Photo courtesy Doug Smith
March 29, 2012 at 04:00 PM EDT

When 23-year-old Doug Smith first tried out for a professional ice hockey team, the East Coast Hockey League’s Carolina Thunderbirds, in October 1988, he knew his chances were slim. For one thing, Smith had never put on a pair of skates until he was 19. For another, well, there’s really no need for another reason. If you want to play hockey, it’s a good idea to learn to skate around the same time you learn to walk. When Wayne Gretzky was 19, for example, the so-called “Great One” won the first of eight consecutive Most Valuable Player awards in the National Hockey League. Though Smith had practiced hard in the four years since he first laced up his skates, he was no Wayne Gretzky. Far from it. This fact was bluntly confirmed by the Thunderbirds coaches. “They said, ‘The goddamn goalies are beating you, in full equipment, in drills’,” recalls Smith, who was cut after a few days of training camp. “ ‘You can’t skate worth s—’,” he was told.

The polite, amiable Smith thanked the team’s general manager for the opportunity and made the long bus trip back from Vinton, Va., to his home in Hanover, Mass. He was satisfied he had tried his best but was sure his dreams of becoming a professional player were finished.

They weren’t.

In the next decade, an impressive number of minor league teams, including the Thunderbirds, would overlook his skating and employ him for what he did with his fists. Smith became an “enforcer,” a player tasked with intimidating and fighting members of the opposing side who might otherwise harass and bludgeon his more skilled teammates with “cheap shots.” “You usually won’t cheap shot [a player] if you think [an enforcer] is going to be coming after you,” says Smith, 47. “Because you know someone’s there to kick your a–.”

Smith’s unlikely, Rocky-esque story is now a $12 million independent Canadian movie called Goon. Directed by cult Canadian director Michael Dowse, this loose adaptation of Smith’s autobiography is currently available on video on demand and is being released theatrically on March 30. The movie stars Seann William Scott as Smith, or Doug Glatt as he is called in the movie, Liev Schreiber as a mustachioed veteran enforcer with whom he inevitably tangles, and Jay Baruchel as his fight-obsessed best friend. The Canadian-raised Baruchel, who penned the film with Knocked Up co-writer Evan Goldberg, admits to sharing his character’s fascination with on-ice fisticuffs. “My dad was an absolute hockey fan and he lionized a lot of enforcers,” says the Sorcerer’s Apprentice star and Montreal Canadiens fan. “He played a little bit as well. He was the guy that ‘finished his checks,’ was the nice way to say it. He put some mustard on it. My dad often came home with some f—in’ cast or something because he’d messed himself up playing hockey.”

Doug Smith also enjoyed watching hockey fights as a kid. “The Boston Bruins were my local team,” he says. “Why wouldn’t I like to see two guys kick the s— out of each other? Pardon my French.” While hockey players who engage in fisticuffs are sent to the penalty box, the sport’s authorities have long tolerated punch-ups during games. In the ’70s and ’80s, enforcers such as Philadelphia Flyers player Dave “the Hammer” Schultz  and Montreal Canadiens legend Chris “Knuckles” Nilan became famous, and infamous, figures in the sport. But instead of skating, Smith spent his youth training to be a boxer under the tutelage of his father, a telephone line repairman. “My father was a boxer when he was a kid,” says Smith. “I entered a lot of the local tournaments as a teenager growing up but I wasn’t that good. I knew that I wasn’t going to be a professional boxer.”

Smith graduated from high school with no idea what he was going to do with his life until a friend named Adam Frattasio suggested he consider entering the ranks of hockey enforcers. “Adam played high school hockey and was a big hockey fight fan,” says Smith. “He was the one that really started to hammer away at me, saying ‘If you learned how to skate, with your boxing background, you could probably do this.’ I was like, ‘You’re crazy.’ But Adam pushed me into getting skates and getting on the ice and taught me the basics.”

In the end, the basics proved good enough. A couple of tough guys who had been hired by the Carolina Thunderbirds instead of Smith didn’t work out. Two months after being cut, Smith received the call. “They said, ‘We know you’re a horrendous skater,’” he remembers, “’But would you still be willing to fight?’ I said, ‘Of course.’” In his very first professional match, a home game in Winston-Salem against the Knoxville Cherokees, Smith earned his stripes. “They had two real tough guys that ran around that league and caused chaos every night they played and put the fear into players,” he says. “I fought both of them and I beat both of them.”

Next: “Truth be known, the fans could give a s— if your team won or lost.”

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