Depending on who you to talk to, fighting is either an integral part of the sport of hockey, or the biggest detriment to the sport’s reputation; as the joke goes, “I went to fight and a hockey game broke out.” As a longtime fan of the Philadelphia Flyers, but more importantly as a fan and player of hockey in general, I’ve long accepted fighting’s place in the game. That is, when it’s done right and proper. See, there’s a warrior code to hockey fighting, a way the game polices itself in addition to the refs, and the modern-day warriors who uphold that code are the subject of Alex Gibney’s documentary, The Last Gladiators.
Specifically, the documentary focuses on the life and career of Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, an infamous hockey enforcer who helped the Montreal Canadiens capture the Stanley Cup in 1986. As Nilan’s story unfolds, we get to hear more about the life and struggles of hockey’s “goons” as other famous combatants such as Bob Probert, Tony Twist, Donald Brasher and Marty McSorley are interviewed (and those last two have some rough history, even for goons; McSorley swung his hockey stick like a baseball bat into the head of the Brashear at one point). The result is a portrait of men who’ve been tasked with not just protecting their teams’ star players, but also cleaning up any and every mess their teams get into.
It’s a brutal and often thankless job and, as mentioned before, more than a few wish the days of the goon would just disappear forever. Fighting is such a divisive topic that the film even opens with a disclaimer that the views contained within do not necessarily reflect those of the NHL or its clubs. Still, as one person notes in the film, if not for the enforcers, the skilled players wouldn’t have the freedom to do what they do best; to paraphrase from the film, “McSorley allowed Gretzky to be Gretzky.”
All told, though, while the film does cover the history of fighting in hockey in a broad sense, and other voices are heard, this is Nilan’s story, and he’s the rock that grounds the film. When he speaks of his dream to play in the NHL, specifically for the Boston Bruins, it resonates, especially when it becomes clear the only way to that dream is for him to literally fight his way there. The right batch of teammates in Montreal give him more of a purpose than just goon, however, as he becomes that rare enforcer who can actually skate and score (again, though, thanks to the efforts of the team around him, helping him improve his game).
That era doesn’t last, however, and eventually Nilan becomes, like so many other enforcers at the end of their careers, a tough guy shuffled from team to team. One day he achieves his dream to play as a Bruin, but by that point in his career he’s already connected so strongly with his previous days with the Canadiens, and role as villain against the rival Bruins, that his place there is short-lived. A life in the NHL, to quote Nilan, where he becomes, “…old at 33.”
His days after the NHL hold little comfort, as Nilan succumbs at first to alcohol before moving on to pain pills and eventually harder drugs. His post-hockey life a mess, Nilan finds himself a warrior in a different sense; the fight now isn’t to protect his team, it’s to stay alive against his own demons, of which he has many.
The Last Gladiators has the polish and professionalism I’ve come to expect from a documentary where Alex Gibney is involved, and it tells its tale well. It doesn’t try to sell you on fighting in hockey, it just presents the environment, the personalities, and lets it all speak for itself. The overall result is a must-see for hockey fans; a candid look at the life of a goon, in a sobering way that Slap Shot and Goon only hint at. Then again, those are fictional comedies and this is a documentary; Goon is to The Last Gladiators, for example, as Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is to Ken Burns’ The War.
When the noble, and oft-times energizing and entertaining, glow of the battle is over, and the punches aren’t being thrown anymore, The Last Gladiators shows you the scars and bruises, in this case as embodied by the trials and tribulations of Chris Nilan. There’s respect to be given there; regardless of your opinion of fighting in hockey, the role of the enforcer is one that only a certain type of person can hold, and what they give game in and game out has lasting consequences long after the final game horn sounds.