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Wings called Hanson before Hollywood

by Andrea Nelson / Detroit Red Wings
Dave Hanson played 11 games for the Red Wings during the 1978-79 season.

When Dave “Killer” Carlson went down, the Hanson brothers stepped in. With their flowing locks, thick glasses and truck toys, they took the ice – and the nation – by storm.

The world of hockey would never be the same.

Rewind 20 years before the 1977 movie “Slap Shot” hit theaters.

Long before Dave Hanson put foil on his hands as one of the film’s Hanson brothers, he spent his long winters skating on the land of 10,000 lakes.

“Back then it was just something a kid could do every day after school and all day on weekends,” Hanson reminisced. “And the neat thing then of course is that kids of all ages would go out and have a pickup game so it didn’t matter what age you were or what level of ability you were. Everybody played together and had a great time doing it.”

Growing up in Minnesota, it was Hanson’s dream to play hockey for the Golden Gophers. A man named Herb Brooks was at the helm of Minnesota’s program and recruited a young Hanson to wear gold and maroon.

“I certainly learned that you need to be a disciplined athlete to play at the level of hockey Herbie expected of you,” Hanson said of his time with the legendary Miracle on Ice coach. “The training techniques that I was accustomed to as a high school hockey player weren’t near what the techniques were at the collegiate level.”

Hanson played on the University of Minnesota’s junior varsity team for one year before joining the St. Paul Vulcans’ junior hockey team. It was with the Vulcans that he got his first taste of being a champion.

“It was a great experience looking back at it now,” said Hanson of the two national championships he won with the Vulcans. “At that time it was the thrill of being a champion, which was certainly something new to me and something I never forgot. I wanted to make sure I had other opportunities to feel it again.”

He had more opportunities in both the WHA and NHL over his 10-season professional career. Hanson was drafted by the Minnesota Fighting Saints in the 1974 WHA amateur draft and was the Red Wings’ 11th round pick – No. 176 overall – in the 1975 NHL draft.

Dream No. 2 had come true.

“The opportunity to go with such a storied franchise as the Red Wings was at that time for me just a great feeling thinking there was going to be a shot for me to play in the National Hockey League,” Hanson said.

But before he landed in Detroit, Hanson created a splash in Hollywood. He was playing for the Johnstown Jets when his teammate’s sister wrote a screenplay about the team’s junior hockey experience. It was quickly realized however, that the actors couldn’t skate well enough to star in a hockey movie. So Hanson and the three brothers Jack, Jeff and Steve Carlson were cast as themselves in the movie: the three Hanson brothers and Dave “Killer” Carlson. When Jack Carlson was called up to the Edmonton Oilers, the actual Hanson stepped in to complete the trio of brothers.

Jack and Steve Carlson were also originally drafted by the Wings in the mid-70s, but never played for the Original Six franchise, though Hanson did get in 11 games with the Wings during the 1978-79 season.

“They plucked me from one part and threw me into the third brother and the rest is cinematic history,” Hanson said. “It was three months of some of the best and most fun times that we’ve ever had. They gave us all the food we could eat and all the beer we could drink and we pretended to be hockey players.”

Hanson couldn’t complain about his new summer job. After living with each other for two years, the Carlson brothers and Hanson knew each other well and had similar personalities that played well off each other on screen. They tried acting at first, but that didn’t work out too well. With a little guidance from lead actor Paul Newman and director George Roy Hill, the players learned to relax and simply be themselves – both on and off the camera.

“We pulled more pranks I think than they ever experienced on a movie set before,” Hanson said of his on-screen brothers. “I think because we were three young, tough, carefree, crazy kind of guys they just let us run with things. It just became one big, happy family throughout the whole three months that we filmed together.”

The Hanson brothers, who were made popular in the 1977 hit movie "Slap Shot" still tour NHL arenas to raise money for charitable causes. (Photo by Getty Images)

The Hanson trio filled up Newman’s sauna with popcorn and performed a rookie shave on Jerry Houser, but many of their jokes never left the set.

“Some we can’t repeat, they are secrets of the dark corridors of our minds,” Hanson said with a laugh. “It was just constant, one joke after another and everybody would get in the middle of it and get involved.”

With the players’ off-screen ruckus, it’s hard to imagine how “Slap Shot” was filmed in just three months. Hanson was never worried about that though, or how popular the film would become.

“Oh, there was no doubt in my mind,” said Hanson of the movie’s success. “Besides the good looks of Paul Newman you had three good-looking Hanson brothers. The chicks love the glasses.”

Yes, the thick black ones. They haven’t gone anywhere.

“Still got ‘em,” Hanson said proudly. “The Hanson brothers still put them on and raise money for charities – put on the Chiefs and put on the foil and play old time hockey once in a while.”

The Hanson brothers still reunite for a good cause. They’ve traveled throughout North America and Europe skating, pulling movie antics, signing autographs and repeating the movie’s famous lines to raise money for various charitable causes.

There’s always a crowd waiting patiently for the memorable hockey line.

“I think it’s the most popular three-minute shift of hockey in the world,” Hanson said. “I also think that if you ask anybody who the Hanson brothers are, they’ll give you two answers: the singers or the hockey players.”

The two groups of Hanson brothers had similar hairstyles, but the “Slap Shot” Hansons were known for more than their flow. If the brothers weren’t interrupting their coach with obscenities or checking opponents, they were playing with toy trucks that Reggie Dunlop would never understand.

But no matter how funny his character was, the real entertainment for Hanson came from the fans.

“The role that I played on the hockey team, I wasn’t exactly a fan favorite,” the former enforcer explained. “But when I went into opposing arenas it was common now to suddenly be skating around in warm-ups and look up and see an entire section with the glasses and the fake noses. You had to just laugh, it was good stuff.”

The original Hanson brothers were resurrected 25 years later when “Slap Shot 2: Breaking the Ice” was released in 2002. The third sequel, “Slap Shot 3: The Junior League,” was released six years later. Hanson said even though the sequels don’t measure up to the original, the brothers were still entertaining.

And it might not be the last time they’re on screen, either.

“There was certainly talk about another Hanson brothers sequel coming out,” Hanson said. “In the meantime, we’ll continue to do what we do which is go around the country and make people laugh and continue to help raise money for some great causes.”

Hanson has been doing more than filming movies since his hockey days came to an end. He managed the Gore Mountain Ski Area in New York for 14 years before being named the executive director of Robert Morris University’s Island Sports Center. In addition to his new job, Hanson keeps a close eye on how his son has risen through the ranks of professional hockey. It’s a journey that is much more exciting for Hanson as a father than it was as a player.

“As any father or parents wants for their child, you want only the best for them to reach their dreams,” Hanson said of his son Christian, a center for the AHL’s Hershey Bears. “When you watch a young man like Christian, who at an early age had the mindset of being an elite hockey player and doing all the things necessary to make sacrifices and train, trying to reach that goal, finally to have the opportunity to realize that, it’s just been a thrill.”

Hanson’s entire life has been a thrill from skating on Minnesota’s ponds to becoming a Hollywood sensation. And it’s not over yet. The hair and glasses will never go out of style for the on-screen trio of brothers.

They’re just waiting for “The Senior League.”

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