On the Penguins: 'The Last Gladiators'
One-time enforcer Chris Nilan bore the nickname "Knuckles" that said much about his job in the NHL -- one that took its toll on his life.
Share with others:
Dee Rizzo is a hockey agent, a guy paid to identify, evaluate and recruit exceptional young talents for the agency that employs him, CAA.
He seems to be pretty good at his job, too, considering that he has helped CAA land the likes of Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, among others.
Rizzo, a Greenfield native and resident, is a pioneer, too. He earned a hockey scholarship to Michigan State in the early 1980s, long before Western Pennsylvania began to consistently turn out Division I talent.
But he is, at his core, a hockey fan. Has been for decades. And, for most of that time, Rizzo has had an unabashed fondness for the game's tough guys. The ones who, quite literally, pound out a living with their fists.
• • • •
"I was always intrigued by them, even though I was a former player and dealing with skilled players like Mario [Lemieux] or a young Sidney Crosby," Rizzo said.
So much so that, more than a decade ago, he and another local man, Michael Messner, an ad-agency partner who played club hockey at Penn State, conceived the idea of a film exploring the world of NHL enforcers.
The documentary that resulted, "The Last Gladiators," will have its local premiere Thursday night at The Manor theater in Squirrel Hill and will begin its public run the next night. It is directed by Alex Gibney, an Academy Award winner.
Various enforcers, from ex-Penguin Marty McSorley to Tony Twist, appear in the film, but the central character is Chris "Knuckles" Nilan.
He was one of the league's most-feared fighters during much of his 13-season run with Montreal, the New York Rangers and Boston -- he piled up 3,043 penalty minutes in 688 games -- but eventually faded from the game and descended into a personal hell of shattered relationships and substance abuse.
"Chris fell," Rizzo said. "He fell hard, and he's trying to come back now. His father, in the movie, on camera, says he was ashamed [Chris] was his son, when Chris fell.
"When he got on those painkillers, then got involved in the drugs and that, that really hurt his family. That was a really sad thing to me."
Nonetheless, Rizzo said the film makes a point of trying to not dilute reality, no matter how brutal.
"We didn't want to sugarcoat anything," he said. "We want to show what it's like."
Nilan's experiences, and the deaths in 2011 of enforcers Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, illustrate the dark side of filling that role, and fighting is the most polarizing issue in the game today.
Nonetheless, fights -- especially those involving two prominent enforcers -- invariably draw a spirited reaction from fans, who often are out of their seats before the first punch is thrown.
"After your superstars, these guys are usually the most popular guys on the team," Rizzo said.
And some of the most interesting. Much is made of The Code under which enforcers operate, but their culture is fascinating, as well.
For many, fighting is strictly business. Nothing that could, say, ruin a friendship.
Rizzo points to a game in the 1990s, when Penguins defenseman Chris Tamer and Florida's Paul Laus, who entered the NHL as a Penguins draft choice, had two high-energy fights during a game here.
A few hours later, they were together at a Strip District nightclub, exchanging not haymakers, but news about their off-ice lives.
"Tamer and Laus are sitting at a table, talking about their families and their children and this and that, and they just beat the [daylights] out of each other twice," Rizzo said. "They did what they had to do, and now they're sitting and having a beer together, like it never happened.
"There are no hard feelings. 'I'm going to punch you in the face tonight, then let's go have a beer after the game. I'm doing what I have to do.' "
There is a strong Western Pennsylvania presence behind the film. Along with Rizzo and Messner, Upper St. Clair businessman Barry Reese -- the father of Penguins minor-league player Dylan Reese and, Rizzo said, a key force in keeping the project alive and moving it forward five or six years ago -- and Penguins minority owner Robert Brooks are four of the five executive producers. Four of the seven investors also are local.
All clearly feel that the some of the most-celebrated enforcers in recent NHL history have a story worth telling, even if it meant having film-industry novices make it happen.
"I'm not a movie guy," Rizzo said. "I'm a hockey guy. But it was something a bunch of guys had a passion for."
The Week Ahead
Today: at Buffalo ... The Sabres have sputtered through most of the first month, despite some exceptional performances by winger Thomas Vanek.
Wednesday: vs. Philadelphia .... The Flyers, who are 5-1 in regular-season games at Consol Energy Center, make their first appearance here since Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring.
Friday: vs. Florida ... The Panthers have done little to shake the feeling that their stunning run to the Southeast Division championship in 2011-12 was an aberration.
First Published February 17, 2013 12:00 am