Directed by: Alex Gibney.
I am a huge hockey fan. I have been a fan of the L.A. Kings since I was 6 years old, when they got my favorite player of all time – Wayne Gretzky. Yes, I was a bandwagon hoper back then, but since I suffered through 25 years with the team, I believe I can call myself a true fan now, and last year when they won their first Stanley Cup it was perhaps the greatest moment of my life that I really didn’t have anything to do with. The NHL has changed since I was a kid, and Alex Gibney’s The Last Gladiators shows one of the ways in which it has – fighting. There is no doubt that fights still happen in the NHL – and even if the media wags a disapproving finger at the NHL for allowing it to continue, fighting will always be a part of the game. But it isn’t as big of a part as it once was. Watching The Last Gladiators takes you back to a time when bench clearing brawls were common. And the speed and ferocity of the fights in those days seem much worse than today. Fighters today are a little more concerned for their own safety – as well they should be – and do a better job of protecting themselves. But back in the 1980s, two men simply squared off and starting pounding on each other until one of them fell over.
One of the toughest fighters back then was Chris Nilan, who is the main focus of Gibney’s documentary. Nilan admits he wasn’t a great hockey player – he couldn’t skate very well, shoot very well, or pass very well. But what he could do was fight. He wasn’t afraid of anyone, and for years as a Montreal Canadian, he would go toe-to-toe with anyone who dared mess with one of his teammates. He got better at hockey over the years – his coaches and teammates helped him work on the fundamentals of the game, and he even scored 20 goals one year. He didn’t get “pretty” goals like Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, but you plant him in front of the net, he couldn’t be moved, and he'd whack in a rebound goal. If that sounds easy, you try it sometime.
But Nilan, like many former NHL tough guys – or enforcers or goons or whatever you want to call it – has had a rough time since leaving the NHL. The movie has an interview with Bob Probert – probably the most infamous of these guys from that era – and will later show his funeral. He died of a heart attack, after years of struggling with alcohol and drug abuse. He was only 45 years old. The autopsy also showed signs of brain damage – from all the concussions Probert got in his career as a result of fighting. The documentary features other tough guys – Nilan, Tony Twist, Marty McSorley and others list all their injuries and surgeries they had over the year to repair the damage to their bodies they inflicted on themselves and each other over the years.
What always strikes me when I see these enforcers interviewed is that they all seem like nice guys. You would think that guys whose job it is to beat people up game in and game out, would have a screw loose, or be violent, nasty people in their day-to-day lives, but for the most part, they aren’t. Nilan is filled with regret for some of the things he did outside of hockey – yes, there were some fights – but mainly it was his drug addiction (to painkillers) and alcoholism that he regrets. And these tough guys have a code – they don’t really want to hurt each other. They just want to fire up their team, or defend their teammates. The most telling example of this “code” comes not from Nilan, but another tough guy who says when he was fighting one time, his shoulder popped out of the joint and he let out an audible gasp of pain – the other fighter asked him what was wrong and when he told him the shoulder popped out, his opponent said “Okay, fight’s over” and stopped. Many of these guys became good friends after their playing days were over.
Fighting will probably always have a place in hockey. None of the fighters interviewed think it should be taken out of the game, and every time they do a poll of players in the NHL, the overwhelming majority think it has a place in the game (I believe the last one I saw was at 98% for fighting). But the debate around fighting in hockey has ramped up in recent years. Concerns about concussions are real – and how they affect the quality of life of players after their playing days can be horrific (not quite as bad as football players, but not good either). Many in the media want to take out “staged” fights, but leave non-staged ones in the game. If staged fights got eliminated, so would the jobs for these enforcers – because of the most part, all their fights are staged. Many see this as a good thing – after all, most enforcers aren’t very good hockey players – certainly not NHL level at anything other than fighting.
But to wrap up the fighting debate in the cloak of player safety, and go after just “staged” fights doesn’t make much sense to me. You can get a concussion or a major injury in a fight whether it’s staged or not. What the NHL needs to decide is if fighting has a place in the game or not – and then either let it go, knowing the risk the players are willingly taking, or eliminating it completely. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
I know that most of this review has turned away from Gibney’s documentary and talked about fighting in hockey, but, well, that’s just the way it is. The Last Gladiators is a must see for all hockey fans. Seeing what Nilan and other tough guys have gone through since their glory days may well make them think twice before cheering on hockey fights. And the debate about fighting in hockey is real, and should be had – just like the debate about concussions in football must be had as well. As fans, we don’t really see hockey players as “people” – they are out there on the ice playing for our amusement – we cheer for them, or boo them, as we see fit, and when their playing days are done, for the most part, we don’t think of them ever again. What The Last Gladiators does is make us see Nilan, who always seemed like the toughest guy in the world on the ice, as a real person who has paid a hefty price. Only part of that is because of hockey, but undeniably hockey contributed to his demons. I still don’t really know what I think of fighting in hockey – as a kid, I loved it, but for the most part now when a fight breaks out, I yawn, and wait for the game to start again. The Last Gladiators is an essential addition to the debate about fighting in hockey.