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"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.
Tags for The Last Gladiators Full Movie
, David M. Singer
, Donald Brashear
, Marty McSorley
, Paul Schantz
, Tony Twist
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