Richard Wolowicz / Getty Images
Former Montreal Canadien Chris Nilan during a centennial celebration prior to the NHL game between the Canadiens and Boston Bruins in Montreal on Dec. 4, 2009.
When the NHL season opens Saturday after a bitter four-month labor dispute, hockey fans will shout and stomp as brawny "enforcers" drop their gloves and bash each other with their fists.
Fighting has always been an integral part of professional hockey, but the participants pay a huge price, as Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney graphically demonstrates in his new documentary "The Last Gladiators."
The film, which opens Feb. 1 in New York and Feb. 8 in 10 other U.S. cities, focuses on Chris "Knuckles" Nilan, a former Montreal Canadiens brawler who became a drug addict after his playing days ended. It also includes interviews with ex-tough guys Marty McSorley, Tony Twist and Donald Brashear, who recount the pain and glory of their violent NHL careers.
"The Last Gladiators" isn’t for hockey nuts who can recite the list of great goons the way boxing fans can reel off the names of heavyweight champs. It’s more of an entertaining layman’s guide that, with a little tightening, could easily fit into ESPN’s acclaimed "30 for 30" documentary series.
When three NHL enforcers died young during a short span in 2011, it raised serious questions about the physical and psychological impact that constant fighting has on hockey players better known for their left hooks than their slap shots. Many former NHL tough guys have battled with drugs, alcohol and depression after leaving the ice.
"I believe it’s something in the job that puts so much pressure on these athletes that it affects them in every aspect of their life," veteran hockey writer Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated says in the film. "It’s not necessarily a job you leave at the rink. It’s part of your DNA and you can’t escape it."
Nilan, who was once penalized 10 times in one game, gives a simple explanation for why fighting is so popular with hockey fans.
"Probably 18,999 people in the stands out of 19,000 at one time or another, wherever they work, want to punch someone in the mouth ...," he says. "They never get to do it. But they like to see someone else do it."
Although some critics have called for a ban on NHL fighting, it seems highly unlikely. Hockey historian Stan Fischler says mayhem on the ice can be traced to the sport’s rowdy "frontier" roots.
"If you got a referee and he misses a call and somebody gets whacked in the head, you’re not going to dial 911 and wait for a cop to arrive," Fischler says in the documentary. "You’re going to whack the guy back."
After Nilan retired in 1992 following a 13-year career with the Canadiens, New York Rangers and Boston Bruins, he began a slow downward spiral. By the time he reached bottom, his marriage was broken and he was shooting heroin.
"I was in a bad place," he says. "I OD’d a couple of times. I fell asleep with needles in my arms." Nilan also crashed his car into a ditch and was arrested for shoplifting at a suburban Boston mall, where he fought with security guards.
He finally reached out for help, went to rehab for a second time and ended up living in a loft over a friend’s garage in Washington state. He cleaned himself up, returned to his native Boston and started to rebuild his life. Today, the 54-year-old Nilan campaigns against school bullying, does hockey commentary on a Montreal radio station, raises money for charities and has even started his own clothing line.
Other former enforcers haven’t been so fortunate.
During a four-month stretch in 2011, 28-year-old Derek Boogaard died from an accidental overdose of alcohol and prescription drugs, while 27-year-old Rick Rypien and 35-year-old Wade Belak reportedly committed suicide. Boogaard’s rise and fall as a fearsome enforcer was chronicled in a three-part New York Times series that detailed his frequent concussions and increasing use of painkillers.
While Nilan insists the deaths weren’t related to hockey violence, others aren’t so sure.
Tom Regan, a childhood friend of Nilan’s who appears in the film, says it’s extremely difficult for ex-enforcers to adjust to life outside the rink. When Nilan tried to work white-collar jobs after leaving hockey, he was never comfortable.
"It’s like putting a tiger into a classroom," Regan says. "It’s not a good idea."
NBC will televise two NHL games on Saturday, Chicago at Los Angeles (3:25 p.m. ET) and Pittsburgh at Philadelphia (3:35 p.m. ET). Check local listings for the game in your area.