The Last Gladiators (Alex Gibney, 2011)
In Ice Hockey no one is tougher than the "goon". Those players have one mission: to protect the star players at any price.
Recently, the fine folks at have provided me a review copy of this Documentary about Hockey player Chris “Knuckles” Nilan. An in depth observation of his career in professional Hockey as a “goon” but also in his life and how he now manages to live with the scars of his career of violent Hockey player. In thirteen years in the NHL, he played for the Montreal Canadiens, the New York Rangers, and the Boston Bruins. He amassed more penalty minutes than any other player and fought over 300 fights. This resulted in thirty operations on his body. He is a physically broken man and the documentary brings the light on the fact that what he had to deal has hurt him in a very profound manner.
Directed by Academy Award Winner, Alex Gibney, this human portrait is presented in a very conventional way; with head shot interviews and a voice over. We have the commentaries of Nilan’s parents, his ex-wife, ex-teammates, childhood friends, and many other NHL enforcers. While the NHL puts the light on players like Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby, we tend to forget that players like Marty McSorley or Nilan were the guys who defended and protected the star players. Giving the mic and the spotlight to the “goons” isn’t what the sport has been selling. It is very interesting to discover how these key players in the success of a team had to deal with their post career.
Sadly, the point about concussions isn’t even addressed in the documentary, a plague that is making the sport look bad these days. It also brings up how the players are on their own and they must be advised to help them find a job when they retire. Most of these men don’t have much education and their lives have been about Hockey and about almost nothing else. It is difficult for them to get into the real world and live a decent life.
Despite the fact that The Last Gladiators is a very traditional documentary, the subject matter is still very actual. In 2010, three players of the NHL died and they were also goons. At 54 years old, Chris Nilan has fought from his childhood in the streets of Boston, he is still struggling very hard to get his head over the water and be a sober man and have a life with his new life partner. For every Hockey fan and even Sports Fan there is a lesson to learn because even if what the Leagues and Associations are selling, the players are all humans after all. I’ll paraphrase Nilan himself: they are all just men just like us.
|Nilan with the Habs in the 1980's.|
Note: I was invited to interview Mr. Nilan in a press conference this month, but I had to decline the offer because I didn’t had the time to drive three hours back and forth. However, I’d like to personally thank Chris for his dedication and to have the courage to show his true personality on the camera.