The film, which was released in Canada in 2011, and based on author Ross Bernstein's book "The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL", began it's very limited theatrical release in the United States on February 1st, having been shown only in New York and Minneapolis and now currently running at The Manor Theatre in Pittsburgh.
For those of you not in Pittsburgh, the film was made available through On Demand and digital download on February 8th and the DVD will be released on March 12th.
From the film's website:
Academy Award winning director Alex Gibney takes an unprecedented look at the National Hockey League's most feared enforcers and explores the career of Chris "Knuckles" Nilan. The role was simple: protect their teammates no matter the cost. For Chris this meant a shattered body, addiction to drugs, and harming the people closest to him. But in the process, he won the love of hockey's holy city, Montreal, and helped the team win the Stanley Cup. Through interviews with hockey's toughest guys, the film explores what it means to enforce the unspoken code of the NHL.
The film has received a 90% positive rating on RottenTomatoes.com and has garnered some very supportive reviews, including this from Colin Covert from the Minneapolis StarTribune:
What’s a big-issues documentartian like Alex Gibney (“Client 9,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” ) doing making a film about professional hockey’s fist-swinging enforcers? Digging up an engrossing story, that’s what. The focus is Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, who played 13 years in the NHL, dropped gloves like they were hot rocks and got more penalty minutes than almost anyone else in the league. Boston-born Nilan skated (and punched) mostly for the Montreal Canadiens, throwing almost as many jabs at team management as he did on the ice. “With Chris,” one commentator observes, “disrespect was everything.”
At the end of his career, he was in his 30s with no savings, no path forward and an increasing dependence on drink and drugs. For all his Neanderthal aggression and criminality, Nilan, now 55, is a likable subject and a nakedly candid one. His soul is a running wound and he exposes it to our view without shame. The opening sections of this film play like a greatest-hits clip collection, but when Gibney delves deeper into Nilan’s personality, it’s a magnetic portrait of a rinkside Raging Bull.
Aside from the film's focus on Nilan, there are also plenty of interview clips from other noted tough guys of the past, including Marty McSorley, Tony Twist, Donald Brashear, Paul Stewart, Todd Ewen, Terry O'Reilly and even the late Bob Probert.
We personally really enjoyed the film as there is more to it than just the fighting aspect of Nilan's career. The story of his upbringing and his relationship with his father, being taken under the wing of his much more talented Canadiens teammates and the trust in him by coach Jacques Lemaire, which led to Nilan becoming a 20 goal scorer in the NHL, how coaching changes and trades affected his career and his difficult transition to life after hockey and descent into addiction and ongoing efforts to get his life back on the tracks make for a well rounded story of one of hockey's tough guys. How do you think you would cope with going from the adrenaline rush of having 18,000 screaming fans cheering you on as you engage in a full-on brawl with someone trying to cave your face in and then suddenly one day having a desk job working the phones in anonymity? The insights offered by not only Nilan, but Twist and Ewen, give the viewer a a looking into the psyche of one of sports most unique, demanding and stressful jobs which extracts a heavy toll on those put into that role, one they are seldom prepared to walk away from.
Click here to visit Nilan's website, KnucklesNilan.com.
To view The Last Gladiators online, click the link below.
After three seasons playing college hockey for him hometown Northeastern University Huskies, Nilan, a long shot 18th round draft pick, played just 49 games in the minors, where his 304 penalty minutes saw him earn a call up to the Montreal Canadiens. He would play nine seasons in Montreal, which included winning a Stanley Cup in 1986.
A coaching change did not sit well with Nilan and led to him being dealt to the New York Rangers, where he would play for three seasons, never again approaching the 75 games he averaged with the Canadiens from 1983-84 to 1985-86. In fact, after scoring 40 goals in 1984-85 and 1985-86, Nilan would only total 34 goals for the final six seasons of his career, never being trusted by coaches and developed by his teammates the way he had been in Montreal.
After a season and a half with the Boston Bruins, Nilan was waived by the Bruins and picked up by the Canadiens, who had a change behind the bench by then. He would retire as a Canadien at the end of the 1991-92 season, having played 13 seasons, scoring 110 goals and 225 points and winning a Stanley Cup.
Today's video section begins with the official trailer for the film.