A dark close-up of the very knuckles that begat Chris Nilan's nickname fills the opening shot of "The Last Gladiators," but the old NHL enforcer's sharp mind, broken heart and ravaged soul are the most brutal components of a landmark hockey documentary that opened this month.
Who among us would have dreamed that Nilan, a very serviceable winger and reliable fighter for the 1986 Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens, might ultimately emerge in someone's far-off filmography as a poignant three-dimensional character reminiscent in cinematic complexity of so many others, real, imagined or "loosely based," who sprang from the desperate ethos of various Boston neighborhoods: Mark Wahlberg's Micky Ward in "The Fighter," Sean Penn's Jimmy Markum in "Mystic River," Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello in "The Departed," Matt Damon's Will Hunting in "Good Will Hunting," to name a handful?
Yet here is Nilan in real life, now 54 and trying to recover from everything -- booze, drugs, arrests, but, mostly, from hockey -- filling Alex Gibney's documentary as the most interesting pro athlete in any vehicle like this in a long time. Perhaps, it's explained by the Oscar-winning Gibney's growing mastery of this genre. His pedophile priest study, "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God," currently on HBO, is nothing short of devastating.
The good news: Nilan is at least alive in a hockey era when notable enforcers are turning up dead from a multiplicity of ailments, mental as well as physical. Bob Probert died in 2010 at age 45, Wade Belak (35), Rick Rypien (27) and Derek Boogaard (28) died in 2011. Nilan entered the NHL in the early 1980s through that unmarked side entrance, the one for players who might not be terribly skilled, or might not be skilled at all, but who eagerly will do almost anything to protect teammates, including fight the very genus of dangerous cat they see in the mirror.
A large part of the serious hockey audience absolutely loves these guys. To them, as former enforcer Tony Twist tells Gibney's cameras, "You're like a rock star out there and you're singin' the song everybody wants to hear."
But, even at the rock show, sometimes the artist doesn't really want to play that song. You might infer from Nilan's testimony in this film that he wasn't always thrilled to deliver that song. Willing, capable, talented in his way, sure. But thrilled?
"Hockey doesn't allow you to show your true feelings," Nilan says at one point.
I talked with Jay Caufield about this Tuesday. Caufield, an enforcer with the Penguins' Stanley Cup teams in the early 1990s, has the job and the post-hockey life Nilan can only hope for right now. They're paths once crossed. Check out the Caufield-Nilan fight from March 26, 1989 on hockeyfights.com, if you must.
"Probably one of the better tactical fighters," Caufield remembered. "He was very good at it. He was very good at his job all the time he was in the league, just like in the film."
That's all too true, but even after the Canadiens molded Nilan into an effective winger and offensive contributor, he was afraid to keep the gloves on for fear he would lose his identity and his career, something Caufield understands like few others.
"I think everybody, if they could, would want to be a goal-scorer, to be able to put the puck in the net, but everybody can't," said the man with the telestrator on the Penguins telecasts. "You have to remember, in the pregame, when everybody else is preparing what they're going to do on the power play, what they're going to do against this player or that player, guys like me, like Nilan, those guys are going, 'Hey, who's coming after me if we're up? Who am I going after if we're down?' Sometimes, the game became only that. That may lead to guys having, whatever, issues.
"When I played, players like me were just hoping to get a couple of shifts a night. When you did get called upon to try to change the momentum or try to make a big hit, you'd better do it. You had to do your job, even if the score was 8-1 and they put you in in the last minute of a game, you had to do it.
"It comes across as bad, but that's what it was about. If you didn't go out there and do it, you weren't gonna be there the next day. That's how I viewed it. Guys that didn't view it that way; they were gone. I think [Nilan's] right. He wouldn't have been there if he changed his game. It's a shame what he went through."
Caufield credits his wife and family for helping him to focus on responsibilities after hockey, and says he was fortunate as well in that, while he knew a transition was inevitable, he so enjoyed his NHL experience down to its final minutes that he left without regrets.
"The world doesn't operate the way it does in sports," Caufield said. "[Athletes] aren't even used to making doctor's appointments. I was 34, had the majority of my life left. There's no time to sit around and fret about hockey. You have to have some balance."
The unbalancing fact is, Nilan's role in "The Last Gladiators" throbs with an incredible performance by Nilan, but it's no performance. There's a certain kind of player for whom hockey is life, and sometimes life is dangerous, bewildering, heartbreaking.
Gene Collier: email@example.com. First Published February 27, 2013 5:00 AM