It hardly seems fair. Sometime over the next two weeks, a hockey team from the U.S. Sunbelt will lift the Stanley Cup, marking 30 years since a Canadian team won the NHL’s highest honour. Adding insult to injury, for decades the United States even made better movies about our national sport: From the Miracle on Ice underdog tale Miracle to the gonzo granddaddy of hockey comedies, Slap Shot, Hollywood had us beat.
But a little over a decade ago, a motley band of Canadian filmmakers came together in Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie for a loopy wintertime shoot under vampiric conditions to make a Slap Shot we could call our own. Goon, which starred Seann William Scott, Jay Baruchel, Marc-André Grondin, Alison Pill, Kim Coates, and Liev Schreiber, and featured a cameo by Eugene Levy, went on to become that rarest of achievements: A homegrown feature-film comedy that English Canadian audiences rushed out to see, which sold around the world and spawned a sequel. To this day, some of the lead actors say they can’t go a week without strangers barking out a line or two at them on the street.
Inspired by the memoir of a Massachusetts-born amateur boxer who turned his raw talents – which didn’t involve skating – into an unlikely career as a minor-league hockey enforcer, Goon was a canny, operatically violent and profane picture with a surprisingly earnest heart.
Co-written by Baruchel, the Montreal-based actor who had made a name in Hollywood with How to Train Your Dragon and Tropic Thunder, and the Vancouver-born Evan Goldberg, whose credits by that point included Superbad and Pineapple Express, and directed by Michael Dowse (Fubar, It’s All Gone Pete Tong), the film both trafficked in and winked at sports movie clichés.
It also poked fun at the third rail of domestic politics – the English-Quebec divide – and smartly inverted a host of Canadian pieties. Goon follows Doug (The Thug) Glatt (Scott, American Pie), a sweet simpleton with iron fists, from his hometown in Massachusetts to the Halifax Highlanders of the fictional EMHL. There, his assignment is to watch the back of Xavier LaFlamme (Grondin, best known for C.R.A.Z.Y.), a former hotshot from Quebec who’s been playing scared since a brutal headshot from the veteran Ross (The Boss) Rhea (Schreiber) left him concussed.
When Doug reports for duty, he finds himself surrounded by losers and cynics who think nothing of sacrilegiously stomping across the Highlanders logo on the floor of their dressing room; Xavier mocks his chivalrous attitude and belief in teamwork. It is Doug – that is, the American – who teaches his Canadian teammates about the importance of being earnest, of sacrificing individual welfare for the greater good. So much for our national moral superiority.
But then, Goon was like playoff hockey. You could spend the whole time analyzing it, or you could just kick back and let its brutal poetry wash over you. (It’s currently streaming on CBC Gem and Amazon Prime.)
In the lead-up to this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, the film’s principals spoke with The Globe and Mail for the first oral history of their cult classic, spilling the beans on its video-games-and-weed-inspired creation, the after-hours day-drinking, getting kicked out of rinks by nine year olds, and the single grotesque image that almost doomed it at the box office. Alas, contrary to the spirit of the film, we had to clean up their language. (Some required a little more cleaning up than others. Hello, Mr. Baruchel!) But hey, who knows when a Canadian NHL team will next win the Stanley Cup? Until then, we’ll always have Goon.
The tale begins in the spring of 2006, when David Gross, an aspiring producer from Toronto and his friend Jesse Shapira, recent graduates of the American Film Institute’s conservatory program in Los Angeles, were on the hunt for projects.
David Gross: Jesse thought the enforcer, or the so-called goon, was one of the most unique positions in sports, and he thought it would make for a fun comedy premise. So we just started going through Amazon and buying a bunch of books about hockey, and reading them. And then when we read Doug’s book [Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey, written with Adam Frattasio], we were like, This is amazing! So we optioned it from those guys.
I was friends with Evan’s Canadian agent, Ben Silverman, and Evan and Seth [Rogen] were just starting their ascent in Hollywood, and we thought that would be the best place to start. We were shooting high, right? So we reached out to them, and the first thing Evan says is, I love this idea, but we have a problem – neither Seth nor I know the first thing about hockey. That’s the bad news. The good news is, my buddy Jay Baruchel is coming to town in a couple of weeks and he’s a die-hard hockey buff. So maybe this is something I could write with Jay.
Evan Goldberg: I was raised in Canada, so I’d been to hockey games, but mostly I think the Jewish kids in Vancouver didn’t play as much hockey as the other kids. Or maybe my mom just refused to take me, I don’t know.
I mean, when I was younger, I knew the names of the enforcers, and that was honestly the part that most interested me, because I did karate and I did rugby and I was much more interested in the fighting element, personally. And back in the day people just fought with much more vigour and lack of restraint. So I understood that part well. But like, I just never understood how offside worked.
Jay Baruchel: Evan and I got on the phone for, like, whatever the length of a joint is – you know when it goes out, and you have to relight it? So we’re both getting stoned on the phone for about 45 minutes, an hour. And in that time, we came up with, I’d say, 60 or 70 per cent of the essence of the movie.
Then I had a first go at it. A lot of the first draft was me just playing video games, listening to tunes, and smoking weed and being, like: ‘Oh, this would be a cool thing!’
Baruchel’s estranged father, a brawler named Serge, had died at age 48 in 2004, and he loomed large in Jay’s imagination. A lifelong Habs fan, he’d played on a local Jewish hockey team. Jay and Evan had never seen someone like that on screen, so they made Doug the black sheep of a Jewish family that boasted father-and-son doctors.
Jay Baruchel: My dad loved getting into fights at the bar, but he also loved playing hockey and punching guys that had it comin’. My mother would never be more animated watching hockey than when somebody dropped the gloves. This is not to say that we didn’t appreciate and respect and love Gainey and Roy and Robinson and Lemieux and Gretzky. But Chris Nilan loomed very tall in my household.
The movie reflects the video games I was playing at the time – there’s a game called Eastside Hockey Manager, and my favorite game of all time is a British game called Football Manager. But this is all to say that I was never really trying to play as players. I was always interested in the world-building side of these games. So when I was going to start actually typing up a script, and I needed to come up with an entire league full of teams – that wasn’t daunting, I was thrilled! Like – I get to come up with player names? How cool! I have to come up with stadiums that don’t exist? That’s the best!
Baruchel, Goldberg, and Dowse created a gritty portrait of minor-league hockey in the northeastern United States and Canada, where the fans possess an unquenchable bloodlust. In the home arena of Doug’s first team, the Orangetown Assassins, the image of a pistol adorns the walls next to the words “Devastation” and “Vengeance”; the team logo is an arrow in the shape of an A, set in the target of a gun scope. Perhaps no one embodies that dirtbag fandom more than Doug’s best friend, Pat, played by Baruchel. When the Assassins coach offers Doug a spot on the team and asks which number he’d like to wear, Pat yells out from the stands: “Take the number 69! It’s hilarious!”
Jay Baruchel: In our loftier – or more insufferable – moments, I would say that Pat was Merlin to Doug’s Arthur – and Dowse would, like, roll his eyes. But I knew how to write that guy, because when you grow up in Montreal, it’s the closest big city to Boston where you can drink at 18, and the Habs and the Bruins hate each other.
Like, at its worst, Montreal-Toronto is a gentleman’s agreement. At its worst, Montreal-Boston? The cops are at the Bell Centre! It’s a whole ‘nother dynamic, and our streets are just littered with these guys who come up and treat Montreal like an ashtray and dry hump a bunch of girls on the dance floor and try to sober up and stumble back down to the States. So, I was exorcising, let’s say, some very specific demons.
Michael Dowse: I think we all kind of felt like hockey hadn’t been served right, outside of a few films in the last few years before we made Goon. There was a lot of, you know, golden retrievers playing goalies or whatnot. Tooth fairies and stuff like that.
As he developed the script, Baruchel called Marc-André Grondin, with whom he shares an agent, and told him he was writing a part in a film for him.
Marc-André Grondin: When we talked about the character before we started to shoot, Jay was like, ‘Do you know what number you want to have?’ He thought of 70 – for the October Crisis in 1970. Just a little wink at Quebec history. I was like, Wow, that’s pretty cool. Jay is a huge history buff. We had long conversations about politics and about the October Crisis and everything. He’s fascinated by that.
And it worked, because it’s 70 and Doug chooses one number below, 69. So it all made sense.
The director Michael Dowse set up a meeting with Seann William Scott in the fall of 2009 on the set of The Green Hornet, which Rogen was starring in and co-writing with Goldberg.
Michael Dowse: Jay and Evan and I were there, and if memory serves I think Seann gave us all Star Wars watches. They weren’t expensive, but it was remarkable because it was, like, Thanks for the Star Wars watch...? He was just lovely. Within a minute of talking to him, I was convinced, and as soon as he left we all looked at each other and said: Well, that’s Doug Glatt. That’s the guy. So it was a very easy decision.
Seann William Scott: : I think I might have fibbed a little bit in my meeting with the guys. Because I think I talked about my skating skills, like: ‘Ah, yeah, great! Really great!’ Because I’m from Minnesota, how could I not be? Then, when I got on the ice, nobody really came to me and said, ‘Dude, why did you...er...lie to us?’ They didn’t make me feel bad about it, but I’m sure that they were like, Oh, we’re going to have to make some adjustments for the character. He clearly can’t skate. And so all this stuff that you see in the movie, where Doug just skates into the boards – that was out of necessity. That was the only way I could stop. So they just put it in the movie.
Kim Coates: I was just finishing the second season of Sons of Anarchy and I got this call from my Canadian agent, Gayle Abrams, and she goes, Coates, you’ve been offered a movie. It’s called Goon. I say, What’s it about? She goes, it’s a hockey movie. And I said, A hockey movie? I’m in! I’ll do it for free! I’m from Saskatchewan, so I’ve had hockey in my blood my entire life. And Gayle said, No you won’t or I won’t get my commission.
In September, 2010, Goon began preproduction in Winnipeg.
Michael Dowse: It was a good time to be casting a hockey film, because a lot of the players that had been cut from [minor-league or pro] camps were coming back home to play at home. Billy Keane – who’s the brother of Mike Keane, the former captain of the Montreal Canadiens – he became our de facto coach and hockey trainer. We just basically held tryouts and then tried to cast not only the Highlanders but also the opposing teams. So we made sort of a Black Aces [squad] for the opposing team that, no matter what jersey they were wearing, there were always these same guys.
There was one hitch: Nobody had realized that shooting a hockey film during hockey season would mean all of the local rinks were booked.
David Gross: We were maybe two weeks out from the start of principal photography when we realized how much Winnipeg loves hockey. I mean, I grew up in Toronto, we love hockey in Toronto, but it’s nothing like in Winnipeg. They would barely give us an hour at most of these arenas. You always think you can throw money at problems, or that there would be some sort of rink that would rent it to us exclusively for a month.
The production managed to secure the use of PCU Centre (now Stride Place), a new facility with two rinks about an hour’s drive west of Winnipeg, in Portage la Prairie. But they only got access during overnight hours, so the local kids would still have their usual ice time during the day. Goon’s production schedule went topsy-turvy. It was kind of fun at first.
Alison Pill: Every day I would order a Greek salad room service for breakfast. Because it was the one vegetarian thing on the menu and I wasn’t going to go outside – it was November in Manitoba – and then it was, you know, shower at 8 p.m. and get to work and then work all night, so it was a very loopy environment. And also, with the sort of casino lights of a lit arena, you don’t really know what time it is!
Jay Baruchel: I was young enough that I still at least got kind of a kick out of it. The idea of getting four hours sleep, waking up, having a dart and pounding a Coca-Cola and then going to work in -30 all night? There’s something hard as [heck] about it.
Also, when we were up in Portage, we were staying at this chain of hotels out in the prairies called the Canad Inns, and the one in Portage is this gigantic sort of log cabin on creatine – it’s just massive. And it’s got hundreds of rooms, two restaurants, a pool with a water slide and four curling rinks.
So every – I can’t say ‘night’ – every morning at 9:45 or 10 when we’d get back to the hotel, those of us that got stoned, got very stoned, and often just sat there passing out, watching people play curling at 10 o’clock in the morning.
David Gross: The beer store was attached to the hotel. We would wrap for the day and the beer store would open at the exact same time and they would all walk in, grab a six-pack and then go sit by the pool.
Jay Baruchel: Just a dirtbag vampire lifestyle. And you have increasingly less in common with the world and you only have anything in common with people going through that weird thing with you.
Michael Dowse: I have fond memories of us having to hustle to get off the ice, so nine year olds can get on. As somebody who’s put kids through hockey – Yeah, of course we’re going to get off the ice for those guys. It was humbling, in that sense. Humbling’s not even the right word. You know where you stand, in terms of the hierarchy.
But it totally grinds. You don’t know which way is up by the end. And once you get through it, you’re like, what the hell was that?
Despite – or maybe because of? – the tough conditions, love blossomed on set. Pill, who plays Eva, the world-weary, violence-loving hockey groupie who hooks up with Doug, in fact hooked up with Baruchel.
Jay Baruchel: At the time we were both disgusting cigarette smokers, and so we would go for a smoke and then that turned into us being engaged and living together in Montreal.
Seann William Scott: I think it was the last day of shooting, at least for me, and it was so cold and we were shooting the scene where she kisses him for the first time when they’re walking back from the game, and somebody says, ‘You know, Baruchel and Alison, they’re dating.’ I’m like – ‘Oh, greeeaaat!’ I was so stressed out about it. And it’s so dumb. I don’t know, I felt like I’m disrespecting my friend by kissing his girlfriend – but obviously it’s a movie! I think there’s this one take where I saw Jay behind the monitor and I just created some sort of fiction in my head, I was like [quietly] ‘He’s pissed at me right now.’ Then I was, like: ‘He wrote this! This is on him!’ Then, after a couple kisses, I was like: ‘Jay, we good, right?’ He didn’t even know what I was talking about.
The unusual conditions also helped build camaraderie among the cast and crew, especially during the lunchbreaks.
Michael Dowse: We had the main rink in the arena and then they had just built the secondary rink. ‘Lunch’ was at four in the morning, so you’d eat for 10 minutes and then you’d get 60 people on the ice in the other rink, and play shinny for a half an hour, and you’d have all the energy you’d need for the ‘afternoon’-slash-five-in-the-morning ‘til 10 in the morning.
Dowse tried to keep things loose on set, which included encouraging the actors to improvise in certain scenes.
Michael Dowse: Jay came from the Judd Apatow world [as a teenager, he starred in the first series Apatow created, Undeclared], which was heavy into improvisation. So there was a real sort of understanding of just: Yeah, we cover the script and then we let people go and have fun.
Kim Coates: My biggest fear was to come off as a caricature of a coach in the minor leagues who, you know – all he does is yell, or he’s got a mullet, like they all do. I remember doing the bus scene after the Highlanders lost our eighth game in a row or whatever it was, and we’re not going to make the playoffs and we suck. And I came on that bus and I just wanted to be real and walk up and down, and so we did one take like that. And then Michael takes me outside and he goes, I want you to walk on that bus and start to yell and don’t stop. And they put cameras on that bus and those [guys] woke right up. They didn’t know what Kim Coates was doing, but it was scaring the [heck] out of them. And that’s the take that they used and people remember that scene, and I guess Michael knew exactly what he was doing.
In another partly improvised scene, after coach Hortense (Coates) takes away Xavier’s assistant captaincy and gives it to Doug, Doug walks into the apartment he shares with Xavier and finds him in the midst of a spitting match with Pat.
Marc-André Grondin: It was pre-COVID, so we were actually spitting on each other. We were trying to find a way to get saliva, but saliva that is not too wet. So we weren’t drinking water in between takes, because that makes it too watery. He was drinking Coke and I was drinking Pepsi, and I thought it was like the two solitudes: You know, in Quebec it’s Pepsi and in the rest of Canada, it’s Coke.
Those solitudes burst across the screen during one scene in which the Highlanders visit Quebec to play the Victoires. There, a gargantuan Quebec flag hangs at one end of the arena (shot in what is now the Winnipeg Jets’ Canada Life Centre), the electronic signs declare Xavier a traitor, and the boos rain down on him.
Marc-André Grondin: I felt like I was in Quebec City or something – some place where, you know, the fans are really intense and aggressive in a way. I literally felt like a real French-Canadian hockey player that decided to go play for Toronto. I think it’s part of hockey and especially in Montreal, we kind of love and hate the Quebeckers that are not playing for our team, and sometimes when they play here and then they get traded or ask to be traded, we give them a hard time. It made the whole thing seem real for a second, even though the guy that was screaming “Traitor” had a really thick French-Ontarian accent.
One scene in particular, though, was shot exactly as written: the script needed no embellishing. At the beginning of the third act, as the Highlanders are visiting St. John’s to play Ross Rhea’s team, Doug runs into the legendary pugilist at a late-night diner. The two meet like combatants in a western before a showdown, as Rhea cautions Doug: “Everybody loves the soldiers until they come home and stop fighting. ... Don’t go trying to be a hockey player. You’ll get your heart ripped out.”
Seann William Scott: I remember that scene well, because most of my motivation was just to not screw it up. This tells you how much of a real actor I am: There were so many times when we were shooting it, I was just sitting across from Liev, watching him and thinking, ‘He’s amazing!’ There’s a part of me that was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m in a scene with him.’ He’s just so good that he raises everybody’s level.
Doug respects Ross, but he doesn’t accept what he’s saying; he’s cut from simpler cloth.
Michael Dowse: We talked a lot about how he’s sort of a mix between Rocky Balboa and Chance the Gardener [Peter Sellers in Being There], that sort of vibe: the simpleton that is actually kind at heart and a good person, and understands black and white and what his role is. Seann really knows films, and he’s seen Being There, and those sort of analogies really helped him to get into the character.
Doug’s purity is old-fashioned, and inspiring for both his teammates and others around him.
Alison Pill: I think Eva is just somebody who’s searching for the right thing that will make her reconsider the kind of shallow life she’s leading. And so, when she meets Doug, for whom everything means more than just its surface level – a punch is not only a punch, he’s a true knight in less-than-shining armour, you know? And he has that kind of valour and commitment to something bigger than himself: She is also seeking direction and meaning in life.
I think earnestness is easily laughed at, but in the midst of a very cynical world, to maintain earnestness is, I think, heroic.
The film ends on an earnest, sentimental note. With the Highlanders and St. John’s Shamrocks facing off for the final game of the season, Doug and Ross wallop each other bloody, before Xavier goes on to score three goals, presumably securing a playoff berth for the team. (The film fades to black with 1:21 minutes to play.) That wasn’t always the plan: the original shooting script called for the Highlanders to lose.
Jay Baruchel: We would go back to Winnipeg on the weekends, and I was sitting in the car waiting for them to wrap for the week, and nobody came out of the arena for, you know, 15 minutes, then 20 minutes. And then there was a series of people coming out sheepishly, kind of saying, ‘Um, yeah, we shot a scene where Xavier scores.’ WHAT THE – ?! You know, that’s the way the thing should end. At that moment, though, it drove me up the wall.
Kim Coates: I sometimes wish we were back in 1975, with Philly playing Montreal, where they’re hacking and slapping, and Guy Lafleur finally took over from the Broad Street Bullies – and Bobby Clarke swearing, and no teeth, and that’s what Goon did to me when we filmed it. It reminded me of the good old days. Is the hockey better today? Of course it is. Are they stronger and bigger and faster? They’re unbelievable athletes, how they can even score in that little net with all that equipment that goalies have – it boggles the mind. But I’m from Saskatoon, baby, and I miss the slashing. I miss the dropping of the gloves once, and that’s how things were settled, and then we’d always shake hands at the end of the game. That’s a Canadian sportsmanship thing that the world could and should learn from.
Marc-André Grondin: It’s kind of portrait of masculinity. There’s a lot of guys, and they’re all broken. They all have something – one has a drug addiction, one is recently divorced. Another one may be closeted. One is full of himself and has broken dreams. They’re all trying to deal with it through hockey, trying to figure out how to be a better version of themselves.
In the summer of 2011, the producers held a test screening at a theatre on the outskirts of Toronto.
Mark Slone, executive producer: When the screening was going on, we thought we were nailing it. People were laughing, it seemed like they were with it. And then afterwards we did a quick count of the ballots, just the first couple of questions, they call them the top two: ‘What do you think of the movie?’ And, ‘Would you tell your friends to go see it?’ And it really wasn’t good. We wondered – what went wrong? Maybe there was something screwy in the counting or something?
Michael Dowse: When we drilled down on the answers, we realized it was too violent – it was way more violent than what’s in the final film. In the final fight, we had a really nasty ankle break. It’s still there in the film, a little bit. But Doug literally used to snap it in half and land on his stump. And we had the audience in our hands, and then the ankle snaps, and we just lost everybody. Everybody was like, ‘I’m not recommending this movie! Nobody’s going to go see this movie! This is terrible! This is heinous!’ And that was a hard thing for me to cut, because I liked the visceral aspect of it. I thought – Oh, we’ve got them! Look, they’re all groaning! But no, they were groaning because they were disgusted.
Also there was a lot of violence. Just the punch count. We realized less is more.
Goon made its world premiere in a prime spot during TIFF in 2011, on the first Saturday of the festival. The cast walked a red carpet outside the Ryerson Theatre, posing for paparazzi in front of a Zamboni adorned with the Goon logo and the smiling, bloodied faces of Scott and Schreiber.
David Gross: We had lots of college kids from Ryerson. There must have been a thousand people in line. I was standing in the back of the theatre, because I was too nervous to sit down, and I thought the movie was playing very well, and we’d placed all the film buyers in a couple of rows. So I knew where they were sitting. So, one guy runs out into the hallway, like, 20 minutes into the movie. And I followed him to find out, you know, did we really offend him this much that he literally is leaving the theatre 20 minutes into the film? And then he’s walking back in, and he goes, No no, I was calling my boss to get down here, because this movie is incredible.
One of those buyers was from eOne in the UK, which distributed it in January, 2012, earning more than £3-million at the British box office. Alliance Films, the Canadian distributor, figured February would be an opportune time for the film’s release because that tends to be a quiet month for Hollywood theatrical product.
There were some bumps on the way to opening night: TV ads during the world junior hockey tournament in December were deemed too violent to air. Two weeks before the film’s release, Alliance rolled out a series of bus shelter posters featuring in-your-face portraits of Scott’s, Schreiber’s, and Baruchel’s characters. In one of them, Baruchel’s Pat is seen performing what a Globe and Mail news story at the time described as “a lewd gesture with his fingers and tongue.” People complained to the City of Toronto, and on the day of the film’s premiere, Astral Media, the owner of the bus shelters, stripped out the Baruchel ads.
Jay Baruchel: It was not a manufactured controversy, but we certainly milked it! It was like: You just doubled our marketing budget, you waspy nerds! There was a lot of, ‘Why, I never!’ sort of stuff, and it just made people talk about our movie. It meant that when it came out, people were just used to hearing that word “goon,” and saying it, and it was in the news a bunch. And then they followed suit in Montreal! I remember going on the radio in French in Montreal and saying, You know, I expected Toronto to do something like this, but not my open-minded, libertine Montreal!
Whatever the reason, we opened at No. 1 in English Canada. I don’t think people realize how that doesn’t happen. Where I’m from, in Montreal, it happens all the time – French-language movies from Quebec routinely open at No. 1, and that’s what it looks like when people have a healthy sort of cinema as part of their culture. In the rest of our country, that just never happens.
Goon took in more than $5.5-million at the Canadian box office, making it the highest-grossing domestic film of 2012. It also became a hit among NHLers, in some circles supplanting Slap Shot as the favourite.
Marc-André Grondin: I was at an event with Marc-André Fleury and a bunch of guys from the Penguins, and they told me the team went to see the movie one afternoon. They rented a theatre, and everyone kept calling Kris Letang “LaFlamme” after that because, I don’t know, we both had long hair and kind of looked alike, I guess. And his wife is actually [Catherine] Laflamme. I ended up meeting a bunch of guys playing in the NHL and pretty much all of them thought that I played pro or semi pro. And I was like, No, not at all!
There’s literally two movies in my life that people talk to me about, C.R.A.Z.Y. and Goon, and pretty much every week it’s one or the other.
And it’s funny how the Goon fans are a very wide range: You’ve got the hockey fan, maybe the guy that played midget that works at Costco. And then there’s this dude who’s a big movie fan and he’s, like: ‘It’s a very poetic movie!’ and he has this whole other read of the thing. And everyone is right. I mean, I think the movie can be a really stupid comedy, but there’s something else in it.