Fighter Chris Nilan devoted his body and soul to protecting his teammates for 15 seasons in the NHL. (Denis Brodeur/Getty Images)
By Stu Hackel
If fans embrace Slap Shot as the Casablanca of hockey films, The Last Gladiators is Apocalypse Now, a descent into the game’s heart of darkness. Here, the hockey fighters’ story doesn’t trace cartoon lives of triumphant heroes who engage in laugh-a-minute punchouts that end in a championship parade. This documentary shows the aftermath, the tough guys’ dénouement, as their lives — and the role they played — dissolve in a unique mixture of regret, shame, pride, self-destruction, and nostalgia.
Slap Shot was a film of its time that provided — and still provides — the hockey community with the laughs. The Last Gladiators is the sobering counterpoint, more in the tradition of some of Hollywood’s great ring tragedies from Requiem For A Heavyweight to The Wrestler.
Directed by Alex Gibney, an Oscar, Emmy, Peabody, and Grammy award-winning documentarian, this film could not be more timely as it peers into the troubled lives of former NHL fighters. Centered around Chris Nilan, who for 13 seasons was one of the NHL’s most feared heavyweights, the film explores the job he and his pugilist peers did, why they did it, the role is serves in the sport, and the toll it took on their lives.