A pull-no-punches documentary about fighting in the National Hockey League will make its Minnesota premiere Friday, with the film's central subject attending and fielding questions about how he came to be known as "Knuckles."
"The Last Gladiators," made under the guiding hand of Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney, begins its run Friday at the St. Anthony Main Theatres in Minneapolis.
The NHL career and post-retirement life of longtime NHL "enforcer" Chris Nilan acts as the spine of the pain-filled story line, with other on-ice tough guys revealing what motivated them to be willing to stand on skates and exchange bare-fisted punches in fights by the dozens.
Nilan, who won the hearts of hockey-crazed Montreal Canadiens fans in the 1980s, asked for no pity as he told the camera about how the many fights shattered his body, addicted him to painkillers and heroin and damaged relationships with those close to him.
In nearly 700 NHL games, Nilan collected more than 3,000 penalty minutes (ninth all-time), many of those coming 5 minutes at a time for fighting.
Gibney won an Oscar for his 2008 documentary on U.S. torture practices in "Taxi to the Dark Side." His other credits include "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson." He'll soon be releasing a documentary on disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong.
"The Last Gladiators" is inspired by the book "The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL," written by noted Twin Cities sports author Ross Bernstein.
After the film's 7 p.m. showing Friday, Bernstein and Nilan will discuss the movie, fighting in hockey and concerns about concussions in the sport.
Also among those attending the evening showing will be many former college players and NHLers who either grew up in Minnesota, played college hockey in the state or now live in Minnesota. They include Andrew Brunette, Mark Parrish, Dave Richter, Ben Hankinson, Joe Dziedzic, Pat Micheletti, Neil Sheehy, Mike Peluso, Shjon Podein, J.P. Parise and Gordie Roberts.
Admission is $8.50. For more information, including a trailer, visit www.startribune.com/a2075.
Paul Walsh 612-673-4482