Goon: Last of the Enforcers is available for streaming in the US this weekend. It’s a brutal and fun film, well shot, with lived-in performances by Seann William Scott (in the role he was born to play) and Liev Schreiber.
Writer and director Jay Baruchel has been making the podcast rounds over the past week to promote the release. He’s been on Marc Maron’s WTF, Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, and Puck Soup. Speaking with Greg Wyshysnki and Dave Lozo on that last one, Baruchel explained the allure of fighting in hockey and why its opponents’ arguments are empty:
“With medical data, the people that have found it unpalatable now have a moral reason to find it unpalatable. Whereas I feel like the greatest ill for players facing head trauma now is hitting from behind and elbows to the side, getting cheap-shotted. When two men drop their gloves and elect to fight each other, they’re exerting agency. They’re electing to be there. When a kid gets run into the boards from behind, they don’t have a choice in the matter.”
Baruchel’s point about the danger of bad hits and speed is well taken. Two of the worst NHL injuries in the past decade, Marc Savard’s and Sidney Crosby’s, had nothing to do with fighting. But, in another sense, Baruchel is also right about fighting itself. He is correct that fighting is a choice, but too often it is a choice made only by marginal players whose alternative is not to play in the NHL at all.
I share Baruchel’s fondness for tough-guy players. I count Matt Hendricks and Matt Bradley among my all-time favorite Capitals because of their heart and their willingness to sacrifice for their team. But there’s a pattern to the players who lead the lists every season. They tend to earn near league minimum, they don’t play every night, and they’re often on the final year of their contracts.
I pulled the players with the twenty most fighting majors each season since since 2012-13. Then I found the contract details for all 100 of those player-seasons. The weighted-average top-20 fighter looks like this:
|10||fighting majors per season|
|$1.2||salary cap hit (in USD millions)|
|0.1||years remaining on contract|
No player earning more than $3 million has been in the league’s top-20 in the last five years. Seventy-five of the 100 players have had zero or one year remaining on their deals. It seems a player who has job security and a league-average paycheck doesn’t drop gloves frequently.
There are a handful of exceptions. Derek Dorsett, Brandon Prust, Matt Martin, and Antoine Roussel are strong, well-compensated players who fight often anyway. (Without them, the mean cap hit of top fighters would plummet.)
If you saw a player fight last season, that player on average would miss 19 games and barely crack 900 minutes of ice time. The players who fight often are more likely to get benched, scratched, or re-assigned to the American Hockey League. That creates a tremendous incentive for a player to garner attention and affection from management, ownership, and fans. If a good fight from a borderline player means the difference between mere subsistence and earning $650,000 per year, then a few punches to the brain might seem worth it.
With a pathetically weak labor union and star players who have little interest in using their leverage to codify protections for the more vulnerable among them, marginal players have to get what they can while they can – before their bodies give out like Doug Glatt’s and Ross Rhea’s. We can tell ourselves that fighting is all about personal agency and “electing to be there,” but then we would have to ignore the forces that often compel players to do so. You don’t have to fight, the market says, but then you’ll never earn a living in this sport.
In about ten days, the Capitals training camp will begin. At some point, one young player struggling to get noticed will realize that he is on the brink of getting sent home. He will find another player in a similar situation, and they will agree to punch each other in the head in hopes that their lifelong dream of a rewarding career in professional hockey will last a little longer. It will be their choice, for sure, but it will be one made out of desperation and depredation.
Goon: Last of the Enforcers is available to stream now. Watch it on your day off thanks to Labor Day.
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