TORONTO (Reuters) - In a year when hockey violence has come under increasing scrutiny, two films at the Toronto Film Festival examine the role of the sport’s enforcers, who make it to the big leagues using their fists rather than their skating skills.
Alex Gibney, who won a best documentary Oscar in 2007 for “Taxi to the Dark Side,” attacks the subject through the eyes of 1980s enforcer Chris Nilan, while Canadian director Michael Dowse takes a comedic approach with his feature, “Goon”.
Long a staple of professional hockey, enforcers are the guys a coach sends out when an opposing player takes a cheap shot at one of your top scorers.
A few broken teeth later, justice has been served.
But while a good brawl can bring fans to their feet, it comes at a cost for the tough guys like Nilan, who patrolled the ice for the NHL Montreal Canadiens in the 1980s.
Like many young players with more grit than talent, Boston-born Nilan ended up making what Gibney calls a “Faustian bargain”, or deal with the devil.
“They want to play hockey in the show, but they’re not good enough to be (a scorer), so they know their way in is to be the enforcer, to be the guys who fight,” Gibney told Reuters.
Nilan’s pugilism won him the love of fans and a hallowed place in what Gibney calls a “golden age” of hockey enforcers.
But after retiring in 1992, Nilan, 53, had trouble readjusting to normal life, battling addictions to painkillers, alcohol and heroin, and alienating friends and family.
Like many enforcers interviewed in the film, Nilan admits he didn’t enjoy fighting, but did so to protect his teammates.
After the film’s premiere, he noted the number of players sidelined by concussions was lower in his era than in recent years when several players, including superstar Pittsburgh Penguin Sidney Crosby, have missed time due to head injuries.
“I truly believe it was because they had guys riding shotgun for them like me,” he said.
The subject matter is new cinematic territory for the prolific Gibney, who has recently taken on subjects such as Eliot Spitzer, Enron, and U.S. state-sanctioned torture.
But the timing of the film is fortuitous, coming in a year that hockey violence has been under the spotlight after the deaths of three current and former enforcers.
New York Rangers tough guy Derek Boogaard was found dead in May after overdosing on alcohol and pain killers, and Vancouver Canucks’ Rick Rypien committed suicide in August. Police have yet to release the cause of death of recently retired Wade Belak, who was found dead in a Toronto hotel room in August.
Media pundits have speculated about the possible link between the deaths and the life of the enforcer, but both Gibney and Nilan warned against rushing to judgment.
“We’ve all got to be careful about drawing too many conclusions, because each person’s life has its own mysteries,” Gibney said. “But it’s hard to ignore three enforcers going down in a short period of time.”
In Dowse’s “Goon”, “American Pie” actor Sean William Scott adds muscle and subtracts teeth to play Doug Glatt, a dim but kind-hearted bar bouncer who’s recruited into minor-league hockey after getting into a fight at a hockey game.
Glatt, who at first can barely skate, soon makes a mark with his fists, and finds himself on a collision course with legendary thug Ross “the boss” Rhea, played by Liev Schreiber.
With a light touch that will draw comparisons to the 1977 Paul Newman classic “Slap Shot”, Dowse takes on the issue of violence and life after the game through Schreiber’s character, who sees retirement coming after serving a suspension for injuring another player.
But the focus is on the laughs, mined from Glatt’s foul-mouthed buddy, played by Jay Baruchel, and the playful use of hockey stereotypes, such as the superstitious goalie who talks to his goalposts and has his mother’s face painted on his helmet.
The film would seem a shoo-in to find an audience in hockey-mad Canada, but will also hit U.S. screens early next year under a distribution deal with Magnolia pictures.
Reporting by Cameron French; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte