Vaughan, ON As CBA negotiations drag on and the prospect of an 82 game season has officially expired, hockey fans in Canada can find a fix for their NHL withdrawal in The Last Gladiators, a documentary on the career of Chris Nilan and the lifestyle of NHL tough guys.
Naturally, I was a little more than eager to see this film. After watching the official trailer for the first time yesterday, I actually got so excited that I wanted to kick someone in the neck. Believe it or not, I was so eager to see this thing that I literally had to wait in the parking lot of Cineplex Colossus for the doors to open for the first screening of the day.
I had my own private screening this afternoon, too! It was just me and a napping Cineplex employee in cinema #16, which was great since The Last Gladiators can get quite emotional. The film takes you back to the age of old time hockey – a time when players earned their nicknames, and enforcers won Stanley Cups. This film will make anyone from my generation wish that they were born 10 or 15 years earlier just so they could have been old enough to really appreciate that colourful era in hockey’s history.
Of course, The Last Gladiators isn’t just an entertaining montage of highlight reel worthy fights, black eyes, and toothless grins. The documentary successfully humanizes the pressure that many hockey players struggle with, and the brutality of the role of the enforcer. By sharing his personal struggles as an NHL tough guy, and with adjusting to life after hockey, Chris Nilan has probably done more than he knows to change the way the fans and the critics view the game.
I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that as a hockey fan I was really desensitized to violence in hockey to the point that I didn’t even realize that it was violence at all. I remember the exact moment that I had my epiphany on hockey fights. It was a few seasons back now, and I was at the game of a guy that I had been seeing. Sure, I had done the same thing many, many times before, but for some reason this night was different. I remember he ended up getting into a brawl with another guy – again, this wasn’t exactly new. But this time something just clicked. Like a switch had been flipped on. He was getting punched in the face! Actually, PUNCHED. IN. THE. FACE! It was like hockey stopped being theatrical and started being real. These were real hits. This was real pain. This was a real fight. I’m not sure why I had this revelation that night. Maybe in some sick way I had grown attached to him. Whatever the reason, The Last Gladiators is a revelation maker, and the opening scene will make you all understand what I felt at that hockey game that night.
I think it is hard for many fans nowadays to really understand the psychological strain that athletes are under. I mean, I don’t think there are many fans that would hold a bad play or missed opportunity against a player for more than the duration of the game. The fans aren’t losing sleep over a lost game, and I think we all assume that National Hockey League players are professionals that have been trained specifically to let things roll off their backs, and recover quickly from mistakes that would have completely shattered the confidence of lesser men.
Furthermore, in today’s NHL many hockey players have really put themselves out there with social media outlets, and given the fans access to their lives 24/7. While all of this is great (sometimes), the public just doesn’t know when there is something wrong and if a player is struggling emotionally, especially when his tweets consist of invites to exclusive parties, and a few sets of implants on each of his arms. To us, everything seems more than fine, and many fans would probably kill for how their lives appear. Players are making huge money now and climbing up a few notches on the celebrity ladder. But, obviously, things aren’t always the way they seem online.
How can we forget the shocking events of 2011 when the hockey community lost both Wade Belak and Rick Rypien to suicide? The events were tragic, but seemed to be quickly swept under the rug by the media and the NHL. How can these athletes (or anyone for that matter) reach out for help, if depression and mood disorders are stigmatized by the people they should be able to talk to about them without risk of losing their jobs? Luckily, The Last Gladiators was able to break some ground in this area by putting Nilan’s seasoned face (and knuckles) to the issue.
As you can plainly see, I’m definitely not a film critic, but I do give The Last Gladiators my Psycho Lady stamp of approval. It’s a must-see for any red blooded hockey fan, and a great way to forget all about your lockout sorrows. Enjoy!