Hard life of hockey enforcers on display in documentary
Chris 'Knuckles' Nilan is the most powerful figure in 'The Last Gladiators.' Nilan, who played in the 1980s and has his name on the Stanley Cup, battled addictions to painkillers and heroin but has worked hard to get his life back on track.
The first scene of "The Last Gladiators," a documentary that brings extraordinary insight to hockey's vanishing breed of enforcers, features a closeup of a man's hands. It takes only a few seconds to realize who they belong to and how appropriate that image is.
The hands are scarred, the fingers misshapen and the knuckles flattened. They're surprisingly small.
"I have my mother's hands," a raspy voice says, turning those hands toward the camera for better inspection.
The voice and hands belong to Chris "Knuckles" Nilan, one of the NHL's most feared fighters during an era when enforcers were featured players. Those hands also provide the road map of a life that veered painfully off track and is, day by day, being reined in with the same sheer will that propelled this rough-edged kid from Boston into the NHL and got his name onto the Stanley Cup as a member of the Montreal Canadiens in 1986.
"I'm living life instead of just surviving now," he said during a telephone interview.
Nilan, a month short of 55, is the most powerful figure in this 90-minute documentary directed by Alex Gibney, a 2007 Academy Award winner for the documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side." The film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in 2011 and is poised for U.S. distribution, including video-on-demand release on Feb. 8.
Former King Marty McSorley, the late Bob Probert, "regretful" tough guy Todd Ewen, scary Tony Twist, Donald Brashear and Lyndon Byers also appear to discuss their roles in protecting their smaller, more skillful teammates. The enforcer, unique to hockey, is becoming rare: Kevin Westgarth didn't play at all during the Kings' Stanley Cup run, and he's not alone. Smaller rosters mean coaches can't devote a spot to someone who can only fight, and enforcers usually crack the lineup only in response to specific situations or incidents.
Seeing Probert on screen is particularly jarring, because he died on July 5, 2010, at 45 of an apparent heart attack following heavy drug and alcohol abuse. Nilan said filming of the documentary began in 2009.
"I remember the day he filmed that. I was with him in Ontario playing old timers' hockey," Nilan said. "It's sad what happened with him."
Nilan went down much the same path as Probert — his poisons were painkillers after some 30 surgeries and later heroin — but he's here to tell his tale and said he will mark five years of sobriety on May 5. His unflinching honesty about his best days and the bad ones that followed is gripping.
"Having kept so much inside for so long, it wasn't painful to get it out. It actually felt good to get it out," he said. "Going through the things that I went through personally, when they asked me to do it I kind of looked at it as an extension of my therapy."
The Canadiens chose him 231st of 235 players in the 1978 entry draft. He fought in his first professional game in the American Hockey League and quickly found a home in Montreal. "He was the toughest guy in the league and he knew it," former general manager Serge Savard says in the film.
But Nilan wanted more. "I wanted to be a hockey player. I didn't just want to fight," he says. "I wanted to be a regular player."
He was helped by some of the game's best: coaches Claude Ruel and Jacques Lemaire, and future Hall of Fame players Larry Robinson and Bob Gainey. He scored 21 goals and 37 points in 1984-85 — with a league-leading 358 penalty minutes — and followed that with 19 goals and 34 points as the Canadiens went on to win the Cup.
He was chosen for Team USA in the 1987 Canada Cup tournament and established himself as a crowd favorite. "The fans loved Nilan as much as the players did," veteran hockey writer Red Fisher said.
A clash of wills with coach Jean Perron led to Nilan being traded to the New York Rangers, where he never really fit in. "It was devastating," he says in the film. "It broke me. I never got over it."
He finished in Boston, with his hometown Bruins, but years of hand, shoulder and knee injuries drove him out of the game at 34 with 3,043 penalty minutes to his credit. He drifted, unfocused. "I guess I didn't feel whole without hockey in my life," he says on camera.
Those injuries and operations put him on painkillers. He quickly became addicted and recalled falling sleep one night and awakening with a needle in his arm. "Heroin? Me? I couldn't believe that's me out there," he said.
His parents, including his Green Beret father, were horrified by his struggles. His marriage failed and so did rehab efforts until he quit cold turkey.
"I went to treatment once before. I relapsed. I had surgery again and I relapsed on the pills," he said. "This time it was a lot worse than the last time and things went downhill fast. It just wasn't a lot of fun.