OTTAWA—“The Last Gladiators” is a documentary every hockey fan must see.
It takes you inside the head of an enforcer in hockey, a player whose job is to protect his teammates so that they can excel on the ice.
The documentary recounts the story of Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, who gained fame as the enforcer for the Montreal Canadiens in the early to mid-1980s. It tells the story of the extreme highs and lows of hockey enforcers through footage and interviews with a number of enforcers, including Marty McSorley, Tony Twist, and the late Bob Probert.
Pursuit of a Dream
Growing up around Boston, Nilan’s idols were Bobby Orr, Wayne Cashman, and other Bruins greats. He was a tough kid who would stick up for his friends and who knew that he had to play hockey for a living.
“Honestly, I wanted to be Bobby Orr like every other kid and I tried to be the best player I could,” Nilan said in a phone interview.
Ironically, Nilan was drafted by Boston’s nemesis the Montreal Canadiens 231st overall in 1978. His fists, not his hockey skills, got him a spot on the Canadiens in the NHL.
His then-coach Claude Ruel taught him how to become a hockey player. Nilan explains in the film that the Canadiens gave him a chance and saw things in him that he didn’t see in himself. He’d forever have the “CH” in his heart.
In fact, in the 1984–85 season, Nilan scored 21 goals and tallied up 358 penalty minutes—both summits in his lengthy career.
The Unspoken Code
“The Last Gladiators” demystifies the code among enforcers.
“If you fight a guy and he beats you, you get another shot at him. When you get a guy down, you don’t hit him when he’s in trouble,” Nilan said.
“You don’t want to come up behind a guy and sucker him. Drop your gloves and face him. It’s kind of like being a gentlemanly fighter.”
But there was nothing gentlemanly about the consequences of a long career of fighting. The pressure on enforcers is tremendous. If you lose fights, you lose your career.
The documentary begins with Nilan talking about his hands.
“I can still use them,” he jokes in the film.
Nilan had 26 different surgeries, which led to an addiction to painkillers, alcohol, and even heroin use when combined with the difficult transition into retirement.
“Before I knew it, I was caught up in that whole whirlwind of addiction. I didn’t know how to get out of it. I was trapped, I’m grateful I survived it,” he said.
The message that you get from it is hope and that no matter how bad things get, there’s always that opportunity to turn your life around and get back on your feet.
It is unclear to what extent having to maintain a tough-guy image for so many years, having to put on a brave face, not being able to show his true feelings, led Nilan to substance abuse.
But what comes through vividly in the film is the tremendous pain it caused those closest to him.
“I had to open up, to get honest with myself. I never could be vulnerable. I could never really show the way I felt,” Nilan said. “I always had to have the armour on, the shield up, and maintain that image to be successful.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Nilan never suffered a concussion.
“I’ve never had one, never had symptoms, headaches. I’ve been dinged a couple of times, but no worse than when you have a pillow-fight when you’re a kid,” he said.
Doing the film after completing three months of drug and alcohol treatment worked perfectly for Nilan. It was a good project for him that filled a void in his life.
“For me, it was a good project, to keep me busy. It was a no-brainer as far as the people involved,” Nilan said.
These days, Nilan lives in Montreal with his girlfriend. He continues to be very involved with a number of charities and public speaking engagements.
“Things are good, I’m busy, life is good,” he said.
Nilan was a player who achieved his dream the only way he knew how, despite the odds being stacked against him. He reached the pinnacle of his profession when he won the Stanley Cup in 1986 but also went through the tremendous lows of drug addiction and causing emotional suffering to his family.
He explained the message he took from his experience in the film.
“The message that you get from it is hope and that no matter how bad things get, there’s always that opportunity to turn your life around and get back on your feet.”
The film, directed by Academy Award winner Alex Gibney, plays in Ottawa on Thursday in the last stop of its promotional tour of Canada. It opens nationwide in Canada on Friday.
Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETSports
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