There are two types of hockey fans: those who say they enjoy hockey fights and those who are lying.
I hate hockey fights, but I also enjoy them. There is something undeniably satisfying about watching a game get disrupted by two players dropping the gloves. Something wonderful about seeing the asshole from the other team who delivered one too many high hits get his comeuppance. Something purely delightful about watching a game get thrown off-kilter by such transparent, gloriously physical theatricality.
At the same time fights are, if not the worst part of hockey, at least an underlying symptom of its worst disease. In his aptly named essay “Everything’s Not OK” for The Players’ Tribune, former Philadelphia Flyers Nick Boynton outlined just how high a price he paid for playing the role of a hockey goon for 12 years, and the toll it took on both his body and his mental health. He describes suicidal tendencies, depression, anxiety, and, of course, immense amounts of physical pain for which he took massive doses of painkillers—originally received from the team’s trainers—to try and quash it. “I was always hurting. And in order for me to carry on, I had to mask all that pain.”
We have only just recently begun to approach athletes’ bodies with a new sense of empathy. We now understand more about the physical effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) on football players, but also in other sports, like hockey. We’ve seen the way that the damage done to players’ bodies gets frequently brushed aside, how in many ways athletes are viewed as expendable by their teams, and even by their fans. We are becoming more critical about how we, as sports fans, demand a certain amount of physical commitment from our favorite players, a physicality that has some frighteningly self-sacrificing undertones.
I thought a lot about athletes’ bodies during a recent rewatch of Goon, one of my favorite sports movies, in part because of how much it leans directly into its fandom. Directed by Michael Dowse, Goon is a fun, dumb, sports comedy that follows a not-too-bright bar bouncer named Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) as he discovers his true calling as an enforcer in minor league hockey. As sports movies go, Goon is a fairly simple offering: Doug feels out of place among his doctor-filled family, gets into a fight at a crummy minor league hockey game with a rowdy player, and is then recruited by the team to become their new enforcer.
From there, he is called up to a slightly less crummy minor league team to protect their surly Quebecois star forward (the wonderfully named Xavier Laflamme) and quickly earns the admiration of his teammates. The film culminates in a fight between Doug and Ross “The Boss” Rhea, a great aging enforcer about to retire, a fight that mostly happens because, well, it’s minor league hockey.
Watching Goon now, it’s hard not to be aware of the emphasis the film puts on these players’ bodies. The opening shot focuses on this theme with all the subtlety of a sucker punch. We see the movie’s antagonist, Ross, instigate a fight (for completely theatrical reasons, rather than because of any actual slight), and he and the other player duke it out until Ross lands a punch square on his opponent’s jaw. A comically rendered CGI tooth falls onto the white ice, followed by a stream of blood. Title card. It’s a jarring intro that hyperbolizes, for any hockey fan, the common experience of seeing a player’s blood taint the game’s pristine playing surface.
Following this gory introduction, it’s fight scene after fight scene after fight scene. We are acutely aware that Doug is propelled to sports stardom simply because the management of his team needs a body to protect the body of another, better player. Doug’s talent is punching people, repeatedly. The fight scenes in the film are not cinematic, or inventive. They’re just full of punching, with a hyper focus on the body being punched. Goon doesn’t shy away from the violence of its subject; although it sometimes makes the violence fun, the film is very aware of the carnage inherent to both the role of a hockey goon, and to hockey itself.
There are two things that make Goon work as a movie. The first is that it’s the rare sports film that loves it subject, and is smart enough not to romanticize it. The film gets hockey. More importantly, it gets why hockey is fun. The camera relishes in the quickness of the game, on choreographing frenetic passes and fluid skating. It understands that hockey is as graceful as it is violent. Doug already knows how to fight at the beginning of the movie—part of the fun is that we get to see him learn how to fight like a hockey player. Early on, we see his body’s awkwardness on skates, struggling to learn the nuances of fighting on the ice, holding onto his opponent’s jersey for support. Hockey fights are usually part awkward waltz and part clumsy boxing match, combining to create a truly unique spectacle. Goon is honest about hockey, both its brutality and its beauty. “I dig hockey players,” Doug’s love interest Eva tells him. “The violence. The beer.” Same Eva, same.
Along with its unabashed hockey fandom, Goon is also carried by the beautiful, sweet, mess that is its hero. Like many genres, sports movies often have a perpetual Terrible Leading Man problem, but Doug’s unique kindness in many ways keeps the film’s crass humor in “fun” territory rather than “cringe” territory. Scott plays Doug as a lumbering loveable teddy bear, physically uncomfortable in every situation except when he is punching people. Doug catches the attention of a hockey coach because he fights a player for hurling gay slurs. He exhibits a quiet bashfulness towards Eva, one that doesn’t brush up against creepiness or nice guy™-ness. He tries to actually play hockey once, and after that fails miserably, resigns himself to the gritty glory of his goon role. His resignation is at once tragic and endearing. “You know they just want you to bleed right?” Ross tells him during their first meeting, one jaded enforcer to another. “If they need me to bleed, I’ll bleed for my team,” Doug replies.
Hockey is a beautiful, elegant, messy game. For me, watching a good hockey game is like shotgunning your favorite shit beer and washing it down with a glass of fine scotch—completely nonsensical and strangely exhilarating. But I also got into hockey the same year that Chicago Blackhawks star forward Patrick Kane was under investigation for rape, and both his team and the league refused to acknowledge what was happening. This year, it is possible that Slava Voynov, a former NHL’er who was convicted of brutally beating his wife, will be paid millions of dollars by a franchise after his criminal record was expunged and he was allowed to return to the United States. This is a league where homophobic slurs are brushed off with fines and non-apologies. So, while hockey is basically fun and more people should watch it, hockey is also the worst and people—specifically queer folks, women, and people of color—should consider how much they want to be part of what is generally a terrible, toxic fandom before watching it.
Goon is one of the few products of hockey fandom I can genuinely enjoy without feeling entirely alienated. It leans into how silly the sport is, from its roasting of Quebecois hockey fanaticism, to capturing the bizarre cruelty of hockey chirps, to how honest it is about the complete meaninglessness, but absolute joy, of hockey fights. Doug Glatt gives us a hero who feels utterly absent from the real-life hockey world—a genuinely good man who immerses himself in a violent role and culture, and yet is able to maintain his kindness and gentleness. While I frequently feel like I cannot root for the players on my own team, I can always root for Doug Glatt.
I’ve been trying to piece apart the two aspects of this movie that make it so distinct: the honesty about what this sport does to Doug’s body and Doug’s unflappable kindness. In many ways I think this movie, intentionally or not, throws back the glory that sports, and sports movies, so frequently cling to. There is nothing glorious about a concussion. There is nothing beautiful about crushed ankles and bleeding heads. It is hard to find nobility in all the physical and mental wounds athletes endure, however we might try.
In many ways, Goon is a tragedy. The final fight between Doug and Ross is not a glorious one, ending with no clear winner and both of them a bloody mess. The last shot—Eva hugging Doug’s brutalized body as his team goes on to qualify for the playoffs—is gruesome and pitiful. What ultimately saves Doug at the end of the film is the way he cares for other people, and how others eventually reciprocate that care. He has the support of his brother, his friends, his teammates. In the last shot he is wounded, but he’s not alone.
I think it’s rare to encounter a movie like Goon, one that so perfectly encapsulates my love of something while also being so honest about it. It allows me to not only celebrate my love of hockey, but also to interrogate it. I’m both entertained and repulsed by the violence, and what it signifies for the athletes that play the game. I love and root for specific players, but am horrified by the terrible culture of aggressive masculinity that encompasses them. I am happy that I get to see Doug come to love hockey, but saddened by the way he comes to succeed in it. Watching Goon is both fun and cathartic to watch, as a fan, because it understands both the joy and the fucked-upness of this thing I like. And that sort of honesty is rare.
This October I will probably go into hockey season as excited for the checks and hits as I always am. That excitement will only be slightly dampened by the fact that the NHL is currently in an aggressive legal battle with former players impacted by CTE. But of course as a fan—especially as a fan that, because of my gender and queerness, is so hyper aware of the myriad of issues with the league—there will still be a profound discomfort with this sport I’m celebrating. That’s why Goon matters so much to me as a hockey fan: it says yes, this sport amazing, but no, everything is not ok and you shouldn’t trick yourself into believing it is. I like to think that the reason I can continue to be a hockey fan is because I have some faith, however misguided, that the sport can change and improve itself.
And if it can’t, well, I’ll still always have Doug Glatt.