Professional hockey has an unspoken code amongst its players. And within the parameters of that code, it is the responsibility of fearless ice gladiators – often called “enforcers” or “goons” – to protect their team’s star players.
Through preemptive strikes and punishing paybacks, National Hockey League players like Bob Probert, Dave Semenko, Marty McSorley, Tiger Williams, Tony Twist, Clark Gillies and Gordie Howe made careers out of defending the legends that put the puck to mesh like nobody else in the sport.
“The Last Gladiators,” a new documentary by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”), explores one of these enforcers, Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, a salty Boston native who rose to hockey fame as a right-wing tough-guy for the Montreal Canadiens from 1979-1988. Nilan played 799 games in the NHL (including stints with the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins), scored 118 career goals and spent a staggering 3,584 minutes in the penalty box.
Chris was a fighter. Chris liked to fight. But, more importantly, Chris had to fight. And despite his success in the sport, which included a 1986 Stanley Cup season and a 1991 election to the NHL All-Star Game, Nilan struggled off the ice with drug and alcohol addiction as he attempted to adapt to life outside of the arena.
I recently spoke to Gibney about his new film, which is now available with XFINITY On Demand, and professional hockey’s unusual relationship with the goon.
David Onda: Why did you choose to make a movie about hockey enforcers, and why did you decide to focus on Chris Nilan?
Alex Gibney: This was a story that came to me. There were some investors who wanted to do a film about hockey tough-guys or enforcers. I had played some hockey in college and I knew a guy on my varsity team that had a moment with the New York Rangers where they told him, “Look, you’re no Wayne Gretzsky, so if you wanna stay on the team, if you wanna stay in the bigs, I’d advise you to get in a fight the next game.” Which he did, and he did stay around. And I always thought about that bargain. So I agreed to do the film, but I’m not that interested in making a film about a topic in some broad, general sense. You want to find a main character. So, we were looking for a character, and in that search we found Chris Nilan, who is just an incredible character. And incredible because he embodied that kind of Faustian bargain that enforcers make to stay in the show – but also because he had been through so much in his life, that he was willing to reckon very honestly with what he had done. It was that honesty and his sense of humor and his ability to tell stories that just made him an ideal character.
Onda: Chris is a sympathetic character, but also comes across as somewhat immature, very stubborn and occasionally unlikable. What’s your personal opinion of him?
Gibney: I think Chris was his own worst enemy. That’s what makes him a fascinating character. He couldn’t abide authority. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. If he didn’t respect somebody, he wouldn’t suck it up and play for that person. He’d tell that person to [expletive] off. For a lot of us, we see that as a character flaw. And I recognize it as a character flaw, because when you become mature, sometimes, you have to suck it up, you have to reckon with that social responsibility that allows you to make necessary compromises. But Chris wasn’t interested in that. In some ways you’re sort of anguished by it, but you find it kind of refreshing, too. It cost him personally, but he just couldn’t stand sucking up to people. There’s a classic phrase about people who advance, particularly in the corporate world. You see them all the time, and people speak of people who “suck up and kick down.” And it’s all about the ladder of success, right? Chris was more of a “suck down and kick up” kind of person.
Onda: It’s amazing, especially with the recent NFL bounty scandal, that this culture of fighting and enforcing still exists.
Gibney: Obviously, rules have been passed that have minimized the role of the enforcer, but it isn’t like there aren’t enforcers in hockey anymore. There are. From the outside, it seemed like this was just the behavior of goons. But from the inside, there is a kind of rough justice element to it, a kind of moral code. The idea is that you’re not going out to beat other people up, you’re out there to protect your teammates – particularly the super-talented members of the team. That’s your job, to make sure that, as Marty McSorley says in the film, “That nobody takes liberties with those guys.” So, that’s what you do.
Onda: Why is fighting necessary in hockey? Why not just say, “Don’t do it”?
Gibney: I think you could. You could just say it. They could just pass a rule tomorrow and they could make it happen. I think that, frankly, a lot of people go to see the fights. I think the NHL faces a conundrum. What do you do? It would be like – what’s boxing without the punching? I’m making an extreme analogy, but over time it became a part of the North American game. The players will say there’s a rationale for it – it’s their way of ensuring that players don’t take cheap shots against the most talented players. I’m not necessarily sure that’s true, but that’s the code.
Onda: The film also talks about McSorley’s infamous on-ice stick assault of Donald Brashear. In your opinion, is Marty a villain or is he misunderstood?
Gibney: It’s easy for me to say it, but I think he’s both. McSorley tells his own story, and he says Brashear wasn’t fighting him, and he was on the ice to fight him, and Brashear should have known. And Brashear’s injury really comes from, not the blow to the head from the stick, but the blow to his head [from the ice] when he fell. But you have to ask yourself, why the hell was the code so important that McSorley had to take a swing at Brashear with his stick?
Onda: McSorley makes himself seem more sympathetic than I would have expected. I almost believed him.
Gibney: He tries to put your head inside that code. I don’t endorse that code in sense that the code matters more than someone’s health and well-being. That you feel like, “Well, he broke the code, so now I’m gonna punish him.” I don’t think Marty McSorley meant for what happened to Brashear to happen, but he has to take responsibility, he has to reckon with the fact that he crossed the line in some fundamental way.
Onda: Is this a movie just for hockey fans? Can casual hockey fans have the same appreciation for it?
Gibney: I think this is a movie for everybody. It’s a movie for everybody because of Chris. It’s really about a man trying to be better – and better in every sense of the word – or trying to be as good as he can be. And, in that way, it’s a rather dark story, but it has a bright light at the end in the sense that everyone can reckon with that struggle, where you have your own demons and you struggle to overcome them. Early on for Chris, it was becoming a better hockey player, and as he descended into drugs and alcohol it was like, how could he be a better person? This is kind of a documentary version of “The Wrestler.” It’s about a character who’s flawed, who’s trying to be better, and I think that’s a movie we’re all engaged by.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.