The Last Gladiators
Some Fights Never End
In this documentary, Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney takes an extraordinary look at The National Hockey League’s Chris “Knuckles” Nilan. Born and raised in Boston, this aggressive enforcer had a simple task: to protect his teammates no matter the cost. In other words, his teammates knew that he had their backs.
The role of the enforcer is unofficial in ice hockey. The term is sometimes used synonymously with “fighter”, “tough guy”, or “goon”. An enforcer’s job is basically to deter and respond to violent play by the opposing team. When this occurs, the enforcer is expected to act aggressively by fighting or attacking the offender. Enforcers are expected to react particularly harshly to violence targeting their team’s star players or goalies.
For Chris, the role of enforcer often meant a shattered body: he bears the scars of broken knuckles, lost teeth, bites, torn ligaments, and multiple finger surgeries. Throughout his career, Chris struggled with addiction to drugs and the guilt that comes from harming the people closest to him. But he did what he felt he had to do. Described as one of the toughest NHL players in the 80s Chris states that in his opinion most of the people sitting in the stands would like to punch somebody in the mouth, but they can’t. That’s why they enjoy watching somebody else do it.
Chris was a fighter from the time he was a child. He was fiercely loyal and got into many fights defending his friends. When he got drafted to play in the NHL, it was like a dream come true. During his career, Chris won the love of hockey’s holy city, Montreal, and helped the team win the Stanley Cup in 1986. He loved the game so much that his retirement was unbearable to him. To think that the role of importance he played in the lives of his teammates had ended abruptly, felt like rejection to Nilan, and this perception snowballed into a series of really bad decisions.
A fight during a hockey game is a lot about respect. Players know that they’re expected to be tough and they comply willingly. Sometimes the consequences are difficult and painful because of the stress caused by the responsibility placed on them. Through interviews with dozens of hockey’s toughest guys, the film explores what it means to enforce the unspoken code of the NHL. Watch this film now.