Currently making the rounds in theatres is a documentary titled ‘The Last Gladiators’ by award winning director Alex Gibney. The film is a personal look at what it takes to be a ‘goon’ in the NHL and features, among others, former Montreal Canadiens RW Chris Nilan. By getting up close and personal, the movie explains what it takes to be a professional hockey player whose job is to protect his team’s best players.
Nilan followed in the footsteps of Montreal’s first gladiator, the likes of which have not been seen since. Five years prior to Nilan’s rookie season, Canadiens second year defenseman Larry Robinson gave notice to the hockey world that cheap shots taken on any of his teammates would not be tolerated, thus setting the bar for the roll of enforcer in the league. Robinson’s emphatic message would be beamed by NBC to a nationally televised audience.
During the February 17, 1974 game at the Montreal Forum against the Philadelphia Flyers, a bench clearing brawl broke out after the second period. There had been several fights during the stanza, as this one had been brewing for some time. Robinson was tending to equipment issues and a bit late arriving to the party. But, oh boy, when he did arrive, that is when the real fun (and main event) began.
Robinson took no time in finding a dance partner, as he quickly paired up with Flyers best known gladiator, Dave Schultz. After tugging at eachother for about half a minute, Robinson extricated himself for Schultz’ clutches and landed five punches which sent the Flyers’ tough guy reeling. Schultz had been manhandled so severely, that his teammates were in the very unusual position of having to come to his rescue. Talk about having the tables turned.
On that night, hockey fans saw something they had never seen before: a look of fear and horror etched on the face of Schultz; the hammer would get hammered! The baddest of the ‘Broad Street Bullies’ had been pummeled by the Habs’ second year defenseman. From that day on, notice was sent to league players that if they messed with any of the Canadiens’ star players, accounts would have to be settled by the 6’ 4” 225 pound blueliner nicknamed ‘Big Bird’.
Although both Robinson and Nilan can both be seen as enforcers, they were birds of a different feather when it came to their respective rolls. Whereas Robinson would prevent chippy play by his mere intimidating presence and clean physical play, Nilan would be more of an instigator and reactionary figure. While Nilan spent a good portion of his time in the penalty box during games, Robinson would be on the ice leading his team to multiple Stanley Cup victories.
During his career, Robinson did not get into many fights, as he was too valuable of a team asset to spectate from the penalty box. Of course, another main reason why he avoided skirmishes is that few would even dare to challenge him after the beat down he laid on Schultz. But when Robinson did drop the gloves, there were few better. As Schultz found out the hard way, Robinson’s size, strength, balance and devastating punches were no match, even for the league’s top “goons”.
As a result of his long and accomplished career, Robinson ranks first on the all-time Canadiens Defenseman list for games played, points, goals, assists and all-star selections. The Hall of Famer, along with Doug Harvey, are widely recognized as the two best defensemen in Habs’ history. Not too shabby for an enforcer.
It is highly unlikely we will ever see another enforcer with such immense talent. The current breed are usually players who have a limited amount of playing skill. Robinson not only excelled at offering a high level of protection for the Canadiens star players, he did it while becoming a star himself.
With all due respect to Mr. Nilan, on my fantasy team, I will have to take the first gladiator over the last gladiator. And I am sure he would too.