When he retired after nearly a decade of playing minor league hockey, South Boston native Doug Smith had unique career stats: no goals scored, one total assist, and over 400 penalty minutes. Smith was an enforcer, the kind of swaggering tough guy hockey teams bring on the ice to protect their star players and strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. He chronicled his experiences in his autobiography (co-written with Adam Frattasio), Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey. The book has now become a movie, opening Friday nationwide. Seann William Scott (American Pie) plays Doug, and the script was written by Judd Apatow stalwarts Evan Goldberg (Superbad) and Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up, Tropic Thunder).
Smith, 47, now a police officer in Hanson, Massachusetts, recently spoke to Grantland's Davy Rothbart about his unusual career and the unspoken code of hockey enforcers.
Let's start from the beginning. How did you become one of hockey's most notorious goons?
The story of my fighting career — my hockey career, that is — is really the story of a friendship: the one between me and my best friend [and co-author] Adam Frattasio. I've known Adam since I moved to Hannibal [Massachusetts] from Quincy when I was 15.
For whatever oddball reason, Adam had always dreamed [of being] a hockey fighter himself. He played high school and college hockey and he loved fighting on the ice. But he was a little guy — just 5-foot-6 — and he often got pounded. Meanwhile, I never played organized hockey, but I competed all through my teen years as an amateur boxer. Adam was always like, "Doug, if you could just learn how to skate, you could probably make some noise." The idea of actually playing professional hockey was obviously farfetched and ridiculous to even think about, but just for fun I started to skate with Adam and a bunch of our buddies. We'd rent a rink at midnight or go out to the pond in the winter months and play pickup hockey. I'd only played three or four times in my life — I think Adam actually tied my skates for me the first time we went out there. It was a challenge just to stand up on skates. If I had a nickel for every time I bruised my ass, I'd be a millionaire.
Adam was the catalyst. He taught me all the basics — stops and starts, going around in the circles, crossovers, going backwards on skates. I was 20 years old, 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, a real tank. I always seemed to be top-heavy. It was tough just to learn how to skate at that age. I actually took these power-skating classes with 7-, 8-, and 9-year-old kids, and they'd burn right by me, they'd skate circles around me. It was hysterical. At that point, playing pro hockey was still a dream — we never, ever thought my career would amount to anything beyond the pond.
What was the first league you played in?
I got onto a summer rec league in 1988 where you just pay a few bucks and sign up. The coach knew that I was a horrible hockey player but that I was trying to have fun and learn how to play. He didn't know I had a bit of a secret agenda: I was not only trying to learn to skate at a higher level but also looking for opportunities to square off with someone. I wanted to learn how to keep my balance in a fight. That was one thing Adam couldn't teach me. We'd spar on skates day after day, but there's nothing like the real thing. In summer hockey, though, it didn't take too long to find opponents willing to brawl.
An actual NHL scout was watching these summer leagues and after our last game, he approached me and said, "Smitty, I've watched you all summer. You're one of the worst skaters I've ever seen but you're a helluva fighter. I might be able to help you out. I know a team that could use you." This gentleman made a phone call to a coach he knew, and before I knew it, I was heading down to North Carolina for a tryout with the Carolina Thunderbirds of the East Coast Hockey League.
How do you find a way to show off your fighting skills at a hockey tryout?
Adam came down there with me. He basically said to me, "You just got to find the biggest guy out there and challenge him outright. You just have to force someone to fight you, even though that's not your style." Which it wasn't. I wasn't an instigator. I wasn't an asshole out on the ice. I just enjoyed fighting. The art of boxing, period. I'd had it in me since I was a kid. So for me to have to bait someone into a fight really wasn't me. As it happened, the Thunderbirds already had an established team, with a handful of new guys like myself trying to make the roster. They didn't have a fighter from the year before, so in scrimmages there was nobody for me to really target.
Still, I managed to provoke a couple of fights, but after three or four days in camp with them, the coach said, "Doug, realistically your skating is not at this level. I appreciate your ability and willingness to fight, but I'm just not going to be able to use you right now." In all honesty, I shook his hand and said, "Thanks — I can't even believe I got here for a tryout. Do you believe I just started skating three or four years ago?" How could I go home sad? Even though I figured that was the end of my hockey career, I was elated to have had the experience.
Well, about two months after I got released, the coach called me back. A couple of guys the team had signed as enforcers hadn't panned out. "Are you willing to do the job?" the coach asked me. I said, "Of course!"
How long did it take to establish yourself as one of the East Coast Hockey League's premier fighters?
It happened my first night! We were playing the Knoxville Cherokees, who had two of the league's legitimate heavyweights on their team. The first guy I fought was Greg Batters, a draft pick for the Los Angeles Kings. He was a third- or fourth-year player, just getting some seasoning before he moved up, a strong skater who also knew how to throw a punch. He was my very first fight in pro hockey and I beat him soundly.
My second fight, the next period, was against his partner, a guy named Alex Daviault. Daviault was a Québec kid. He was known for being an outright goon. He couldn't even play hockey. He was like me. I suppose we were made for each other — two born fighters. Well, I took him down.
My first game, my first two shifts, I had fights against two of the league's top guys, and beat both of them. It was that night I said to myself, "You know what, I can't play the game of hockey to save my life but I can do enough on the ice to survive in this league."
I finished out the year with Carolina. We actually won the East Coast League Championship — I got a beautiful ring and a trophy and the whole nine yards. For my first year of pro hockey, it was pretty spectacular.
Do enforcers have unspoken agreements that govern these kinds of fights? Or is it all spontaneous and unruly?
There's generally two kinds of fights. Sometimes it's an actual, meaningful fight where you're defending a teammate or even yourself. Then sometimes your team just doesn't have a spark and they need a little get-go for the night and you need to step up and be their spark plug. You line up next to the guy who's the other team's heavyweight and you say to him, "Hey listen, I got to get my team going. Want to go tonight?"
We've got a code of conduct, so to speak. That guy might say, "Yeah, no problem. Let's go, Smitty," and we drop our gloves and have a good, fair fight. But he might say to me, "You know what, I can't fight tonight, I got a bad hand." I've had guys say to me, "I can't fight you. My coach said he doesn't want me to fight tonight."
At that point, our code says that you don't jump the guy, you don't sucker-punch him, you don't do anything dirty. You just catch him the next time around. Killers, thieves, "tough guys" — they all have their code; so do goons.
Does it hurt to get hit? How were you able to absorb the punishment?
I learned from boxing how to tune out the pain. I know how take a punch, how to deflect a punch, and how to turn with a punch as it's coming at my face. But you can't duck away from all of them. Growing up inside a boxing ring gave me the ability to go out on the ice without being afraid to get hit. The difference is, you're going from boxing gloves to bare knuckles. In the heat of the battle, though, you tune it all out. You go into a whole other world. During the fight itself, you never really feel too much — you're just so concentrated on the opponent in front of you and trying not to get murdered. You don't feel the pain until 10 or 15 minutes after the fight is over, when you're sitting in the penalty box. It's like, "Wow, my eye is killing me. Pass me the ice bag."
What was your most memorable fight?
I would say my best fight and my worst fight were the exact same fight. It was when I first got called up into the American Hockey League in '95 or '96, my very first game for the Moncton Hawks, against a gentleman they called Frank "The Animal" Bialowas. Frank was the league's heavyweight champion. He'd been sent down that season from the Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL, so he wasn't a very happy guy in the first place. I got brought in specifically to go against his team because they had two or three tough guys. I might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I knew what my job was.
I got my ass beat. Frank caught me with a couple of good shots, no doubt about it. In fact, afterwards, in the locker room, before the trainer stitched me up, he ran to get his Polaroid camera. He said my face was so busted up and looked so great, he wanted to take a photo of it to hang on his wall. In fact, if you ever see the cover of my book, that's the picture he took. The black eye is courtesy of Frank.
Even though I lost the fight, it was still the best fight I ever had, because after years of playing minor league hockey, I'd made it to American League, which is basically just below the NHL. For me it was quite an accomplishment. I was just a regular guy skating on a pond a few years before, and here I am fighting the heavyweight champion of the American League. My worst fight, absolutely, because I got pounded. My best fight because of who I was and how I got there.
Some fans believe that fighting detracts from hockey and that violence has no place in the sport. Why shouldn't it be outlawed altogether?
I understand where these people are coming from. Even as a guy who loves fighting, I remember back in the '70s when you'd watch game after game with endless, bench-clearing brawls. After a while, it's like, "Cut the sh*t. Let's just play some hockey." I don't mind a one-on-one fight here and there, but these bench-clearing brawls last for 20 minutes, and no one's really fighting, they're just dancing around. Then there's these fights where guys punch each other silly for five minutes. What does that prove? What does that solve? I get that line of thinking.
But hockey is a violent sport. It's always been about intimidation. And hockey has always allowed the players to police themselves. I think there's a place in the game for fighting. For me, it always came down to my role as the protector of my team. Kind of like an insurance policy for my teammates. You'll have a star player who's getting hit, getting whacked, getting knocked on his ass, and in comes Doug to beat all these guys up and give him some room.
Look at Sidney Crosby. He got body-checked and he's out of hockey. Sidney Crosby should not be out of the game because someone took a run at him. If there's a guy on Crosby's team who's there to kick your ass if you take liberties against him, you might have second thoughts before running him into the boards. There's a reason Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov had such long, brilliant careers — because Bob Probert and Joey Kocur had their backs. You take a shot at Yzerman, you're going to get the sh*t kicked out of you. Might not be the same night, but Probie's going to get you in the next game. You need that guy on the ice.
When did you first get a chance to meet Seann William Scott, who plays you in the film version of Goon?
It was last fall, when the movie premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. For me, of course, it was the most thrilling thing. I don't just mean meeting all the class-A Hollywood types — actors and producers and directors — but getting to know the guys who'd poured so much work into telling what's basically my life story. They seemed excited, too. When I introduced myself, they were giving me hugs like we all just won the lottery. It was incredible.
What did you think of the movie? Was it surreal to see your life portrayed on the screen?
I was nervous watching it because I had no idea what to expect. First of all, it's not an autobiography. I knew that going in. But it's based on my life. So I was trying to pick up on the movie's realisms: What in this movie is Doug Smith and what's Hollywood?
From the beginning, Adam Frattasio and I were really adamant that they make the hockey look real … the fights, especially. We told them, "The fights can't be Rocky. They've got to look real." We told them you can find minor-league hockey players that will literally go out and fight each other for real for fifty bucks, a hundred bucks. Sh*t, I would've done the same back in the day … just to say I was going to be in a movie. You know the way camera work can hide people's faces — it can look like the real actor but it's really someone else. They obviously didn't go that route. I'm a purist, and some of the fights look really Hollywood, but there are a couple of fights that look pretty good. It's as realistic as a Hollywood movie is probably going to get.
After the movie screened, they called the cast up onto the stage and [director] Michael Dowse introduced everyone and then he actually called out into the audience, "Where's the real Doug Smith? Have him come up here." The whole audience applauded. How can you beat that?
I've still never lost the fire for hockey. Sh*t, if someone called me up today to play and fight, I'd go for it again. These days, to feed my hockey fix, I do some refereeing — junior hockey and minor league pro hockey — so I'm on the ice a handful of days out of the month. Only thing is, the referee never gets to punch anyone's lights out.