The Last Gladiators is a documentary based on the legendary hockey enforcers, focuses on the life of Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, who grew from a rough and tough young boy to a professional hockey player.
Chris began his hockey career as a youth hockey player, then went on to play for Boston’s Northeastern University Huskies. He spent his life dreaming of someday being able to play for the Bruins. He told his dad, Henry, that he hoped to get drafted in the NHL and his response was, “the only way you will get drafted is if there is another world war”. Chris finally got his chance to to play professional hockey, when he was drafted in 1978 by the Montreal Canadiens in the seventieth round, 231st pick.
Henry thought the only way to keep Chris on the straight and narrow, when he was a teenager, was to slap and punch him. Chris admitted to being afraid of his father and said that he scared the heck out of him. Chris became more aggressive over time and carried that with him throughout his hockey career. He spent over 3,000 penalty minutes in the penalty box. He admitted that during his career, he got into a lot of fights at the beginning of several games and spent the rest of his time in the penalty box. He scored zero goals during his first season with the Canadiens, due to fighting and penalties.
Chris showed no fear during his hockey career and was known for getting into fights with some of the toughest hockey players of all times including; Bob Probert, Tony Twist, and Bob Kelly. Montreal’s general manager, Bob Gainey, took over the Canadiens coaching duties and quickly saw potential in Chris and knew he had the drive to play hockey and started calling him “Yankee Boy”. Chris grew to respect Bob because he knew that he saw things in him that he didn’t see in himself. Bob told Chris to slow down and quit fighting as much, but he knew if he did that Montreal would cut him.
When Montreal’s new coach, Jean Perron, took over the coaching duties in 1985, him and Chris began to butt heads. They worked together that season to win the Stanley Cup championship, but Chris was traded to the New York Rangers during the 1987-1988 season. Chris admitted to being devastated and lost interest in playing, but he continued to fight his way through each game. He finally got traded to the Boston Bruins in 1990, by that time he was 33 years old and didn’t want to fight any more because he was experiencing severe pain in his hands.
Chris returned to Canada and played his last season of pro hockey with the Montreal Canadiens. He was unable to maintain employment after retirement. He was assistant coach for New Jersey Devils, but resigned from his position after one season.
After retiring Chris became a manic depressive and experienced generalized pain. He became addicted to pain killers and very quickly graduated to heroin. By 2006, Chris was divorced, falling asleep with heroin needles in his arm and overdosing several times, even after going to rehab. He was later arrested for shoplifting and was involved in a motor vehicle accident that he luckily escaped by inches of his life.
After relocating to Chinook, Washington, Chris moved into a sober living facility and stayed there for sixty days. After two years in Washington, he decided to move back to Boston and his family.
Will Chris be able over come his addictions and depression and live a normal life or will he continue to spiral out of control?
If you are a hockey fan, as I am, you definitely ought to sit down and watch this very moving documentary. After watching The Last Gladiators, I drew the conclusion that a lot of Chris’s mental issues and physical addictions were caused from the many years of physical and verbal abuse that he sustained from his aggressive father. His father was still continuing to belittle Chris after his great success in professional hockey. Chris will never be able to gain his father’s approval, during his father’s lifetime or his own, for that matter.
The writers, Jim Podhoetz and Larry Weitzman did a wonderful job humanizing Chris Nilan, who you would have thought never needed it, even I felt pain and compassion for the guy because he accomplished so much in his life, but was left with an emptiness after his hockey career ended. I definitely enjoyed the older, hockey footage of the players brawling and the many interviews of former coaches and players. All I can say about this film is that it was put together beautifully and deserves an 8 out of 10.