By Jonathon Sharp

Violence is nothing new in sports.

If anything, it’s ancient, deriving from the hormone-fueled physicality of athletic competition.

One could even argue that team sports, or any contact sport, could be taken as metaphors for war; they tell the story of battle – the glory of victory, the bitterness of defeat – without inflicting serious injury, or death, upon those who participate.

But we know now that any injury is serious for today’s pro athletes. Not only do injuries affect the player’s career in the short term, they potentially have enormous impacts on the athlete’s “normal” life, be he a father, husband or working man.

The Last Gladiators, a film by the Academy-Award-winning Alex Gibney, examines some real sports-warriors: hockey’s enforcers.

Full disclosure:
I knew nothing about what enforcers did until I watched Gibney’s film. Despite growing up in Minnesota, I never learned that there is a need in hockey for fighters, tough guys, straight-up pugilists. At a basic level, their job is to let opponents know what flies. If an opponent starts getting too rough with the star players — artists on the ice, as it were – enforcers go in, whip off their gloves and start swinging.

That swinging was life for Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, the focus of the film. His skill as an enforcer won him the love of Montreal and helped his team, the Canadiens, win a Stanley Cup. But success was fleeting.

Fighting left him broken, and not just physically. Despite being amazingly tough, he couldn’t adjust his temper off the ice. He didn’t work well with coaches, and his strategy for life (something like “call it as you see it” or “beat the hell out of adversaries”) strained relationships. Then came the drugs, and all his money evaporated. Even his father, a military man, is shown in tears, regretting his son’s falling in love with hockey.

The movie looks at Nilan’s career through his own psychology as well as hockey culture. The beloved sport comes out somewhat suspect in that it has fostered an arena were brawling is routine, a strategic necessity, something as essential as the very ice.

In the documentary, Nilan is a candid storyteller. His stern mug, cockiness and crushed ice voice give his stories poignancy while also highlighting one of the film’s main points: being an enforcer isn’t for all who play hockey.

Some enforcers, the film shows, aren’t great at the game. But the tough guy thing was their only way to capture the NHL dream. Thus, they become “goons,” sent in the rink to deliver punches, not plays. Some love it. They get bloodlust from defending their teammates, making the crowd go crazy. To call them gladiators is fitting.

Others suffer. Some can only last a few fights before calling it quits. Others last longer, but uneasily. And it’s hard to forget what happened to Derek “Boogeyman” Boogaard, the former Wild enforcer who fatally overdosed in 2011. After his family donated his brain to research, scientists found he suffered from a degenerative brain condition likely caused by all the blows to the head. He was only 28.

The rink, to be clear, isn’t a coliseum. Real nasty stuff happens in fights, but most of the battles operate under a code. Call it a Bushido on ice. Typically, the fighters try not to seriously injure one another; they understand it’s a sport, that their opponents have families to feed, a job to do. Still, serving knuckle sandwiches, and eating them, day-in-day out comes at a cost.

To those unfamiliar with hockey, Gladiators may be an enlightening experience. It was for me. But for those in love with Minnesota’s favorite game — which has changed at the prep level due to local events — it could be cause for reflection, or a serious look at the rule book.

The Last Gladiators is playing at Minneapolis’ St. Anthony Main Theatre.


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