slap Shot III: Junior League,” released on Nov. 25, 2008, is geared for youngsters. At the end of “Slap Shot II,” the brothers won millions of dollars in a lottery. In “Slap Shot III,” an orphanage is going bankrupt to a real estate agent, who wants to buy the land on which the orphanage is located. The kids are running the orphanage by themselves and go to the Hanson brothers, who are for zenovation, peace and love, instead of violence. The youngsters want the brothers to help their junior team win so they don’t lose orphanage.
The Hanson brothers teach them how to pass with no hitting, but at a game at which their jerseys are being retired, one of the fans throws a bobble head at Steve because he doesn’t like docile hockey. He wants “old time hockey.” The bobble head hits Steve in the mouth and cuts him, so Steve runs from the ice and over the stands as his brothers pull off their capes and robes and say, “(Bleep) on zenovation.”
The brothers go into the stands, start a huge brawl and then teach the kids how to play “the Hanson brothers style.” The cast includes each child of each Carlson brother, and they’re fighting, spearing and bullying other kids around just like their dads.
“Now our kids are going to take over,” Carlson said with a chuckle.
So is “Slap Shot IV” in the cards?
“When we were doing ‘Slap Shot III,’ we wrote a story that Universal Studios has bought from us because they like the concept,” Carlson said. “Then again, Universal Studios is like the Catholic Church in that it works in 100-year increments. But we’ll be patient with them.”
But Carlson promised there would be no “foiling” as they did in Johnstown. To prepare for the almost nightly fights, they taped their hands like boxers, a practice that was soon outlawed. But to try to beat the system, the Carlsons would dampen leather golf gloves to harden them up, scuff them up and put them on their radiators. Then on the first shift, before they started sweating and softening up the gloves, they would drop their gloves and have the hardened leather on their hands to inflict punishment.
“That would cut people up pretty good,” Carlson said. “In the movie we never ‘foiled up,’ but they went over the top with shiny aluminum foil on your knuckles. They just overemphasized stuff on your hands.”
The Carlsons – Jeff was the oldest, then Dave and Steve – began their climb to prominence in Virginia, Minn., population, 12,000, where they learned to play hockey rink that their father, Jack, who worked for J&L Mines, and two friends built about a block from their house. The rink had lights donated by the mining company, and their father made his own Zamboni.
“On Saturday night, we’d get 10 guys and sweep the rink with push brooms,” Carlson remembered. “My father went to the water and light department and filled up a big tank with hot water that pulled around with his car. We’d have perfect ice for a Sunday afternoon game.”
When the hockey season ended, the brothers played baseball, usually shifting between pitcher, shortstop and leftfield.
“We were the pitching staff of our high school team,” Carlson said. “I had an offer to play at the University of Minnesota, and three or four pro teams watch me in high school as a pitcher.”
The trio played hockey and baseball through high school, then there was only one real choice.
“We knew what we wanted to go,” Carlson said. “You’re from Minnesota, where you get nine months of winter and three months of summer and where we always played hockey, so that was our love and passion.”
When Steve was a senior, Jeff and Jack played for the Minneapolis Junior Bruins and Dave Hanson played for the St. Paul Valcons. Once Steve graduated in 1974, they all went to the Fighting Saints training camp in Johnstown, which was their farm team. As in the original “Slap Shot,” they wore numbers 16, 17 and 18, reflecting their ages of 19, 20 and 21.
The Jets won the NAHL title in the Carlsons’ first season in Johnstown, but Jack was called up by the Fighting Saints after getting 27 goals, 22 assists and 246 penalty minutes in 50 games. He had five goals, five assists and 85 penalty minutes in 32 games with the Fighting Saints, capped by the bench-clearing donnybrook in the first round of the playoffs that they won in six games from the Whalers.
“We were the main farm team for the WHA, and the American Hockey League was the main farm team for the NHL,” Carlson said.
Jack never returned to the minors in an 11-year pro career that ended in 1987 (he didn’t play in 1984-85 and 1985-86), while Steve bounced around the NAHL, WHA, NHL, AHL and CHL with 10 teams for 12 seasons before retiring in 1987. Jeff, the only right-handed shooter in the family, had one assist in his only seven pro games with the Fighting Saints in 1975-76, spending his time in the NAHL, Southern Hockey League, Professional Hockey League and International Hockey League for nine seasons before retiring after five games with Muskegon in 1983.
The Carlson brothers were the cover boys on July 2, 2007 edition of Sports Illustrated, commemorating the 30th anniversary of “Slap Shot.” Just four weeks earlier, as the final seconds ticked off the clock, Anaheim Ducks general manager Brian Burke, former GM of the Whalers, stood in the tunnel at the Honda Center in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, ready to race onto the ice to celebrate winning the Stanley Cup. Burke soon was cracking up as the team’s video coordinator, Joe Trotta, decided to play Jim Carr, the toupee-sporting play-by-play announcer from “Slap Shot” shouting, “The Chiefs have won the championship of the Federal League.”
The Ducks were about to reach the pinnacle of their sport with a 6-2 rout of the Senators, but here was Trotta paying homage to the movie that still bonds – and aptly wraps in foil – hockey players and fans worldwide.
The Carlson brothers were also on a Hockey News cover as part of a story on “The Lighter Side of Hockey” and were No. 2 to Eddie Shack in the Top 50 Characters in Hockey.
“I was actually surprised because I thought it would be the Hanson brothers, but it wasn’t,” said Steve, who coached several junior teams and did commentary for the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals. “They knew who we were, but they could have said the Hanson brothers. But they said the three Carlson brothers, which I was very proud of.”
Steve did ask for a re-vote when “Slap Shot” was named the fifth-best sports movie by a guy in Indianapolis, but he didn’t have to make such a request after Maxim magazine chose the film as “The Best Guy Movie of All Time” in 1998.
When the Carlsons won the Best Supporting Actor Award in 2003, they wore white tuxedos to the awards ceremony.
“We were styling,” Steve said with a chuckle.
But the Carlsons actually received the award after Universal Studios had called asking them to be present the award. When they said they weren’t interested, Universal called back the next day and said they misunderstood the situation, that the Carlsons had been nominated and were expected to win.
The Carlsons hopped on a plane to Hollywood and got to walk down a red carpet to the ceremony hosted by Ben Stein.
“That was pretty cool,” Carlson said, harking back to his frozen-tundra days in Virginia, Minn. “And it was really cool when the presenter, who read off five titles, said, ‘Slap Shot,’ and the whole place erupted.”
But Jeff Carlson was in the men’s room when “Slap Shot” was announced as the winner, so Steve and Dave went on stage alone. Dave told the audience that they were there for two reasons: to accept the award and locate their father. With Stein’s nose and glasses, they said they thought it was him, so they got Stein back on stage. Steve took a picture of Stein and Dave until Jeff came running up on to the stage.
The brothers received their award, but in typical Carlson fashion, they couldn’t resist another prank. After returning to their table with the award, Steve said, “Is this like the Stanley Cup where I get it for a week and then have to send it to you.”
But as the brothers were leaving the dinner, they noticed five extra un-inscribed trophies on the stage, Quentin Taratino, a big-time producer, director and actor and a big fan of the Hanson Brothers, began talking to the Carlsons, so Dave returned to the stage and took two more trophies so each would have his own. The brothers actually were suppose to return the trophy to have it engraved and would have received three trophies, but they had already made sure they wouldn’t be shortchanged.
And the tales don’t end there. During the third period of Syracuse Crunch games, if an opposing player was going to the penalty box, one of two men or a woman dressed as the Hanson brothers would run from behind the bench to the box and slam into the glass. That’s because when the Chiefs played the Hyannisport Presidents on the road in the movie, they filmed it in the Onondaga County War Memorial in Syracuse. The Crunch also reserved the No. 7 worn by Newman’s character for the 2008-09 season a few weeks after his death. A banner was raised with his name and number, which is not retired and could be used by a future Crunch player after the 2008-09 season.
The AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters have The Mullet Brothers, a trio of long-haired, hor-rimmed-glasses-wearing guys who do “ice maintenance” during timeouts at home games and are patterned after the Hanson Brother.
Northern Michigan University, located in Marquette, Mich., where Steve and Jeff started their hockey careers, has a tradition based on “Slap Shot.” Toward the end of the third period, the marching band plays “The Stripper” as a fan takes off his shirt and pounds the glass behind the visiting goaltender.
And the film holds cult status in the province of Quebec because the French version released there was dubbed in joual, the province’s working-class slang. The fact that local actors Yvan Ponton and Yvon Barrette co-star alongside world-famous movie stars such as Newman has contributed to its special status in the province.
Finally, in 2010, Wiley Publishing released “The Making of Slap Shot: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest Hockey Movie Ever Made” by Jonathon Jackson.
Yes, the Carlsons/Hansons and “old-time hockey” hold a special space in sports annals. If you want to find out even more about the fun-loving clan, visit www.hansonbrothers.com or www.stevecarlson.com.