There was a time when the glorified treatment of hockey violence on the big screen was acceptable, perhaps even in vogue, as demonstrated by the box office bona fides of such films as Slap Shot, Youngblood and Happy Gilmore, which combined to gross over $80 million domestically—more than the total of Raging Bull, Hoosiers and The Wrestler. But 2011 marked, definitively, the end of that era. That calendar year began with the NHL's marquee player, Sidney Crosby, sustaining a severe concussion from a combination of two nasty hits, the effects of which still had him sidelined as of Monday; saw the deaths of three former enforcers within four months of each other, two of which were reported to be suicides, the third an accidental drug overdose; and ended with a high school player facing paralysis after he was checked into the boards (page 36).
Along the way, those events reignited the latent discussion over reckless hits and fighting's place in the game. And so it is impossible to watch Goon (available Friday on VOD, and March 30 in select theaters) without questioning the appropriateness of a comedy about a bouncer who finds his calling as an enforcer for a minor league hockey team. Seann William Scott (American Pie, top right) plays Doug Glatt, a likable idiot whose pugilistic prowess is discovered after he intervenes on the behalf of his loudmouth buddy whose heckling has prompted a player to climb out of the penalty box and into the stands. Impressed by Glatt's God-given gift of clobbering, a local semipro coach gives Glatt a roster spot and teaches him to skate. Glatt climbs the ranks to the minor leagues, battering opponent after opponent, all in the name of protecting his teammates.
"Our movie is a love letter to this f------ up job, to these boys who, regardless of whether their team likes them, go out and bleed and fight, just for their boys," says Jay Baruchel, who along with Evan Goldberg wrote the screenplay five years ago. "I can't think of a more noble pursuit."
Baruchel and director Michael Dowse grew up in and around Montreal, worshipping at the altar of the Canadiens, during a time when fighters were prevalent—and cherished.
"I was raised in a house where we lionized and respected and had a great deal of affection for enforcers," says Baruchel. While he and Dowse admit that the movie's release may be ill-timed, both insist that Goon is an appreciation of what Dowse calls "the game's most underappreciated athletes"—and not a celebration of violence.
Goon does not completely ignore the gravity of hockey violence. Glatt's nemesis, the aging and storied fighter Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber, top left, with a Johnny Upton 'stache), offers a fleeting glimpse into the bitter, dark afterlife of enforcers. Such real issues, however, are mere footnotes to an opus of dirty jokes and bloody fights. Goon is billed as being based on the past, inspired by a book from former minor leaguer Doug Smith; but, given the reality that hockey faces today, it comes off as more of a punch in the gut.