I have some major issues with the new Chris Nilan documentary The Last Gladiators, grumbling that you can read in all its glory in my review of the Alex Gibney-directed film in The Gazette Friday. The short version? I think it’s irresponsible that Gibney didn’t go deeper into the whole issue of why the NHL encourages the goon mentality and how this impacts so negatively on these guys’ off-ice behaviour.
But one of the most interesting parts of the documentary is the discussion of how this guy who made it into the Big Leagues by punching the biggest, toughest guys he could find rather miraculously became a pretty darn good hockey player somewhere along the way.
Nilan talks of how Habs coach Claude Ruel – who ran the bench from 1979-1981, just when Nilan was starting out in the National Hockey League – worked so hard with him to develop his skills and Jacques Lemaire, who took over from Ruel, was even more engaged in making Knuckles Nilan a better player. In the film, Nilan marvels at how Lemaire would put him on the ice when the team needed a goal and there are some beautiful Nilan goals shown here, including one on a penalty shot!
Nilan also underlines that he learned from his team-mates, who just happened to be some of the greatest players ever to lace-up in the League, including Larry Robinson and Bob Gainey. At one point, someone says of Nilan, ‘it’s his drive” and that’s so true. Think of so many ultra-skilled players who under-perform because they don have 1/100th of the heart of Chris Nilan.
Here’s a fighter – who also happened to be one of the best fighters of the era – who scored 21 goals one year and 19 another year. Compare that to the Habs’ last enforcer, Georges Laraque, who couldn’t score if his life depended on it…..and in fact, by the time he made his way to the Canadiens (in just another horrible Gainey move), wasn’t even willing to fight any more.
Nilan was the real thing, the kind of player you just don’t see in today’s NHL chock-full-of spoiled-brat players. He talks of how devastated he was after the Canadiens traded him to the Rangers, a trade that came after Nilan told coach Jean Perron where to stuff it. Today players change teams like they change underwear. It’s all about the pay-cheque.
“It broke me,” he says of the trade from the Habs.
He cared. Now there’s a novel concept. Try explaining that to Tomas Kaberle.