Chris Nilan was a demon.
When I was living in Montreal and a rabid fan of the Canadiens hockey team, it was believed that “Knuckles” could be summoned to do our dark bidding by the sheer force of our collective will. Spread across the city—-whether we were standing in the smokey old Forum, on the sofa at home, in some tavern, taxi or even a hospital waiting room, independent of one another the people of the city would begin their mystical incantations to conjure the beast. My friend John, as if falling into an autistic trance, would begin a chant of, “fuck ‘em up, fuck ‘em up, fuck ‘em up,” which with his fists clenched, he would continue until Nilan hit the ice to tear the heads off of whomever was bringing misery to the Canadiens.
Nilan was an utter hero in Montreal. With each fist he threw he offered us redemption, catharsis and a twisted kind of hope. If Nilan was on your side, you always had a shot. He might not have been the biggest or even the best fighter in the NHL, but he was the most determined, enthusiastic and fearless. He would never, ever quit and his baleful conviction provided a kind of victory even in defeat. He was a warrior, and all the boats on that team and even in that city, rose with his furious tide, and when the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, he must have felt a love, satisfaction and sense of belonging unknown before or since.
The Toronto International Film Festival ended on Sunday and one of the last films
screened was The Last Gladiators, a documentary in which the life of Chris Nilan was central. Directed by Alex Gibney, who has achieved all sorts success in the documentary world for films like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side, The Last Gladiator aspires to illuminate the culture of violence in hockey and the ugly wake it leaves behind through the story of Chris Nilan.
The film opens with a frank close-up of Nilan’s fists.
In his thick, slightly fuzzy New England accent, Nilan now 53, describes all the wounds, surgeries and indignities his hands have incurred over the years. We listen to his voice, remote and a little bit hollow, as we stare intently at the life written into the scars he carries on his fists. His face still off camera, he sounds so much sadder and drained than he did during his glory days, as if disbelieving of the past he fought through and the present he now occupies. It’s an arresting and melancholy passage, and probably the most potent commentary the movie has to offer.
Whenever Nilan’s on screen you can’t take your eyes off of him, but Gibney continually strays, trying to broaden the scope of his film to encompass the narratives of other Enforcers. We hear the words of a handful of other tough guys, but instead of layering the movie with context, it dilutes rather than strengthens, adding a distracting, almost comedic gloss to a very dark story.
Nilan grew-up in working class Massachusetts where he was drawn to trouble. The guy loved to fight, but he also loved to play hockey, where of course, you’re allowed to fight. For Nilan this was a happy marriage, and against all intuition and expectation, he made it to the NHL where he was able to exploit his native aggression and become a folk hero. After his body was spent and his career ended amidst the small tragedies and slights that mark all of our unwilling departures, he took a desk job at an insurance company. It was a bad fit. Alcoholism, drug addiction and all the attendant miseries and degradations followed, including a poignant arrest for trying to shoplift a pair of swim trunks.
This is not a new story in the world of hockey. This summer, three Enforcers from the NHL committed suicide. Substance abuse problems are the norm, not the exception. In order to become an Enforcer in the NHL one must have a terrible want to belong, I think. As muscle, you’re replaceable, and every night you have do the unsavoury, do whatever it takes to win the approval and respect of your more highly skilled peers. Obviously, a lot of money is at stake, but there must be something else that propels a man to such an extreme.
I had always imagined that these guys were able to compartmentalize this aspect of their lives, keep it professional as it were, but the mounting testimony from the Enforcers themselves is that they’re scared to death each night. It’s like facing the school bully over and over again with the knowledge that if they lose a few, well, they’ll be shipped off to some remote outpost to continue this as if in some minor ring of hell. How do you untwist yourself from that psychological tangle? And this is to say nothing of the overwhelming evidence of brain trauma caused by concussions that we’re now finding is driving football, hockey players and wrestlers into dementia and spiraling depressions. It’s an ugly situation, and one that Gibney largely skips over.
For the most part he avoids looking too deeply into the psychological architecture and abject humiliations of Nilan’s descent, as if offering him some dignity at the expense of honesty. It’s a bit of cop-out, this, and it was disappointing to see the director take a middle-route, ultimately offering us a movie that has less intellectual and emotional honesty than an episode of Intervention.
Nilan, although still in possession of the magnetism of the tough guy, also has a deadness about him, too. The wave has broken, and his banter at old-timers games is reflexive rather than felt, and you can see that he hasn’t quite figured it all out, still proceeding by witless instinct. I so want things to work out for him, for his to be a story of redemption, but you can just see that his tale is not likely to end well.
Chris Nilan’s father was a hard-ass Green Beret, and his mother, at least by the time
this movie screened, was an unimpressed wall of disappointment. It’s impossible to
imagine the pain and miseries that the parents of a violent addict must have endured, but
they did not seem to have ever expected much from their son, and so it’s probable he expected little of himself, too. If this is the case, he managed to turn his feelings of worthlessness into a virtue, punching his way to the top where he found a home in the Montreal Canadiens. Here, people, his betters even ( star players), took an interest in making him a better hockey player and person and in return Nilan gave them everything he had— leaving nothing for himself— and when his time came and he was let go, he had nothing left to do but fall.