Doug Smith
Credit: Photo courtesy Doug Smith

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–.”

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

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.”

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

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.”

The Thunderbirds’ new “goon” became an instant favorite of the team’s fans. “Truth be known, they could give a s— if your team won or lost,” says Smith of the Thunderbirds’ supporters. “They want to see some fighting. I would look up in the stands and people were holding up signs with my name on it. It was like being a rock star. They loved me.” Smith had hardly gone from rags-to-riches — his weekly wage was just $250 — but he didn’t care. He was fulfilling his dream, bringing “a set of b—s to the bench.” Soon he even acquired his own sobriquet: The Thug.

Carolina won its league and Smith was able to take a championship ring home to show his parents, who had not exactly been overjoyed by their offspring’s quixotic hockey quest. “When they would hear that I was spending my days skating and watching hockey fight tapes, they must have thought I was on drugs,” he admits. “But, once you accomplish something like that, you can say, ‘I’m a winner, I’m a champion. All that hard work paid off. I think I have a shot at making another team.’ The heat’s off you a little bit.”

In all, Smith would play for seven different teams during parts of six seasons, including a stint with the Johnston Chiefs, whose coach, the legendary Steve Carlson, had portrayed one of the lunatic, bespectacled Hanson brothers alongside Paul Newman in the classic 1977 ice hockey movie, Slap Shot. “He made no bones about it,” says Smith, recalling Carlson’s offer of a job. “He said, ‘Listen, we’re playing five or six teams that have been a–holes to us and I’m bringing you in to kick a–. To have that said to you by a guy like Steve Carlson is like, unbelievable.” In the course of his entire minor league career, Smith never scored a single goal. The figure he regards as his “true prize” is the large number of penalty minutes he accrued, 404, averaging nearly seven per game.

Although Smith’s skating abilities did improve with time, he never graduated to the NHL. In truth, teams tended to call him up as a last resort, which meant, as the perennial newbie, he was made to sit at the back of the bus on the interminable journeys to and from opposing team’s venues which are a regular part of minor league hockey life. “I always got the seat down by the s—tter,” he says. “I had to smell that the whole ride. But I didn’t care. It was like smelling roses!” While Smith was never happier than when trying to beat up an opposing team’s enforcer, he explains most ice battlers share a sense of camaraderie. “That aspect of the game really does blow people away,” he says. “I don’t hate any of the guys that I ever fought. When the game’s over, the game’s over. If I bump into you in a bar, I might buy you a beer and shake your hand and talk to you about other fighters in the league.”

Smith’s career was followed closely by his friend Adam Frattasio, who had begun to carve a career as a sports writer. After Smith’s time in the minor leagues wound down at the end of the ’90s, Frattasio suggested they co-write his autobiography. The result, Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey, was published in 2002 and dedicated, appropriately, to “all those who don’t have everything it takes, but do it anyway.” “The book did very well,” says Smith. “We sold thousands of copies worldwide.”

Smith believes those sales were assisted by the book’s cover photograph, which showed him sporting a black eye he had received in the course of a savage beating by regular NHL player Frank “the Animal” Bialyos. “I hung in there good,” Smith says of the encounter “for about one second! When I lost my grip on his right arm he socked me a couple of times, which made that beautiful cover of the book. I owe him a debt of gratitude.” The jovial Smith says that, despite such occasional knocks, he has suffered no lasting injury or disfigurement from his days in the minor leagues. “I’m still pretty,” he deadpans.

In 2008, David Gross and Jesse Shapira, a pair of aspiring Canadian producers who had known each other since summer camp, interested Evan Goldberg in adapting Goon. Despite being Canadian himself, Goldberg knew little about hockey and, to help him craft the screenplay, enlisted countryman and self-confessed puck-nut, Baruchel. “The Montreal Canadians play 82 games in a regular season and I catch about 76 of them, on average,” says Baruchel. “It’s how I define my weeks, to be perfectly honest.” Baruchel explains that the film’s lengthy gestation period was in large part caused by the time it took to line up the film’s finance. “Compared to your American studio film, we would be called a low budget,” he says. “But within the confines of Canada, we put together a hell of a budget. There’s 50 some-odd speaking roles and teams that we had to create from scratch and populate with flesh and blood hockey players.”

Baruchel’s love for the game was shared by Montreal-based director Michael Dowse who had acquired a cult reputation north of the border for his 2002 mockumentary FUBAR. By the time Dowse became attached to the project, screenwriters had begun to favor the idea of casting Seann William Scott in the lead. It was a suggestion that was greeted less than enthusiastically by Dowse, who only knew Scott from his role in the American Pie movies and says he found it hard to see beyond what he describes as “the Stifler thing.” “He was the first guy that was brought up to me and, to be honest, I initially was like, ‘I don’t know,’” says the director. “Then I watched Southland Tales and The Promotion and realized that he’s got much more range than people give him credit for. And as soon as I met him I was like, ‘This has to be Doug.’ He just had that likeability you can’t really act, you just have to have.”

Next: “My goal with the whole film was that audiences should smell the pee hole.”

Then came one of those only-in-Hollywood coincidences: Kevin Smith announced that he too was planning to make a movie about an ice hockey goon. The film was to be called Hit Somebody, based on the Warren Zevon song of the same name, and Smith too wanted Scott to play the lead role. The Clerks director actually gave a February 2010 interview to in which he talked about how working with Scott on Cop Out had inspired him to write the part in the voice of the actor. “Seann, for me, was the key into the character,” said Smith. “I had all the elements in place, and the one thing I was missing was the personality. Generally I like to write to a voice, but I didn’t know who that voice was or what that voice could be. And then after spending all the time with Seann on this movie, he’s pitch perfect. He is that guy.”

Ultimately, Smith lost out when Goon started shooting with Scott in Manitoba in the fall of that year. “I love Kevin,” says the actor. “I’d worked with him on Jay and Silent Bob, and I became even greater friends on Cop Out. Kevin told me about Hit Somebody and I was like ‘Oh, that sounds f—king great,’ but I said my loyalty really is with Goon, let’s see how it plays out. And shortly after, Goon got its financing. But he’s so talented. I think Hit Somebody is going to be fantastic.”

Kevin Smith has a different recollection of events. “Seann came over to the house one night,” says the director. “It was like, ‘Okay, man, I’m going to make this hockey movie and I’m gonna write the lead for you.’ The dude was like, ‘Oh my god, that means the world to me.’ He was here for two, four hours that night. Never once mentioned Goon. Never once mentioned Goon over the course of six months.”

The director says he first learned about Goon, and Scott’s involvement with it, via the Internet: “I read [about it] online, somebody said, ‘Hey, Seann William Scott is doing a hockey movie, but it’s not yours, but it sounds like yours.’ And it was this movie Goon. I contacted Seann to be like, “Dude what happened?” And Seann said, ‘Well, this movie is ready to go, is your hockey movie ready to go?’ I said ‘No, I’m doing Red State, you know that, and I’m not going to do Hit Somebody until after that.’ At the end of the day I was like, ‘Hey man, you gotta do what you gotta do.’ It felt kind of s—-y. I wish he’d called me instead of me reading about it online.”

Baruchel, meanwhile, is just happy that he eventually got his preferred Doug Glatt: “All I’ll say is, we found our boy and he fell in love with what we wrote — these are his words not mine. But, as I said, it takes a lot of time to get stuff going and some time in there Kevin, I guess, got the idea that Seann would make a pretty good lead for his flick. That’s as comfortable as I am talking about it.”

Baruchel freely admits he and Goldberg took liberties with their adaptation of Smith and Frattasio’s book, liberties which include gifting the lead character with a Jewish name and background in honor of Baruchel’s father who passed away in 2004. “My dad didn’t get the chance to see this and so this was my little nod to him,” says Baruchel, who is making his screenwriting debut with Goon. “Doug Glatt” is also more dim-witted and much more tight-lipped than the voluble Doug Smith. “That’s Hollywood!” laughs Smith, who says he has no beef at all with his big screen depiction.

If the two screenwriters did not overly concern themselves with keeping true to the precise details of Smith’s life, they made it their business to authentically capture the gritty, ribald nature of lower tier professional hockey. This is a film in which Baruchel’s character, Ryan, predicts the hockey game he is watching is about to “become an absolute a—raping that only the likes of f—ing Ned Beatty or potentially the cast of Oz can comprehend;” in which Ryan tells his buddy Glatt to pick the number “69” to wear on his shirt because “it’s hilarious;” and in which one teammate informs our hero that he has two rules: “Stay away from my f—in’ Percocets and do you have any f—in’ Percocets?” Finally, this is a film in which misbehaving players are forced to sit at the back of the bus next to a circular hole in the floor that the team uses as a urinal. “My goal with the whole film was [that audiences should] smell the pee hole,” laughs Dowse. “Obviously any hockey film falls under the [shadow] of Slap Shot, but I also like a lot of the other sports movies from that time like The Longest Yard and North Dallas Forty. They have a real blue-collar grit to them and that’s something we tried to keep going in our film.” Baruchel agrees that capturing the authentic flavor of minor league hockey life was “paramount in our objectives. It’s a strange thing to be a hockey player outside the NHL. Any of the lower leagues in North America, you’re not a millionaire and you’re constantly beating the s— out of yourself. But these boys have just this blood connection to the game.”

Next: ” I walked into the foley studio and these guys were f—ing hammering the s— out of a pig’s head with an aluminum bat.”

While Seann William Scott and Liev Schreiber were portraying characters with limited skating skills, both trained hard on the ice prior to the shoot. “Liev really worked his a– off getting his skating down,” says Baruchel. “We were sent footage of him practicing in New York. He had a friend of his videotape it and he skated a couple of laps and then picks a fight with the cameraman. He drops his gloves, takes his helmet off, lunges at the cameraman, and says something to the effect of ‘You wanna go? You want a f—ing piece of me?’ I was like, ‘Holy s—-!’”

Even director Dowse felt obliged to hit the ice in preparation for the shoot. “I played when I was kid, like any Canadian does,” says the filmmaker. “I was horrible, a terrible hockey player. But when I got this job I joined a beer league because I thought I’d better understand it from a player’s perspective. I was 36 and my wife was like, ‘You know this is how guys your age die. They don’t play, and then they jump in, and they get heart attacks.’ I was like, ‘I’ll be fine.’ I almost died in my first game. I’m literally on the bench, dying. Everyone’s like, ‘You gonna be alright?’ But I really enjoyed it. It’s a great game to play.”

Dowse spent almost a month shooting the film’s many on-ice sequences. “It was really important to me to capture the hockey properly,” he says. “There are some good French-Canadian films that do it justice, but if you look at some of the other hockey movies, they’re just f—ing terrible. The games are just an afterthought. You hear these horror stories. I was meeting with a bunch of directors of photography before we did the film, some guys who had done hockey [movies], and they were all like, ‘Oh, we didn’t have enough time.’ You know, they get three days on a rink. We had three and a half weeks.”

Despite the length of time devoted to the hockey sequences, the sheer number of fights that needed to be filmed made for some frenetic days — or, technically, nights, given that the then in-progress hockey season forced shooting to take place in the very early hours. “We would shoot 1, 2, 3 in the morning and we had no rehearsal time,” explains Scott. “Liev was saying that on Wolverine they were rehearsing fights three months prior to filming. I had worked on the Rundown and I knew the fight scenes the Rock did they rehearsed way earlier. But I remember being on skates, on ice, at 4 in the morning and it was like, ‘Okay, Seann, you’re going to be hit, you throw him against the glass, head butt. I’m like, ‘Wait, what?’ But Mike obviously had a master plan.”

Dowse in turn says that the film’s foley team, the behind-the-scenes folks responsible for much of a movie’s sound effects, played a large role in amping up the brutal nature of the fight sequences. “The sound is half of it,” argues the director. “The sound team are a great crew but, like most foley guys, they go a little dark. I remember walking into the foley studio and these guys were f—ing hammering the shit out of a pig’s head with an aluminum bat.”

Those sequences may soon have historical value. There is a growing effort to ban fighting from hockey, partly fueled by a number of recent premature deaths among the enforcer community, including that of Derek “the Boogeyman” Boogaard. In May 2011 the New York Ranger player died from an accidental drug and alcohol overdose while recovering from a concussion. When Boogaard’s brain was examined, it was discovered he had been suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative brain disease whose possible causes include repeated blows to the head. Boogaard’s tragic story was subsequently highlighted in a three-part New York Times called Blood on the Ice.

The hockey-obsessed Baruchel is well aware that the death of Boogaard, and others, has blackened his beloved sport’s name. “I don’t want the lesson from this movie to be, beating up people is awesome,” he says. “But I truly believe that nobody fights in hockey that doesn’t want to, and, to be perfectly honest, I think the enforcer is an important role. That being said, if a kid watched this movie and decided that that’s what he wanted to do…” Baruchel pauses before continuing. “I don’t know.”

Smith himself says the days of out-and-out goons are already over, but argues player-fighters such as himself have been made scapegoats. “There’s more injuries in the NHL to top notch players by body-checking, not fighting,” he insists. “But unfortunately the time of the enforcer is slowly but surely winding down, yes.”

Goon premiered at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival and proved surprisingly successful when it was released last January in the U.K., a country whose interest in ice hockey could charitably be described as limited. “It was a neat little experiment, to quickly drop it in a place that has no cultural connection to the sport and see how much people dug it,” says Baruchel. “We got quite a bit of love for it on Twitter. A lot of people commented that ‘It seems like my kind of sport, I think I’m a fan now.”

When the film arrived in Canadian cinemas last month, critical reaction was mixed, partly reflecting anti-enforcer sentiment. While Brendan Kelly of the Montreal Gazette claimed that Goon “might be the best hockey movie ever made,” CanWest news service writer Jay Stone slammed the filmmakers’ decision to make a film about goons in his widely published review. “Hockey enforcers can be funny when they’re comic relief, like the Hanson brothers in Slap Shot,” Stone concluded, “but Goon puts its marginal players at centre ice. Like their real-life counterparts, it’s too much of a bad thing.” The film still muscled its way to the top of the box-office charts, beating out the U.S. hit Act of Valor which was released the same week.

The Goon team has been rewarded with the approval of many hockey players. Michael Dowse says he’s spoken with Dave Hanson — who played another of the Hanson brothers in Slap Shot — and that the former Detroit Red Wing “really liked the film, which is a huge boost.”

“The hockey world really seems to be digging this movie and getting behind it and embracing it,” says Baruchel. “The nicest compliment that the movie’s been paid so far in my opinion was by Georges Laraque [the retired Montreal Canadien who plays an enforcer in the movie]. He said ‘I saw a lot of myself in Doug. There were moments that gave me goose bumps and I came close to tears at others.’ That was like, ‘I guess we f—ing got it.’”

The film has another, more unlikely, fan in the form of Kevin Smith, whose bitterness over the GoonHit Somebody imbroglio seems to have melted away like a backyard ice rink on a hot spring day. “I thought the movie was cool,” says the director, who recently downloaded the film from iTunes. “Having seen the flick I don’t want to say like, ‘I dodged a fucking bullet.’ Seann’s a really funny guy and I thought he did a nice job. I think any hockey fan would like that movie. But I was so happy that they did what they did. Because I think a lot of people would assume that’s the hockey movie I’m going to make. Like, I kept hearing them talking about ‘We’re going for Slap Shot, we’re going for Slap Shot.’ And that’s great. I would never go for Slap Shot. I’m going to go for another George Roy Hill film and that’s the World According to Garp. That’s more my direction. So, yeah, ultimately everything works out the way it’s meant to.”

Smith plans to shoot Hit Somebody — which he says will be his last film — at the end of this year with Red State actor Nicholas Braun in the lead role. “Ultimately Seann did me a favor,” says Smith. “Nick Braun, when I worked with him on Red State, lit the way for me in terms of his personality. Suddenly I had an inner voice for [the part]. Plus, he looks like a hockey player. He’s a f—ing giant.”

These days, Doug “the Thug” Smith is married with two small girls and works as a cop in Hanson. “I can’t get away from hockey so I got myself into refereeing,” he says. “I’m a linesman, if you can believe it. So here’s the guy that used to fight all the time and now I’m breaking up fights. It’s like putting the mouse in charge of watching the cheese,” he chuckles, “but it works.”

And if a team called him up for one last match? Smith reveals he would consider giving his story (another) Hollywood ending. “I’m probably a better skater today than I ever was back when I played hockey,” he says. “I tell you right now, if a team called me up tomorrow and asked me if I wanted to come out and fight, I’d be hard pressed to say no.”

You can check out the trailer for Goon below.

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