Blood On The Ice
by Brody Rossiter
Unlike many mainstream sports today, contact based or not, ice hockey has somehow retained a razor-sharp and distinctly violent edge that extends far beyond the sticks and skates. Bare knuckle blow trading isn’t just common place, but rather a forgone conclusion when it comes to your average trip to the rink. Not only are brawls considered a bloodthirsty sideshow akin to gladiatorial death matches, but also an integral tactic of dominance upon the ice – not just winning battles of hometown pride but major championships too.
Born out of a clear hardening and muscling up of the game during the 1970’s, ‘enforcers’ became an invaluable asset to every team from the little leagues to the NHL. Though a certain degree of playing ability was undoubtedly necessary, enforcers were not known for their skill with a hockey-stick, but rather their competence at throwing a haymaker to knock the spirit out of any franchise’s star player. Chris ‘knuckles’ Nilen was a prime example of such a player, possessing little concern about how big, or how tough his opponent may have been, and earning his spot by simply taking on all comers who dared try to intimidate a fellow Montreal Canadiens teammate.
Several of The Last Gladiators‘ scenes are constructed predominantly from archive footage and feel surreal and borderline slapstick due to their overt brutality. At a time when even such hard-hitting sports as rugby in its various incarnations, American football, and obviously boxing and MMA are so strictly monitored to ensure some degree of safety for competitors, the same safeguards are nowhere to be found upon the ice. Toothless grins, concussions and tales of multiple surgeries are commonplace; ironically for a man nicknamed knuckles, Nilen has very little semblance of the joints left due to the sustained beatings they dealt out. Ultimately what is by no means comedic is the expendable nature of most enforcers, whose careers often go the same way as punch-drunk boxers, left duking it out until they no longer physically can – only to be tossed away by the teams for whom they spilt so much blood.
Nilen and his fellow enforcers’ tale is one of bittersweet nature, depicting young men who achieved their dreams of playing major league hockey only to one day realise it had become a living and tortuous nightmare of great sacrifice. The impacts they made will never be forgotten throughout the stadiums of Canada and North-America, but nor will the prices their minds and bodies had to pay for the privilege of bearing their team’s colours and carrying the weight of their reputations.
A revealing and often surprisingly shocking documentary, The Last Gladiators is an involving and emotional watch for not only hockey fans but fans of polished documentary filmmaking and spirited sporting tales.