Alex Gibney’s The features hockey players that are known as the goons, brawlers, or enforcers. They are responsible for protecting the finesse players. One of the players in the documentary is Chris “Knuckles” Nilan. He is a retired player who has accumulated more than 3,000 penalty minutes in his career that also included 26 surgeries. His story is compelling as well as cautionary.
Nilan is an Irish lad from West Roxbury, which is near Boston. He didn’t back down from any fight before or even after he was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. He was the number 231 pick out of the 235 players selected that year.
It didn’t matter to him though and his game play didn’t change. He said that he might get a black eye or a couple of stitches but he is not going down. And that he did. A former teammate said that Nilan became the patron saint of all hockey players who want to be something more just a goon. Nilan stayed after team practice so that he could become a regular player and not just the brawler that people cheered on when he drops his gloves.
Life was good for Nilan but it didn’t last long. The second half of The Last Gladiators shows the sad part of the story. He confessed that the exile from Montreal broke him and he never got over it. The documentary is a double helix. It is devoted to Nilan and other tough guys of hockey. It also showed experts analyzing the role of these players. Some tough players said that it was the only way to play the game they love.
Last Gladiators shows that tough players had to pay for their physicality in the game and they would do it game after game. Nilan said that he doesn’t regret anything he has done in his career and if he is reincarnated, he would do everything again.