27 March 2013 | StevePulaski
These hands were made for fightin'
"There were Swedes to the left of him. Russians to the right. A Czech at the blue line looking for a fight. Brains over brawn-that might work for you. But what's a Canadian farm boy to do? What else can a farm boy from Canada to do. But what's a Canadian farm boy to do? What else can a farm boy from Canada to do?" - Warren Zevon, "Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)." Alex Gibney's The Last Gladiators opens with a fitting shot; the hands of an unknown player, talking about his career as a hockey enforcer and discussing the several scares, dings, and bruises his hands bear. We learn those are the hands of Montreal Canadians enforcer Chris "Knuckles" Nilan, who played for over ten years, acting as the reliable team goon who was easily provoked and not easily settled. The legend himself, among other popular hockey enforcers, are profiled in this exceptional documentary.
Nilan was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up on the rough, uncompromising side of the suburbs. More often than not, Nilan would solve problems with his fists, running into even bigger problems with his school principal, the police, and, mainly, his parents. Ever since he was young, he wanted to play for the Boston Bruins, but his dream took him to Montreal, where he'd become part of the most legendary hockey team in history. Like most enforcers, however, he was valued not for his particular skill, but for his incorruptible brawn and willingness to fight anyone who either disrespected his illuminating authority or those who intimidated his players. Throughout the remainder of the film, while Gibney works largely to give us a look behind Nilan's life, he dabs into other famous hockey goons, such as Tony Twist, Bob Probert, Todd Ewen, and Marty McSorly, Wayne Gretzky's main force of protection who later ran into legal trouble when he accidentally knocked another player unconscious.
One of the most interesting points about Nilan's highly unconventional life is how, through extensive teamwork and loving commitment, his teammates made him an equally effective player as he was a fighter. Many players would stay after practice, helping Nilan with his goals by doling out probable scenarios and setbacks on the spot to get a reaction out of him. This small point is exactly the reason why he went on to inhabit a life different from most goons.
But with combined fighting talents and heavy support from teammates, Nilan went on to have a successful and memorable 688-game career. He played with the Montreal Canadians for nine seasons, went to the New York Rangers for three, returned home to Boston to play with the Bruins for two seasons, and was fortunate enough to return to Montreal for one final season, retiring where he was born into the game.
Nilan is a wonderful screen presence for ninety-one minutes, often witty, insightful, and easy to identify with. For a guy that was hired mainly to use his fists to ensure the safety of his teammates, one wouldn't necessarily expect so much charisma and human from a man like Nilan. As the film goes on, we see how his persona in this documentary didn't always prevail on the ice. Nilan was not the kind of player to go silent if he didn't agree with authority. He would only respect it if he felt it deserved to be respected. Otherwise, he would explicitly go against you and he really didn't give a damn how you felt about it. Consider the scenes when we see Nilan rant about when the Canadians were taken over by a new head coach, whom he, himself, did not approve of. One day during practice, when he was tossed a puck, he unapologetically swung it back at the coach where it hit him off the head and cost the man eight stitches.
These odd, questionable moments of rage could've perhaps led to the time-bomb sort of finale Nilan had when he finally retired from the game of hockey in 1992. He became addicted to painkillers and heroin, greatly disappointing his already fragile family, who worked so hard to adjust to the shameless hatred they received from Boston Bruin fans who felt Nilan was an ungrateful traitor.
The impact Nilan had on the NHL for going beyond the normal call-of-duty for an enforcer is truly incredible and worthy of recognition, and for that, The Last Gladiators succeeds in profiling a man even current hockey fans may not be so familiar with. Director Gibney concocts the film with the formula the ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries usually follow, where they profile a somewhat unsung or forgotten event/character in sports history and detail his struggle and success through the use of extensive game footage and backstory. The Last Gladiators works efficiently in humanizing a person you wouldn't think would even need humanizing.
Starring: Chris Nilan. Directed by: Alex Gibney.