'Goon' a comedic love letter to hockey


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Jay Baruchel's love for the Montreal Canadiens could rival -- or surpass -- any teenage girl's obsession with "The Hunger Games."

The actor, who played a Pittsburgher in "She's Out of My League," opened a second Twitter account just to tweet their games.

As a boy, he came home from school to discover his father had spray painted some of his bedroom furniture in the colors of his Habs, short for Les Habitants, a nickname of the Canadiens. He proudly wore the team's "bleu, blanc, rouge" -- blue, white and red -- to school, even when his family lived in "enemy territory, in the heart of Leafs Nation just outside of Toronto," he recounted in a recent phone call.

He was a natural to co-write, with Evan Goldberg, "Goon" and to star in it as Pat, the hockey-obsessed, foul-mouthed host of a web chat show.

"I'm older than people think I am, and when I wrote the script, it was more I was kind of lampooning public access, cable-access shows I've seen," said Mr. Baruchel, who will turn 30 in early April. "Every city has their sort of diehard class of fans, many of whom have access to cable-access studios."

"Goon," also starring Seann William Scott, Liev Schreiber, Alison Pill and Eugene Levy, was inspired by the book "Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey Into a Minor Hockey League" about Doug Smith, an amateur boxer turned real-life goon.

As with most stories, there is a Pittsburgh connection, and it's a vital one. Former Shadyside resident Jesse Shapira discovered the book, written by Mr. Smith and Adam Frattasio, and was determined to turn it into a movie.

"We had worked for six years from originally buying the rights to the book to being in pre-production in Winnipeg, and we lost a big part of our financing, and we were in real trouble," Mr. Shapira said by phone from Los Angeles.

"I had no other choice. I called my dad and I said, 'We need help,' and he and my uncle, one day we had no movie and the next day, we had a movie again, so I'll never forget what they did."

His father, attorney Dan Shapira, and uncle, Giant Eagle CEO David Shapira, stepped up as investors. The movie, with Jesse as executive producer, debuted to sold-out houses at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it found a distributor.

"The movie is really being received well," said the graduate of Shady Side Academy and Colgate University. "It's one thing just to get a movie made, but to have people actually like it is totally overwhelming."

The raucous comedy, Mr. Shapira readily acknowledges, isn't "The Dark Knight" with a studio, millions of dollars and muscle readily available.

"We had to make it outside the studio system, to begin with. A studio, in order to release a movie these days, has to spend 25, 30, 35 million dollars, that's a minimum, and an R-rated hockey comedy, some people just don't have that type of risk appetite."

Producers struck a deal with Magnolia, which marketed it on-demand to cable and iTunes customers before releasing it into theaters.

The comedy has been a hit in Canada and in England, where soccer lovers can relate to the fanaticism. "We have a weird feeling, knock on wood, this could be one of those cult movies," Mr. Shapira said.

Today, "Goon" will be released theatrically in major hockey markets such as Pittsburgh, where it will play at AMC-Loews at the Waterfront.

The National Hockey League isn't a big supporter of the movie, but some of the players seem to love it, with Canadian teams renting theaters on off days to screen it.

The affection started in Toronto where, as Mr. Shapira recalls, "A guy stood up during the Q&A and said, 'Listen, I'm a former player and you guys did it right.' That's really been the best feeling for us, is that people are comparing our movie to movies like 'Slap Shot.' "

Ask Mr. Baruchel his favorite hockey films and he says "Slap Shot" and "The Rocket," a biopic of Montreal star Maurice Richard.

Former Penguin Georges Laraque, whom the actor calls the greatest fighter to ever play the game, portrays a goon in "Goon."

"Not only is he in our flick, he gets to fight our main character, and Laraque has given us his blessing," Mr. Baruchel said. "He told us he saw a lot of himself in Seann's character and that it's one of the best hockey movies he's ever seen. ... There is no review on Earth that would trump that."

Mr. Baruchel said the crew and cast shared a "unity of intention" when it came to the tone they wanted to strike.

"I think we all saw the same flick, and that's why we were free to let the boys go and mess around and riff and see what else they could come up with. ... It's not some crazy farce. It's not about putting crazy characters in even zanier situations. It's just about how this group of boys interact with each other. There's something inherently funny about a hockey locker room."

Filming at ice rinks brought with it the gift of ice time.

"I'm not the most athletic guy -- go figure -- but that being said, I played shinny [pick-up hockey] a bunch of times, but every day that we shot there, people were using the rink whenever they had free time and even in between takes the boys were doing laps and taking shots," the actor said. "It's a movie made by people who love the sport."

How does "Goon" fit into a world where Sidney Crosby was sidelined for months with concussion and neck problems?

Mr. Baruchel draws a distinction between players hurt in fights and those battered by cheap shots, and suggests the NHL has been resistant to compensate for the increase in the speed of the game with bigger rinks and playing surfaces.

In a call that took place before the Pens captain had returned, the actor said it was heartbreaking that a player on pace to be the greatest to ever play the game was absent more than not. "But our movie's a celebration of a very specific class of boys who do a very specific job," Mr. Baruchel said.

Lifelong hockey fan Mr. Shapira says, "I grew up watching Mario Lemieux, and what happened is that the Penguins got better when they got tougher guys around him because we were so bad, that the key to beating us was getting him off the ice.

"There's a code in hockey, that's what these enforcers do, is they protect the best players. I understand the controversy, and I just believe it's never going to leave the game of hockey. A lot of people go for the goals and a lot of people go for the fights, and I just don't see how the game could possibly go on without this. It's just part of it."


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies . First Published March 30, 2012 4:00 AM


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