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The Last Gladiators poster530As a huge hockey fan, I’ve been waiting to see this movie since I heard it was being released. Knowing that it is directed by Academy Award Winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) made it all the more exciting. The film’s central focus is on former Montreal Canadien/New York Ranger/Boston Bruins heavyweight and enforcer Chris “Knuckles” Nilan. Gibney gives us Nilan‘s story unfiltered – the good (winning the Stanley Cup), the bad (the taunting by his hometown crowd in Boston), and the ugly (drug and alcohol addiction). Structurally, Gibney sprinkles testimonials from some of the biggest names in hockey fighting – Tony “The Twister” Twist, Bob Probert, Marty McSorley, Terry O’Reilly, Paul Stewart, Donald Brashear – throughout the film, giving different perspectives on the role of the enforcer and in hockey itself.

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Nilan plying his trade.

Gibney gives us the whole timeline of Nilan’s career from juniors to college at Northeastern University in Boston (his hometown) to being drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the 17th round to his ascent from the minors to the NHL. An underdog because his hockey ability wasn’t great, Nilan worked hard to get to the NHL. He worked on his hockey skills even after practices, but what propelled him was his lack of fear to drop the gloves with any guy on the ice at any time.  After the rise of teams like the Philadelphia Flyers (The Broadstreet Bullies) in the 70s who had goons like Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, Bobby Clarke, Andre Dupont and Jack McIlhargey, hockey clubs had to have guys who could scrap in order to compete and protect their players.

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Nilan as a rookie.

Nilan was a consummate team player and he sacrificed himself for the better of the team. If you fucked with any of the star players on his team, he sorted it out with his fists. Ruthlessly. But as Nilan, like most enforcers, got older, there were younger, bigger and stronger kids coming up. After taking the beating that these guys take, at 34, Nilan retired from the NHL. And that’s when his troubles began. In pain from the all of the injuries he incurred over the years of brawling, he needed painkillers. When those weren’t enough, he drank. Addicted to both, his life spiraled. He started taking heroin, lost his wife and had spent all of the money he had earned while playing hockey. He had hit rock bottom. In some respects, however, he was lucky. In 2011, three younger enforcers died within a span of four months – Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard and Wade BelakFormer enforcer Georges Laraque said this about his and Nilan‘s role: “You have to fight to live when life after hockey is over, and there’s nothing for you.” And this is the bulk of what we in this documentary – Nilan trying to negotiate life after hockey.

Nilan today.

Nilan today.

While his struggles are duly noted to cope with life after hockey, it appears that Nilan has gotten has feet back on the ground. He has founded The Knuckles Group, a company that puts him on the road and has him talk to kids about bullying and sells Nilan merchandise with 50%  of the proceeds going to Kids Help Phone. Nilan knows he has a second chance now and he’s trying to make the most of it.

The hockey goon/enforcer has always captivated me. These men of largess who physically master their world often times look like the loneliest people to me. I remember watching an epic fight between Bob Probert and Marty McSorley when I was a freshman in college and the two just battled for over 2 minutes, which is extraordinarily long, trading blows to the face for nearly the entirety of the fight. It went on long enough for me to call my dad in the middle of it and narrate the action. Here is the fight:

But the punches thrown aren’t what I remember most. I remember the shot ESPN had of Probert in the penalty box afterwards most. I had always disliked Probert because he was the head goon for the Detroit Red Wings, the chief rival of my favorite team, the Chicago Blackhawks, and he always mixed it up when they played. But as I watched him in the box, his head hung low, face already starting to bruise, it seemed like he was the loneliest guy on the planet. Even though he was on his home ice and the the crowd was going nuts since he had just gotten the better of McSorley (although I wouldn’t admit that at the time), he just seemed kind of sad. Probert was a lot like Nilan and they were friends. He was arrested for cocaine possession during his time with Detroit and was even initially supposed to be deported to Canada and not be able to play hockey in the US. He died of a heart attack at age 45. He donated his brain to science and they found that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease found in the brains of athletes who take repeated blows to the head like football players, boxers and wrestlers. This is the legacy of the enforcer. This is what these men do to play the game they love at the highest level in the world. No wonder Probert appeared sad. Georges Laraque said this about his role as enforcer: “I did it because it was my job but I hated it.” Can’t imagine why.

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The Hanson Brothers, hockey enforcer extraordinaires.

Slap Shot is my favorite movie of all-time (I know, you’re tired of hearing about it) and the Hanson Brothers are easily the most entertaining part of the film aside from Paul Newman‘s wardrobe. That the Hansons are portrayed in such a light way, having fun and dropping haymakers on everyone in sight is clearly a short-sighted representation of these guys. I have no doubt that there were men that went out and enjoyed fighting. Nilan appears to be one. However, the after effects of their job is just crushing to see. While Goon isn’t a very good movie, I think that the Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber) character was captured pretty well. He is a solitary man, one who doesn’t connect with anyone, even in his hometown where he is a hero. On the flipside, Doug “The Thug” Glatt (Seann William Scott) is a goofy, likeable guy that gets along with everyone and doesn’t seem to grasp what it is that he’s doing to himself. He has that same mentality as Nilan in that he’d do anything to help his teammates, especially the guy he was signed to protect. As Nilan said about his former Canadiens head coach Jacques Lemaire and former Bruins head coach Mike Milbury, “I’d go through a wall for him.” Glatt has that same mentality, but it rings false for me.

This is an absolutely fascinating look at a man who was paid to whip ass. Nilan was the real deal – a tough Irish kid from Roxbury, MA, which is no place to fuck around. He took his tough kid from Boston shit all the way to the NHL and was really good at what he did. He has paid a price for it since, fallen from grace and is attempting, and doing well I might add, to redeem himself. This is a portrait of a portion of the sport of hockey you don’t get to see too often. Gibney did such a wonderful job with this film and I think it’s a fitting tribute to the toughness of Chris Nilan and to what it takes to be a hockey enforcer. As the game of hockey changes, fighting becomes less and less a part of the game. I’ve always liked the fighting, but part of me isn’t so sorry to see it go. Watching this film kind of solidifies that.

Here’s the trailer: