MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – NHL enforcers have been bringing crowds to their feet for decades. But as the new documentary “The Last Gladiators” shows, there’s more strategy behind these fights than meets the eye.

Twin Cities author Ross Bernstein loves hockey, despite its dark side.

“Even here at open hockey, old-man-fat-guy hockey that I play during the day, you’ll see a scrap every now and then. And two guys will drop their gloves, and the guys will let ’em go, and then it’s all over. And then, you know, sometimes they go drink beer,” Bernstein said.

It’s part of a culture that’s been around for 150 years. Bernstein’s book, “The Code,” details the unwritten rules of fighting and retaliation.

“For instance, you could never challenge a guy to a fight at the end of his shift because he might be tired. If a guy has fresh stitches or he lost a tooth – he gets a free pass,” Bernstein said.

The film is centered on Chris Nilan, one of the NHL’s most feared enforcers.

“That’s when I got my finger almost bit off. I ended up getting eight stitches,” said Nilan in the film.

Through Nilan, Oscar and Emmy Award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney shows the toll being a heavyweight takes on someone off the ice.

“They have to get up to fight every night and then they got to come down to put their kids to sleep. It’s just a bizarre job,” Bernstein said.

And it’s not just the players looking for the next fight.

“When it’s a big fight, 18,000 people stand up and cheer, and these gladiators – they go to work,” he said. “And it’s not staged like wrestling. It’s the real deal. These guys lose teeth.”

In addition to the shoves and jabs, the book explains the “why” behind the fighting. Knowing this, Bernstein says, is a critical component in the growing fight to keep youth hockey players safe.

“You play the game with respect, you’ll be treated with respect. That’s why the kids have a big red stop sign on the back of their jersey that says, ‘Stop, Think About This,’” he said.

“The Last Gladiators” premiered recently at the Toronto Film Festival. It’s currently playing at the St. Anthony Main Theater in Minneapolis.

Click here to read a review of “The Last Gladiators” at WCCO’s Movie Blog.


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