TORONTO — The new Canadian comedy “Goon” is rife with blood and brawls as a minor-league hockey enforcer is encouraged to pull no punches in order to win.
While the film’s on-ice violence brings to mind recent headlines about player concussions and the deaths of three NHL enforcers, co-star Liev Schreiber says the intention was to celebrate the sport’s bruisers and highlight how undervalued and underappreciated they are.
“I only saw the film for the first time two nights ago and that’s really what I came away with,” said Schreiber, who plays veteran minor leaguer Ross (The Boss) Rhea.
“I was surprised … that there was so much heart in this movie, particularly when you look at a guy like Ross Rhea who — at the tender age of 39, 40 years old — is leaving the only thing he’s ever known his whole life,” added the actor.
“If I could say anything to Ross, or for that matter any of these guys, it would be, ‘You’re not underappreciated, you’re not undervalued. We know who you are and we know what you’ve done and we know what you’ve given for the game and for your teammates and we love you for that.’
“And to me, that’s what ‘Goon’ ultimately is, is a love letter to those guys.”
In theatres Friday, “Goon” stars Seann William Scott (a.k.a. Stifler of “American Pie”) as Doug Glatt, a bouncer who finds fame when he joins a local hockey team and beats down his opponents, much to the delight of fans.
Schreiber plays Doug’s enforcer enemy, whose career is fizzling. Actor Jay Baruchel, the film’s co-writer, plays Doug’s crass best friend. Other co-stars include Alison Pill as Doug’s love interest and Marc-Andre Grondin as a star player Doug protects.
Schreiber, who lives in New York, said he signed on to the film because “it felt real and it felt funny as all hell.”
He was also lured by the offer of being sent to hockey camp for six weeks to train for the role.
“That was something I’ve always wanted to do and I figured I didn’t have many years left or the legs to do it with so I better do it now,” said Schreiber, 44, noting he’s now looking for a league to play in.
“Now I can really skate and arguably I can play hockey.”
Born in San Francisco, Schreiber skated a bit as a child but didn’t play hockey. For the first four years of his life, he lived in Winlaw, B.C., where he was more preoccupied with wildlife than pucks.
“It was in one of the most beautiful places in the world,” he recalled. “I have fleeting images of the mountains there and the snow and bears and one very aggressive cow. That’s all I have. It was my dad’s cow. Her name was Rose and she’d get in the middle of the road and she wouldn’t let you pass. It was like, ‘You’re a cow, not a bull. Stop that.”‘
The deep-voiced Schreiber has narrated several HBO sports documentaries, including the “24/7″ series. As a New Yorker, he’s also loyal to the Rangers.
But he’s never been an ardent sports follower, he noted.
“I always feel like an ignoramus at the table when people start talking about playoffs and stats and things like that. I just don’t follow it very well,” said Schreiber, who was nominated a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy for playing Orson Welles in the 1999 HBO film “RKO 281.”
Director Michael Dowse (“Fubar,” “It’s All Gone Pete Tong”) shot “Goon” in Winnipeg and nearby Portage la Prairie in 2010.
Schreiber flew in from Thailand, where Naomi Watts — with whom he has two children — was shooting a film. He said he didn’t mind the frigid temperatures, noting they were inside a rink most of the time.
He did, however, have to endure some injuries during the gruelling shoot, which largely took place on overnight shifts when the rink was free.
“Oh many, many, many, many, but nothing serious,” said Schreiber, who has slimmed down since shooting the film — weight loss that’s due to shoulder surgery for muscle atrophy, not an injury sustained on the “Goon” set, he noted.
Schreiber went through exhausting training to learn how to hustle on the ice.
“We really, really drilled the skating,” he said. “Skating, skating, skating, stopping, turning, backwards, stopping, turning, backwards. Just really, really drilling it until I looked like I wasn’t drilling it. And then it was about learning to use the stick. That was a very brief week of training.
“And then the rest of it was about — because of what I had to do in the film — was about fighting: being in your edges and positioning and timing and how you grab the guy you’re going up against and all of those little dirty tricks.”
Schreiber also received tips from former NHL tough guy Georges Laraque, who briefly appears in the film.
Inspiration also came from reading about famed enforcer Bob Probert, who died in 2010 of heart failure at 45.
“I read a lot about Bob Probert and really, really grew very close to him in my own mind, emotionally, and thought he was a wonderful guy and a wonderful player and obviously a great enforcer as well,” said Schreiber.
“While I didn’t base the character on him, I think he was certainly in my heart while I was playing it.”