The Honor in Violence: ‘Goon’ and Hockey Fighting

The Honor in Violence: ‘Goon’ and Hockey Fighting

Mar 27, 2012

Goon still

If they need me to bleed, I’ll bleed for my team. Doug Glatt, Goon

Goon is a bloody, bawdy mess of on-ice aggression and off-ice machismo. Seann William Scott stars as Doug Glatt, an oafish, good-hearted tough guy whose fighting skills earn him a spot on the Halifax Highlanders, a minor league hockey team. His world is where political correctness went to die: his best friend (Jay Baruchel, supporting player and writer) incessantly swears while making lewd gestures; his roommate (Marc-Andre Grondin) is the washed-up star player too busy snorting blow off groupies’ backs to play the game; his love interest (Alison Pill) is a self-proclaimed slut more attracted to raw, masculine power than gentle academic types like her boyfriend. Goon is a classic, gritty, unpolished male sports comedy.

But it’s also thoughtfully political.

Baruchel and co-writer Evan Goldberg start by making Doug the progressive hero. Though he’s completely immersed in a questionable and often misogynistic world, he doesn’t partake in the same debauchery. In fact, his entire career is born from a violent, moral lesson to a local hockey player who won’t stop saying “faggot.” Quite simply, his brother is gay, he doesn’t see anything wrong with it, and will throw down with anyone who suggests otherwise. Doug isn’t particularly clever, so he uses his fists. It isn’t a mark of Neanderthallic power, but rather using the tools at his disposal to enforce his moral system. This drive quickly makes him a star for the Highlanders – he’s the enforcer who makes hockey violence an ethical and necessary act, rather than an uncontrollable outburst.

In Goon, throwing off the gloves and sparring with a fellow player is a matter of honor and pride. It is the fuel that brings a team together as the goon gives and takes beatings, displaying a certain vulnerability mixed with loyalty and gladiator-style entertainment. As the enforcer, Doug cleans up the game, inspires the players, and reunites the team with its fans. And due to a piece of highly coincidental timing, he’s also the cinematic counterpoint to an on-going debate about violence in hockey.

Writer Adam Gopnik says fighting has been part of the game since its inception in late 19th-century Montreal, where teams were formed by ethnic groups creating rival clubs. By the early 20th-century, complaints about “slashing and slugging” rose. In 1905, Alcide Laurin was killed after being hit with a fist and stick in Ottawa; in 1907 Owen McCourt died after a stick to the head. By 1915 fighting had to be listed as a foul in the official rule book. In 1953, Bob Gillies’ mourning mother called hockey violence “murder on ice.”

The dangers of violence have always simmered in the sport, but they came to a head in 2011. Well after Goon headed into production, three hockey enforcers, or goons, died in a four-month span – Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, and Derek Boogaard. The critical media microscope immediately focused on the sport’s violence, and was aided by the fact that hockey wunderkind Sidney Crosby was already injured and off the ice. It seemed that adding helmets and padding wasn’t safety enough. Dr. Rajendra Kale urged in a Canadian medical journal that violence in hockey must end. Josh Aldrich called the summation “an oversimplified version of the sport.” Pundits and fans alike argued for the end of fighting, not to mention the Governor-General of Canada. Former enforcers Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan, and Jim Thomson added their support, inciting Don Cherry to call them “pukes,” “hypocrites,” and “turncoats” as he ranted about people using unfortunate deaths to fuel their own anti-fighting agendas.

In fact, the roar of this controversy expands well beyond the sporting world. A recent episode of The Good Wife discussed the issue, boiling it down to a matter of players fearing for their jobs. The ever-opinionated Kevin Smith weighed in as well, stating: “I like fighting as much as the next guy, but Jesus Christ, how many people have to die? Look, man, when one of the greatest hockey players living isn’t playing because he’s concussed, then something’s seriously f—ked.”

Into this environment, Goon premieres. The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous, offering a side of the argument that’s usually not presented in the media, told without the drive or pressure of providing a counterpoint. The film is not a complete fabrication, but rather a fanciful adaptation of Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey by ex-minor league player Doug Smith, a boxer who learned how to skate and became a goon for a number of teams. In many ways, his story is what you’d expect from the highest pro-fight contingencies trumpeting Smith, the “flat-out, straight-out goon.” In his own words: “I wasn’t there to play hockey; I was there to fight.”

How the above piece frames Smith’s violence lies in stark contrast to Baruchel and Goldberg’s treatment. As Baruchel has explained: “I was raised in a house where we revered fighters and respected them.” Yet he also understands the inherent problems: “I think there are a lot of issues and a lot of stuff that can be fixed in hockey, but in all these conversations, I hear few of the players themselves chiming in on it. I hear a lot of talking heads passing judgment … nobody fights in hockey that doesn’t want to.”

Over and over, Glatt swears that he’s not just a goon, but a hockey player. He sees fighting as an extension of the game, as part of the team effort. He fights when he needs to; he doesn’t try to start a fight “every second he’s on the ice.” Glatt’s beliefs reflect Baruchel’s fandom, and how the writer has filled in the blanks left by the silent hockey players. It’s hard not to get sucked up in Baruchel’s passion for blood – not because of how it might tap into base human impulses and shackled urges, but because it’s framed in such a patriotic way. To see the men fight in Goon is not so different than a patriotic song about revolution, or the engaging tales of a vet who lived to describe the thrills and woes of war. It taps into our urge to protect ourselves, our family, and our way of life, and the pride we feel in persevering. It’s invigorating and cathartic, yet problematic.

As much as Goon’s honor-fuelled violence is entertaining, there is still the dangerous counterpoint that we let feelings of patriotism cloud more rational judgment. Baruchel’s spin is passionate, entertaining, and at least partially right, but it is still blanks filled in through the warm haze of nostalgia and reverence, which has already painted one particularly violent story with a rose-colored brush. Nevertheless, it’s a point that seems worthy to consider, if not as a reason to keep some blood in the game, then at least as a reminder that it’s not just cheap entertainment for blood-hungry masses.

The film is here to stay. Goon arrives during a sadly rare cinematic renaissance. 2011 also boasted Breakaway, a year after the musical mess that was Score: A Hockey Musical and a few years after Breakfast with Scot – all decades after Youngblood, which saw the skilled player with no defense against violence, and the top hockey flick, Slap Shot, that rose with the bruising power of the Hanson Brothers.

Goon will last because it shows enough passion for the sport that it can comfortably rest alongside Slap Shot as one of rare and memorable hockey films. But this comedy also adds a pretty interesting viewpoint to the bigger political discussion.

What say you?

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