In the annals of sports movies, Slap Shot ranks among the best. IIHF.com’s John Sanful caught up with actor Micheal Ontkean, who played Ned Braden, the college-educated Charlestown Chiefs player who refused to fight. In real life, Ontkean rejected an invitation from the New York Rangers.
With its locker-room humour and colourful characters, Slap Shot is beloved by die-hard hockey fans for its humour and authenticity. Actor Michael Ontkean, who played Ned Braden, became well known for his role in the movie.
But one fact that may have been overlooked is Ontkean was a pretty decent hockey player himself, who could have had a career in the game, had not acting come in the way.
Ontkean starred for the University of New Hampshire Wildcats hockey team in the late sixties. As a three-year all-star at UNH, Ontkean, a right wing, scored 63 goals and 111 points for a career average of 1.48 points per game.
“UNH was a school with a long and prestigious hockey tradition,” says Ontkean of his alma mater. “It was a great place and I was in heaven. I could not have attended a better school.”
Ontkean grew up in Montreal where, as he put it, you had to earn the right to play indoors. He played for the Montreal Canadiens Junior B team before moving to Western Canada where he starred for Junior A club New Westminster.
Scouts from schools closely watched talented players on the Junior A circuit, hoping to snap up prospects for their college hockey programs. Ontkean received twelve offers from various schools but chose the University of New Hampshire.
“UNH was a program on the rise and had recently earned a full Division I status,” Ontkean said of his choice. “A year before I arrived the new arena was built, and it was clear to see something special was being created.”
Ontkean found instant success with Bob Brandt and Rich David. From their first practice as freshmen until senior year, the trio was among the finest lines in NCAA hockey. In 1967-68 they recorded 163 total points (73 goals, 90 assists), which led the nation.
That year Ontkean scored 30 goals and 54 points; his goal total was best in the ECAC as well as led the nation. The Montreal native recalls having great chemistry with those guys as well as his head coach, Charlie Holt whom he calls a father figure.
“I enjoyed the day-to-day joy of working on the same continuous line (with Brandt and David). Charlie Holt was a legendary coach for good reason. His strength as a mentor and his generosity of spirit made us better players but more importantly better people.”
After graduating Ontkean received an invitation from the New York Rangers but decided to pursue acting instead. Over his last academic year at UNH, Ontkean took acting courses and participated in several productions put on by theater department.
Foregoing the offer from the Rangers was a difficult decision, but Ontkean would instead hone his acting skills and pursue it fully; he’d caught the acting bug.
“I had changed gears and was moving in a different direction. I still loved playing the game but wanted to pursue acting.”
Ontkean settled in Hollywood and played semi-pro hockey with the Los Angeles Blades. Playing for the Blades allowed him time to audition during the day, and after two years things fell into place when he earned his first regular part in the television show, The Rookies, playing Officer Willie Gillis from 1972-74.
And then in 1977 he would star in Slap Shot. Ontkean recalls the audition process as being “a Chorus Line on ice.”
“They had hundreds of actors and former hockey players streaming through every day,” he said of the competition for roles. “Anyone with any hockey ability was going after available parts.”
Based on the Johnstown Jets, Slap Shot told the story of the Charlestown Chiefs, a down and out team that brawled its way to the Federal League championship. Ontkean played Ned Braden, a thoughtful, talented, college-educated player for the Chiefs, who refused to fight. Slap Shot was satire but, in another way, a realistic, behind-the-scenes look at the life of pro hockey players. It was a sports movie ahead if its time.
Because the language was so specific, so raw, and a cartoon of a subculture, it seemed an unlikely project to be released by a major studio. But Paul Newman and George Roy Hill were at the top of their careers with two of the top six all-time grossing films with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. Newman and Hill wanted the movie made so Universal Studios released the film with its humour and content intact.
“At the time I thought the combination of wild satire, sexual bravado, and general anarchy might be too much for any major studio to release. Glad I was wrong.”
The movie made pop icons of the Hanson Brothers, the Chiefs resident geeks and goons, and introduced plenty of catch phrases into the language like “putting on the foil”, and “old time hockey.”
Braden’s strip tease at movies’ end stands out as one of the quirky, yet memorable moments that helped make Slap Shot an enduring cult classic.
“It was something Paul and George encouraged me to do. It grew out of clowning around and took shape over a number of weeks of constant improvisation, and a great deal of ridicule from the rest of the gang.”
Ontkean would also star as Sheriff Harry Truman, another memorable character, on the acclaimed 1990 television series Twin Peaks but will be remembered by hockey fans for Slap Shot, a movie he recalls fondly as a piece of Dickie Dunn prose.
“Slap Shot was pure and total fun; it was a real-life account tweaked into the realm of cartoon. We were true to our times and ‘tried to capture the spirit of the thing.’”