One of the most controversial roles in professional sports is that of a "hockey goon". A player whose sole purpose is to go onto the ice and attempt to beat up the opposing team's best fighter, the goon is both popular and despised by the fans, misunderstood by critics yet beloved by their teammates.
Most hockey goons never start out that way. They start out dreaming of being the next Orr, or Lafleur or Gretzky, but end up not being good enough in the skills department. Their pugilistic abilities, however, has carried many to professional hockey career.
Doug Smith, the author of "Goon" was different, not lacing up his skates until age 19, with one goal in mind: become a hockey fighter. Smith was inspired by a love of hockey fights, citing Dave Schultz of the 1970s Philadelphia Flyers as an influence. He and his friends watch hours of fight videos, studying the styles of famous goons. While other aspiring young hockey players re-enact famous plays of their favourite players, Smith and his buddies re-enacted hockey fights at a local gym.
Growing up to become a 6' 2",210 lbs New England Golden Gloves boxer, Smith began playing in local adult leagues in the Boston area in 1988, where he learned to develop his on-ice fighting skills, as well as learning to skate and develop some hockey sense. His brawling style catches the eye of a Buffalo Sabres scout, who arranges a tryout for Smith with the Carolina Thunderbirds of the ECHL.
Although he gets cut by the Thunderbirds in training camp, the club invites him back two months later when their established goons aren't getting the job done as expected. Despite his poor skating and lack of hockey skills, Smith's ability to fight keeps him with the team for the remainder of the season. He becomes one of the most feared and respected fighters in the ECHL, as well as a fan favourite in the T-Birds hometown of Winston-Salem. Still, Smith notes he lived in fear every day of being released by the team.
The Thunderbirds would win the 1989 ECHL championship, but Smith didn't see post-season action, suffering the fate of all goons during playoff time, being benched during the playoffs in favour of players with traditional hockey talent. He would get a championship ring, but no cut of the playoff money. His worst fears were realized when the Thunderbirds, under new ownership, tell him they won't be inviting him back the following season.
Smith believed his minor-pros days were done, that he'd had his "fifteen minutes of fame", and went on to become a policeman in his hometown of Hanover, Mass. However, his pugilist skills earned him notice, and thanks to benevolent veteran scout Sean "Commander" Coady, Smith continued to find leagues to play in.
From a career that stretched sporadically from 1988-89 to 1997-98, Smith would bounce from playing for ECHL teams like Steve Carlson's (of "Slapshot" fame) Johnstown Chiefs, Cincinnati Cyclones and Louisana IceGators, to IHL clubs like the Phoenix Roadrunners, and even AHL teams such as the Moncton Hawks and Springfield Falcons.
Along the way, Smith tangles with noted minor leaguers such as Frank Bialowas and Dennis Bonvie, as well as meets colourful characters who wouldn't have looked out of place in the movie "Slapshot". Indeed, Smith's recollections of living and playing in the minor leagues - riding dilapidated buses, barely earning enough for food and rent, boarding with a local hockey commentator during his days with Mirimachi of the New Brunswick Senior Hockey League - clearly shows professional hockey at this level is much grittier than life at the NHL level. Many of the players, like Smith himself, continue to play at this level, not because they're chasing an elusive NHL dream, but because of the love of the game.
Smith also recounts nearly every on-ice battle he had during his playing days, and while the details may not be for the faint of heart or those with a pacifist streak, his recollections are no different than a scoring star recounting the details of key goals. Amazingly, Smith emerges with few serious injuries from his battles, apart from facial stitches and a seperated shoulder.
What also emerges from Smith's tale is that there is more to being a hockey fighter than merely rushing out onto the ice and pounding the crap out of an opponent. Smith had to scout his opponents to learn their fighting style. We learn that goons develop special preparations, such as wearing tighter jerseys so there would be less for opponets to grab in a fight, prior to a game. Also, we learn every goon has a different fighting style, and that there are in fact several different types of hockey fighters.
Smith also lets us into the unwritten "codes" of hockey goons, which frowns on sucker punches, biting and headbutts, and is usually adhered to by most. Indeed, the author points out hockey goons have a healthy respect for one another, with no illusions about their role, and even socializing after a game in which they were beating themselves up scant hours before. As he points out, it's nothing personal, just a job they have to do.
Smith's story is punctuated with interesting background inteviews with former minor league opponents and teammates, including current NHL referee Paul Stewart, They too recall their tilts with the author, without malice and a good degree of humour. They remember Smith as a hard, but clean, fighter who "loved to go" and never backed down from a battle.
There are some drawbacks to Smith's recollections of his playing days. There are so many descriptions of fights that after a while it becomes difficult to find one that stands out. His description of the career of one of his heroes, Jacques Mailhot, is quite lengthy, taking up half of one chapter, although it does illustrate the "hobo-like" wandering patterns of minor-pro goons, as they drift from team to team, league to league, following wherever the call comes for an enforcer.
The story could have benefitted more from more insight into his youth, and why he liked to fight than play sports. There is very little mentioned about his family's opinion of what he's doing. This is probably due to Smith's tough-talking, no-nonsense personality, so he probably hasn't dwelled on it, or given it much thought.
This book is certainly not for everyone. The fight descriptions are quite graphic, and his preparation for his first AHL game, only days after surgery to his chest muscles, is not for the weak of stomach. Those who abhor fighting in hockey aren't going to change their opinions while reading Smith's story. The fact Smith was able to reach the AHL level based on his fighting ability and not his hockey ability will upset those who believe fighting has no place in hockey.
Regardless, the hockey goon has been an integral part of pro hockey at all levels for decades. Their role is psychological, as winning a clear-cut victory over an opposing fighter helps to fire up their club, thus motivating them to play harder.
Most importantly, the majority of hockey fans love it, cheering on the combatants with as much enthusiasm as one would see in a boxing prizefight. They help add to the excitement, which in turn brings more fans to the game. The NHL and the minor leagues may not publicly support hockey fights, but they won't clamp down on something that helps put butts in the seats.
Overall, Smith's story is an entertaining, insightful look at life as a pro hockey goon. Those who love hockey fights will love this book. Those who don't, but are open-minded, should give it a read to perhaps better understand the role of a hockey goon, even if they don't condone it. It's a no-nonsense story that, like it's author during his playing days, pulls no punches.