In this extremely well made documentary, Alex Gibney (here last year with the under-appreciated CLIENT 9) sets his sights on one of the more misunderstood characters of Canada’s game – the hockey enforcer. The film starts with a startling shot of a pair of ravaged hands, the kunckles obliterated, fingers skewed at odd angles. The voice over belongs to Chris Nilan, a Boston boy who would eventually play a dominant role in Montreal.
While focusing on Nilan, with his impressive up-and-down career that includes a tonne of intriguing twists, Gibney manages to shine a light on this strange quirk of the game. Numerous players from the last few decades are interviewed, men who while tops of their amateur leagues found themselves in a position where they were used as tools of violence against opposing players. In a sport of tough guys, nuance and hockey skill was supplanted by their role as Goon, and after concussions and other injuries left their careers cut short, there’s a real sense of loss as each man tells his tale.
Some of the more startling moments come from the likes of Donald Brashear, whose injury at the hands of Marty McSorley became a national sensation (complete with criminal charges leveled at the “attacker”). To find Brashear spending his time in a podunk Northern Quebec town, beating up kids half his age who have no chance of making it to the big time, is but one of the twists that Gibney provides that elevates the film.
THE LAST GLADIATORS touches on numerous facets, as these enforcers reintegrate (often poorly) into regular society once their careers terminate. Issues of anger, substance abuse and other common elements are drawn out, providing a greater context than merely the game of hockey.
If there’s one critical piece missing from the work, it’s the voice of those like Don Cherry that have made a career celebrating the bloodlust nature of “Rock ’em Sock ’em” hockey. It’s certainly somber and depressing as yet another player recounts his miserable life out of the spotlight, yet there are glimpses that many would have made the same deal in order to seek the spotlight of the game.
Wide in scope and told with a deft touch, THE LAST GLADIATORS is a compelling work. Given the recent press regarding a swatch of deaths and suicides by former enforcers, it’s equally a timely piece, one certain to generate discussion.