“The only way you’ll be drafted is if there’s another war.”
Ouch. That was the fatherly encouragement given to aspiring NHLer Chris Nilan, the focus of a really cool-as-ice documentary, The Last Gladiators.
Our perpetually failing local embarrassment known as the Toronto Maple Leafs has taken the wind out of this reviewer’s sails when it comes to hockey fandom, but growing up, nothing beat hockey. As one person in this doc put it, “the only sport where you can’t run out of bounds.”
And if you pissed someone off, there was nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide.
What heightened the game’s high-speed appeal was a really good donnybrook. Don Cherry’s Rock’em Sock’em Hockey was a highly tradeable commodity back then, showcasing the league’s most menacing goons going mano a mano.
And there’s one fighter in particular who stood tall, even when he wasn’t the biggest guy; a champion of the underdog who’s responsibility was dropping the gloves with 6’5 behemoths on the other side of the red line. And that guy, was “Knuckles” Nilan, a rugged Bostonian whose face looks like it was carved out of a chunk of wood.
And his father was wrong. He WAS drafted, albeit in the 19th round (231st overall) as one of the most unheralded picks of that entire year. Who knew they even went that high? At that point, teams are likely drafting mascots or a Zamboni.
Nilan not only knocked out guys on the ice, he infamously KO’d an opponent by hurling a puck at him from the confines of the penalty box. Yowza. But under the tutelage of Bob Gainey and Larry Robinson, the long-time Canadiens player became something of a legit hockey player, even amassing a 20-goal season, unheard of for most lunkheads who are there to ask the question few want to have asked (or to answer): “Do you wanna go, tough guy?”
In The Last Gladiators, famous enforcers from the NHL’s past and present, such as Donald Brashear, Tony Twist and the late Bob Probert weigh in on what it was they did and why.
It’s pretty much impossible to forward a reasonable argument as to why the NHL should allow fighting, but we’re glad they do. To each their own we say. As long as it’s mutually agreed upon, go nuts.
The Last Gladiators doesn’t delve too deeply into some of the high-profile deaths that claimed the lives of noted tough guys like John Kordic or Todd Ewen but does hint at how tough it is to be tough for a living.
***1/2 (out of 5)