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Rick Rypien of the Vancouver Canucks sports fresh stitches in his nose as a result of his fight with Ian Laperriere of the Colorado Avalanche during their game at General Motors Place on December 2, 2006. (Jeff Vinnick/JEFF VINNICK/GETTY IMAGES)
Rick Rypien of the Vancouver Canucks sports fresh stitches in his nose as a result of his fight with Ian Laperriere of the Colorado Avalanche during their game at General Motors Place on December 2, 2006. (Jeff Vinnick/JEFF VINNICK/GETTY IMAGES)

Ian Brown

The NHL enforcers who go down fighting Add to ...

Naturally, there are exceptions. Former NHL enforcer Ryan VandenBussche once had to be tasered before he could be subdued in a bar brawl. He was 35. He was later cleared of three counts of assaulting police and one count of uttering a death threat after his lawyer argued that concussions had rendered him a “non-insane automaton,” and the judge agreed that his behaviour was not the product of an “operating mind.” That pretty much sums up the darkest version of the enforcer role.

Enforcers so intrigued Oscar-nominated filmmaker Alex Gibney ( Client 9), he spent three years making a documentary about them. The Last Gladiators makes its debut next month at the Toronto International Film Festival. Mr. Gibney has always been obsessed by “people who are forced to do brutal stuff that takes a toll on them.”

“I was struck by the enforcers' ability to embrace contradictions,” he explained on the phone the other day. “They go on the ice and have a fight, but for them it's never about that. There has to be a cause. Terms of respect are terribly important.”

For many enforcers, the game and the arena are their least complicated home. “He really felt that hockey was his sanctuary,” Mr. Roy said of Mr. Rypien.

This is one more reason why many people felt Mr. Rypien's tragedy so keenly, even if they weren't hockey fans: With the exception of goalie, enforcer is the most individual role on a hockey team, and the most candid. No wonder it gets personal.

The centrepiece of Mr. Gibney's film is Chris Nilan, a 15-year big-leaguer who helped win the Montreal Canadiens a Stanley Cup. “He's always been obsessed with people who get picked on,” the filmmaker said. “That would always set him off. The way that his toughness came out was always in furtherance of a cause, protecting somebody.”

Mr. Nilan grew up in poor Boston under the often physical hand of a tough father. The NHL became his justice, and “something for him to shoot for,” Mr. Gibney said. “But he knew that the only way he got into the bigs was with his fists. That's a tough and bitter pill to swallow.”

Well, it is if no one is willing to admit the importance of fighting in hockey – to say nothing of the role of the Spartan enforcers who control the game's emotions. Planned fighting has nothing to do with manhood, as the human cockatiel Don Cherry keeps asserting at full volume over and over again, and everything to do with discipline and control.

After all, enforcers spend most of the game on the bench, observing. They see what Mr. Gibney calls “that contradiction at the centre of hockey. You're supposed to enjoy the speed, the grace, the magnificence of people flying on the ice, putting a small puck in the net. But if a fight breaks out in basketball, the referees don't stand around before they step in. And that's the poignant part of the hockey enforcer's fate. We do enjoy watching them fight. We come from that place, deep down, when civilization was not so complex and full of euphemism, back when we beat the shit out of people. In some fundamental way, we admire it when everything else is stripped away.”

But it's never easy. At 6 foot 4 and 245 pounds, Andrew Peters was for six seasons one of the NHL's most gigantic enforcers. Still, he said, “it's an emotionally stressful job.”

How stressful? Mid-August each year, Mr. Peters began to scan the schedule “to see who I'm gonna fight. I'm not playing the Ottawa Senators, I'm fighting Brian McGrattan.” He watched fight films of upcoming enforcers. He was often sleepless the night before a game and speechless the afternoon of it. But he did it “because I wanted to play hockey and because they paid me good money” – the league minimum of $500,000 in his last year. He also did it “because I've been told how it makes guys on a team feel to know you're there for them.”

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