There are few professional hockey players who learned to skate on a pond at age 19. Even fewer of those late developers went on to become feared enforcers and win a championship at the pro level. And there is only one player who did both, then had a book and Hollywood movie written about his incredible life.
That man is Doug Smith, a native New Englander raised as a Golden Gloves boxing competitor before a series of rare opportunities gave him the chance to become a minor league goon at a level as high as the American League. The book of his life, Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey, was made into the recent film, Goon (now out on Blu-ray and DVD), starring Seann William Scott and Jay Baruchel.
And for the now-47-year-old Smith, each experience he’s had talking about the book or promoting the film has added to his fairy-tale-with-a-twist life story. “I’m just a regular guy from a small town in Massachusetts, so even to be interviewed by The Hockey News is a huge honor,” said Smith, who has worked as a police officer the past 20 years.
“I realize what I did on the ice was a big accomplishment, but to have a book written and a movie based on me – a nobody who fell into something like this – it never gets old. I’m humbled by it, trust me.”
Smith was equally humbled at the start of his adventure, which began in 1988 when the ECHL’s Carolina Thunderbirds saw enough in him – OK, maybe it was all in his thunderous punches and willingness to fight anyone bigger or smaller than his 6-foot-2 frame – to sign him for the final 28 games of the 1988-89 season. Amazingly, Smith and the Thunderbirds won the championship that year, earning the rookie a ring he cherishes to this day.
However, there was no Hollywood happily-ever-after angle to Smith’s role in the win since he didn’t play in a single playoff game. Just as you see in the NHL now, there was no room for a one-dimensional tough guy to play when the games really mattered. And Smith completely understands. He still sees the honor existent among the enforcer community, but he also realizes that times change.
“There were plenty of games I played in where there was no reason to fight,” said Smith, who still holds fighters’ camps in the Boston area for NHLers and AHLers. “The guy on the other side of the ice, he’s the same as me – no reason to fight. So you’ve just got two egos on the ice figuring, ‘Let’s see who the tougher guy is.’ I understand hockey’s point of view in trying to eliminate that stuff, but I didn’t have a problem with that. To employ a so-called goon in today’s hockey isn’t going to float anymore. I guarantee you if Doug Smith wanted to play hockey in today’s day and age, he wouldn’t make it. I was lucky 20 years ago they allowed that type of nonsense.”
Smith played only 37 pro games over the course of five seasons, often going one or two years between opportunities and usually only receiving a one-or-two-game tryout before he moved on. But the Slap Shot fan got to play for the ECHL’s Johnstown Chiefs – under famous Hanson Brother and then-Chiefs coach Steve Carlson – and played in Moncton and Springfield of the AHL as well as Phoenix of the International League and Louisiana of the ECHL before he retired following the 1997-98 campaign.
He finished his pro career with 234 penalty minutes and one assist – and while the helper would have been a source of pride for some enforcers, Smith was disappointed.
“In the games I played, however many there were going to be, I wanted the statistics line to read: zero goals, zero assists, zero points and five or six hundred penalty minutes,” Smith said. “I just always had that dream. It was nutty, I know. But when I got the puck on my stick, it was like a hot potato. I couldn’t get rid of it fast enough. So I’m sure that assist was a complete accident.”