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Nilan documentary showcases hockey's fight game

| Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013, 7:40 p.m.

Chris Nilan holds out a pair of gnarled hands and wonders if he could have been a doctor.

Maybe a few hapless victims of his powerful punches over a 13-year NHL career wish Nilan took a different career path.

Born in Massachusetts, where he dreamed of becoming the next Bobby Orr, Nilan instead put those hands to use as one of the league's premier tough guys of the 1980s. It's no surprise a player billed as “Knuckles” used his fists to fight his way toward more than 3,000 career penalty minutes.

But in the opening scene to the documentary, “The Last Gladiators,” Nilan stretches out his hands, then makes a pair of fists and showed part of the sacrifices he's made for earning that nickname.

Busted-up knuckles are only a small part of Nilan's issues since he retired in 1992. Nilan goes into great detail describing his battles with alcohol, painkillers, and heroin and becomes the focus of the documentary that explores the life of the enforcer and his role in the unspoken code of the NHL.

The film is in theaters this month in select cities and debuts on video on demand Friday. Pittsburgh native Donald “Dee” Rizzo is among the film's listed executive producers.

Fighting was easy for Nilan. Life after hockey was hard.

“I had a difficult journey after hockey,” Nilan said. “I had an overabundance of injuries that really took their toll on me. I ended up getting on painkillers. They really helped me. But when I tried to stop taking them, I couldn't. I was sick.”

Nilan is featured during the 90-minute documentary as a man with no regrets for making a living with his fists more than he ever did with his stick. He scored 110 goals in 688 games, mostly served as the backbone of the Canadiens but had 3,043 penalty minutes, ninth on the career list.

His best year with Montreal was in 1985-86, when he scored 21 goals and helped the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup title. His aggressive style made him a wildly popular player among Montreal fans.

“The Last Gladiators” producer, Barry Reese, contacted Nilan's daughter on Facebook about the project right as Nilan was leaving treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. He was pitched to take part in a documentary on fighting and hockey. He quickly takes over the film, his brutally honest story serving as a form of on-screen therapy — and a cautionary tale for future players who want to slug their way into an NHL roster spot.

Nilan, 54, told stories of one bad decision after another in retirement once the fame of his playing career dried up. He talks of gobbling painkillers, multiple overdoses and falling asleep with heroin needles in his arms.

“My whole day was being consumed with, ‘How am I going to get pills,' ” he said in the film. “And if I had them, how am I going to make them last?”

Nilan was in tears when the movie screened in Toronto. While the film touches on other noted enforcers, like Donald Brashear and Bob Probert, it's Nilan's story that pulls it all together. His father tells how he's “got to be ashamed” of his son.

“In some respects,” Nilan's father, Henry, said, “I wish he had never played hockey.”

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