George Roy Hill
The Charlestown Chiefs, a minor league hockey team, need to drum up attendance for their upcoming game with a team from Hyannisport. Television host Jim Carr (Andrew Duncan) interviews Denis Lemieux (Yvon Barrette) on his show "Sports Talk" about the "finer points of hockey. " English is the French Canadian player's second (and not best) language, but Denis gamely describes penalty moves like hooking and slashing, using his stick on Jim to demonstrate. Reggie "Reg" Dunlop (Paul Newman) is the team's aging player/coach, and the team is dead last in the second-rate Federal League. He meets opposing player Nick Brophy (Jon Gofton) at center ice to start the Hyannisport game, and Nick reveals he is drunk and resents that his coach put him in the game.
In the broadcast booth, Chiefs player Dave Carlson (Jerry Houser), who supposedly was injured in a previous game, reveals that he isn't playing because he actually has a cold. The lone quality player for the Chiefs is Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean), who is not only the highest-scorer in the Federal League (he makes his record shot during the Hyannisport game), but he is also a Princeton grad who plays for the love of the game. Joe McGrath (Strother Martin), the team's manager, seems to be receiving encouragement by the mysterious team owner to come up with publicity stunts for the players. Some of the men are put into a fashion show, and Johnny Upton (Allan Nicholls) has had it: he warns McGrath that he plans to flash the audience so they won't have to do such degrading things again. Joe blows him off to make a phone call to locate Reg and Ned, who should be at the show as well, but has to stop the call short when cries of shock and disgust greet Johnny when he takes the runway. Ned and Reg pass the mill, which Ned tells him is going to close and lay off 10,000 workers.
The Chiefs will have difficulty filling the stadiums with most of the town's residents suddenly out of work. Ned's wife Lily (Lindsay Crouse) drives them home from the local bar, uptight about being a hockey wife with a troubled marriage in a town she can't stand. Ned gives his attention to their St. Bernard dog Ruby and doesn't seem interested in his wife's attitude. Joe is training Reg for a future in an office job and tells him to pick up the three new players he obtained from the Iron League -- the Hanson Brothers (Jeff & Steve Carlson, David Hanson). He finds them at the bus station by the noise of one of the boys trying to force a lost quarter out of the vending machine by shaking it down. He takes them to their hotel where the team will pick up their expenses for a week and, as they go down the hall for sodas, he notices toy cars and tracks in their suitcase.
Reg is less than impressed with the new acquisitions, and rails at Joe for picking up any discarded players he can find at rock bottom prices; his plan is to refuse to play them. At the bar Reg meets his (eventually) ex-wife Francine (Jennifer Warren), with whom he still has a good friendship. Before the bus leaves for an away game, Lily offers Ned a book with all the sex scenes highlighted, but he refuses to take it, though Reg is impressed. On the bus, Ned runs a betting pool and says that he will earn enough money to buy the team so he can run it his way.
The team worries about a crazy player named Oggie Oglethorpe (Ned Dowd), but learn he was suspended and won't play. As Reg leaves the hotel for the game, he spots the Hansons playing with their racing cars. In the locker room, he sees them wrapping their knuckles with aluminum foil and tape prior to the game. Reg has a roll in the hay with Suzanne Hanrahan (Melinda Dillon), who reveals that she discovered she is a lesbian after a night of drinking and exploratory sex with another player's wife.
On the ice, Reg decides to sneak a goal and approaches Tommy Hanrahan (Christopher Murney) in the goalie cage, skating by and egging him on about his wife being a dyke; Hanrahan chases Reg and leaves the cage open for a Chiefs goal. Ned is disgusted and calls the team's win "garbage. " Reg, however, wants the team to be fired up and have hope for the future, so he works with reporter Dickie Dunn (M. Emmet Walsh) to suggest that a Florida retirement community may buy the team.
The next day Reg sees Lily in the town square and talks with her; she is in a bad mood and even cusses over a statue of a dog in the square, supposedly a canine hero for saving the town during a 1938 flood. Reg tries to bolster the team's morale one player at a time, and talks with Dave Carlson about aging and suggests it may be time to quit hockey. Dave idolizes Reg, and when Barclay Donaldson (Ross Smith) from the Broom County team suggests that Reg shouldn't be in the league, Dave goes after him, and the fight puts him out of the game. Finally, desperate to win, Reg releases the Hansons on the rival team. The Hansons immediately assault and brutalize the opposition, much to the delight of Charlestown's working-class fans, who create a booster club and begin following the team on their own bus to attend away games.
At a game against Peterboro, the teams begin fighting before the game begins and with no officials on the ice to stop the ruckus The boys are mutilated as they finally stand at attention for the National Anthem, but an official breaks ranks to yell at the Hansons. Then he realizes the song hasn't finished and cools off. By the time the team goes to an away game against Hyannisport they are winning, but their reputation has preceded them, and mobs of people boo them at their arrival. They stop jeering when the bus drives by with all the Chiefs and boosters mooning them out every bus window as they pass.
The other Chiefs players soon take their cue from the popularity of the Hansons and become "goons," fighting as much as (if not more than) actually playing hockey. At Peterboro a fan throws something and hits a Hanson in the face, and all three brothers take to the stands to find and pummel him. After the game the police arrest the Hansons. Peterboro still loses the game. When the bus arrives back in Charlestown and Ned is not on it for Lily to pick up (he gets off and walks the last few miles), Lily is upset and tears out of the lot in her van, but not before Reg climbs aboard and starts talking to her about getting her head straight. She drops him off at his place and drives off in tears.
Francine tells Reg she has a job offering in Long Island and will be moving away. Reg goes on Jim Carr's radio show to announce that he wants to put a $100 bounty on the head of Syracuse player Tim McCracken (Paul D'Amato). Dave (who has taken the name "Killer") Carlson calls Reg, anxious to claim the money, which Reg says will have to be earned. Reg tries to get some sleep before the game, but Joe calls to read him off for putting a bounty on a player's head, and suddenly Lily has arrived with the dog and her belongings, anxious to straighten herself out. Reg passes out in the remaining bed space left by the St. Bernard. Before the game, Reg yells at the organist for playing "Lady of Spain" and rips up the sheet music.
The game is going well, with plenty of beatings between goals, but Ned refuses to play dirty, so Reg benches him (first in his career) and Ned goes to the broadcast booth to gripe to Jim Carr, going into an uncharacteristic tirade and discovering that Jim wears a toupee (and announcing it on the air). Finally, Reg finds out that the team is owned by somebody named McCambridge, so he goes to the owner's home to talk with him. It turns out he is a she: widow Anita McCambridge (Kathryn Walker) tells Reg that she abhors violence and won't let her kids watch hockey. She plans to fold the team to take a tax write-off as her accountants have recommended. She realizes the Chiefs are sellable but chooses not to.
Disgusted, Reg insults her and leaves, then drives to Ned's house to find he is out in the woods trying to avoid talking to him; he yells to Ned that he can play however he wants and, since the team is folding, he wants to go out in style. Reg takes Lily to Francine's beauty shop for a makeover at his expense. She says Lily is pretty and could look like Cher with the right hair and makeup. At the championship game, Reg tells the guys that he wants to play "old time hockey" and not be a goon for what might be his last game. The Hansons are all for it, so they take the ice and wait for the Syracuse team to come out, but the ice remains empty. Then the announcer receives the roster for the opposition: they have brought out the top goons to play against the Chiefs, including McCracken and the dreaded Oglethorpe. The moment the puck drops, the Syracuse men launch upon the Chiefs in a massive fight.
Ned doesn't get involved, and Joe sits in amazement in the stands as his boys don't fight back. At the half-time break, Joe hollers at the mangled Chiefs that he has gathered every major NHL talent scout to the game to watch them and offer contracts. Back on the ice, "old time hockey" is gone, replaced by the Chiefs' old ways. While Ned sits on the bench, he suddenly spots Francine escorting the new, improved Lily to the stands; he is overcome with the sight of her, and suddenly he skates out to center ice and begins removing parts of his uniform.
Jim Carr is stunned and disgusted, but the band launches into "The Stripper" as Ned continues his striptease and the other players slowly cease their fighting to watch. McCracken yells at an official to stop Ned, but he finds nothing wrong and won't interfere. McCracken then strikes the official, who declares the Syracuse team has forfeited the game and takes the winner's cup to Reg, who passes it to Ned as they skate off the ice (Ned stripped down to his skates and jockstrap) to thunderous applause. The Chiefs win the Federal League and receive a heroes' welcome back in CharlestownReg is pleased that the NHL's Minnesota Nighthawks want to hire him as their coach, and that several key Chief's players will be part of the bargain. Reg and Ned sit atop a convertible in the victory parade, and Lily is by Ned's side. Reg says farewell to Francine, who interrupts the victory parade in town as he lets her drive through with her things in a trailer, and he tells her to stay in touch through his new team..