In his film The Last Gladiators, director Alex Gibney gives us the deepest, most detailed look yet at the paradoxical subculture of NHL enforcers, a tribe of (often) thoughtful, amiable men who speak reverentially of "honor" and "respect" while earning their livings whaling the tar out of one another.
The movie, which debuted on Sept. 9 at the Toronto International Film Festival, comes on the heels of a four-month span that witnessed the sudden deaths of a trio of NHL tough guys—Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak (SCORECARD, Sept. 12). Gibney, an Academy-Award winning documentarian, doesn't believe that being an enforcer predisposes players to addiction or suicide, but he does note that "there is something about the job that makes [life] tough when you stop."
Exhibit A, in this case, is Chris (Knuckles) Nilan. Patrolling the ice for the Canadiens in the 1980s, Nilan (above, right) was both smaller (6 feet, 205 pounds) and more skilled (110 goals in his 15-year career) than the average NHL enforcer. But as Gibney shows, Nilan also overflowed with a distilled malice that made him, arguably, the best fighter, pound for pound, in the league's history. Nilan had 26 surgeries and ended up addicted to painkillers, then to heroin.
We also meet a half-dozen tough guys from the 1970s, '80s and '90s—including Terry O'Reilly, Lyndon Byers, Tony Twist and, poignantly, the late Bob Probert, who died of a heart attack in July 2010, at age 45, while the movie was being made. A devastating puncher, "Probie" best embodies what Gibney describes as "the Faustian bargain" tough guys make. None of them grew up dreaming of brawling for a living. But to play the game they love at its highest level, they are forced, in a way, to debase it.