Nilan documentary showcases hockey’s fight game

Chris Nilan is featured in the film “The Last Gladiators.”
Aaron Vincent Elkaim/AP
Chris Nilan is featured in the film “The Last Gladiators.”

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 punches over a 13-year NHL career wish Nilan took a different 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 to 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 shows part of the sacrifices he’s made for earning that nickname. The knuckle on his right pinky finger is ground to about nothing. The one on his index finger was shattered and is now nothing but a soft patch of skin.

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‘‘I feel it days, you know? It’s part of paying the price,’’ he says in the opening scene. ‘‘I can still use them.’’

Busted-up knuckles are only a small part of Nilan’s issues since he retired in 1992. He 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.

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