Thursday, May 30, 2013
The Last Gladiators, a documentary by Oscar-winner Alex Gibney, focuses on Chris "Knuckles" Nilan, one of the most popular, and most feared enforcers of the 1980s.
Over his 13-year career spent in Montreal, New York, and Boston, Nilan accumulated 3,043 penalty minutes, 110 goals, one Stanley Cup, and a lifetime's worth of scars, thanks in large part to 251 on-ice fights.
"In some respects, I wish he never played hockey," his father Henry is filmed saying through tears.
Because despite his accomplishments on the ice, Nilan became a train wreck off the ice. In The Last Gladiators, Nilan is candid about his fights with alcohol, painkillers, and heroin.
“I had an overabundance of injuries that really took their toll on me," Nilan told the Toronto Star in a phone interview last February. "I ended up getting on painkillers. They really helped me. But when I tried to stop taking them, I couldn’t. I was sick.”
The Last Gladiators documents the soaring highs and crushing lows that NHL enforcers endure. From the adrenaline rush from 20,000 screaming fans cheering your fight (Tony Twist says: "There was a twinge in my dick. I enjoyed it that much.") to the brutal aftermath of lying in bed, sometimes unable to move, pain coursing through your body.
Although we hear from a number of enforcers (Tony Twist and Marty McSorley, among others), it is Nilan who is the principle focus and gives the movie life. The movie documents his meteoric rise to the NHL and his equally spectacular fall.
Nilan, taken 231st overall (in the 19th round!) by Montreal, spent only one season in the minors, where he fought "until there were no more takers," a line in which he takes particular glee. Montreal called him up the next season, and he instantly became a fan favourite.
By his sophomore season, the 22-year-old Nilan served notice that he was a man to be feared, fighting 20 times in 57 games, smashing his name among the league leaders in fighting majors.
Not without skill, Nilan scored 56 goals between 1983-1986, to go along with a staggering 85 fights. And with a Stanley Cup at the end of 1986, Nilan was living a dream.
But not many kids grow up dreaming about making the NHL with their fists, and for good reason. The fighting took its toll on Nilan, and in the documentary we see his life begin to slowly unravel after being traded from Montreal. Once retired from the NHL, Nilan's situation gets even worse. The highs of a Stanley Cup eventually replaced with shooting heroin and soliciting prostitution.
Nilan's addiction primarily stemmed from the painkillers he was prescribed after major shoulder surgery in the late 1990s (one of close to 30 surgeries he has undergone). His tolerance for the pain medication grew until he was eating them like candy and trying heroin.
Eventually, Nilan realized he was killing himself.
With the help of the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse & Behavioral Program, Nilan sought treatment for his addiction. Two stints in rehab behind him and the fight is now staying sober.
Rehab is what led to Nilan's involvement with the film. Barry Reese, the movie's producer, got in touch with Nilan as he was leaving rehab and convinced him to take part in the movie.
Although the movie benefits from Nilan's story, it has also given back to its primary subject, acting as an extension of the ex-enforcer's therapy.
In an interview, Nilan explained that the documentary and the subsequent media promotion was "an extension of my therapy in a sense that it allows me to revisit those terrible times in my life which I should never forget."
“I don’t dwell on them but it’s good for me to remember where I was and how I got there. And be grateful and fortunate to have survived it and to be where I am today, with the help that I received to get there.”
Everyday is a fight for Nilan, but he has turned his life around. He has recently started speaking out in schools against bullying and hosts an afternoon radio show on TSN 690 in Montreal. He also owns a clothing line called the KNUCKLES brand.
The Last Gladiators is an engrossing look into the other side of the game, one rarely seen. Many fans cheer for two combatants as they drop their gloves at centre ice, but too few understand the toll these men go through for our entertainment. While the movie doesn't moralize about fighting's place in hockey, it makes the viewer take a hard look at what exactly some NHLers sacrifice to break into the NHL and stay there.
The Last Gladiators is available on DVD or to download.