FILE - In this Oct. 24, 2012, file photo former NHL tough guy Chris Nilan poses for a portrait while promoting the documentary "The Last Gladiators," in Toronto. Nilan had a far greater fight than one on the ice. He battled herioin and alcohol addiction long after his career as one of the NHL's top brawlers. His life is documented in the upcoming documentary "The Last Gladiators." (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Aaron Vincent Elkaim, File)
Photograph by: AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Aaron Vincent Elkaim, File), Canada.com
MONTREAL — In the foreword to the new book, Fighting Back: The Chris Nilan Story, Hockey Hall of Famer Serge Savard writes: “Chris Nilan lives by a motto: ‘Never back down. Never stay down.’ That motto describes the man through and through.”
Over 335 pages, Nilan describes the fights he has faced during his life — on and off the ice — starting as a young boy in Boston, where an Irish baby “comes into this world with his chin jutted out and fists balled and looking for a fight.”
As he did during his playing career, Nilan drops the gloves and doesn’t hold back any punches in the book.
“It’s a little bit about redemption … about striving to be better,” Nilan said this week when he was a guest on the HI/O Show on The Gazette’s hockeyinsideout.com website.
The fact Nilan even made it to the National Hockey League is remarkable when you consider he was the 231st of 234 players selected at the 1978 NHL draft. The only reason the Canadiens even picked him was because Paul King, Nilan’s midget hockey coach who was a district court judge in Massachusetts, was a big Habs fan and was good friends with Dickie Moore and Doug Harvey. After being pushed by “Judge King”, the two Canadiens Hall of Famers put in a good word with the team about the Boston kid who posted 8-9-17 totals in 20 games with ZERO penalty minutes during the 1977-78 season with Northeastern University.
Nilan’s father, who was a Green Beret in the U.S. Army Reserve, had joked that the only way his son would get drafted was “if there was a war and I got called up by the military.”
Nilan writes that hockey was “the love of my life” from a young age, describing how he learned to skate on an oversized puddle near his house before graduating to a swamp next to West Roxbury High School. He didn’t play in his first organized league until he was in Grade 5, but grew up idolizing the Boston Bruins during the days when there were bumper stickers that read “JESUS SAVES. ESPOSITO SCORES ON THE REBOUND” and players like Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr and Derek Sanderson “were people of myth, larger than life.”
During his first training camp with the Canadiens, Nilan writes: “I was still in awe, but I skated with a determination, and with a residual dislike of the Montreal Canadiens.”
Once on the ice, Nilan slammed future Hall of Famer Guy Lapointe into the boards and then exchanged slashes and obscenities with Steve Shutt.
“I think he figured I was a nobody (which was right), whom he would never see again after training camp (which he was wrong),” Nilan writes about future teammate Shutt.
Nilan eventually bled bleu-blanc-rouge both on and off the ice, writing: “Every time I pulled on that Montreal Canadiens sweater, I had to pinch myself.”
Nilan actually earned the nickname “Knuckles” while at Northeastern for his fights off the ice while in university.
“Whenever I was out at night with my hockey teammates and someone mouthed off to us, I recognized it as an invitation to fight,” he writes.
But he was using his fists long before then.
“I was fighting in the streets of Boston when I was in grade school,” he writes. “I fought in self-defence, and when I was insulted — or merely felt I was insulted. What I didn’t do, though, is look for someone to pick on. In fact, I stood up for the kid who was picked on. I was never a bully.
“But I could punch. I could always punch. I can still punch.”
Nilan still holds the Canadiens record for most penalty minutes in a career (2,248) and a season (358). He had 222 fights during his 13 years in the NHL, including a career-high 43 during the Canadiens’ 1985-86 Stanley Cup championship season, when he had 141 penalty minutes in 18 playoff games. During the regular season Nilan had posted 19-15-34 totals and 274 penalty minutes in 72 games.
“Fighting was the easy part for me — the hard part was becoming a well-rounded player,” Nilan writes.
He describes how former coach Claude Ruel worked with him every day after practice, determined Nilan would become more than just an enforcer, giving him the nickname “Yankee boy.” Bob Gainey was always there to answer Nilan’s questions and put him through extra skating drills, while Guy Lafleur taught him how to “see” the game.
One of the people Nilan celebrated the Canadiens’ 1986 Stanley Cup win with was his father-in-law figure, Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, who this week received two life sentences in prison plus five years after being convicted in a racketeering and murder conspiracy. In the book, Nilan describes his first meeting with Bulger after he started dating Karen Stanley, the daughter of Bulger’s longtime girlfriend, Teresa Stanley. Bulger sat Nilan down and told him how he expected Karen to be treated, while a handgun — “the type that James Bond sometimes carried” — sat on his lap.
When Nilan married Karen in 1981, the wedding party included Bulger and some of his “friends”, along with Nilan’s father and his Green Beret comrades and some of Nilan’s Canadiens teammates, including Gainey, Larry Robinson, Yvon Lambert, Rod Langway and Doug Risebrough.
“That group could have invaded and conquered a small country,” Nilan writes.
When his hockey career came to an end following the 1991-92 season, Nilan felt an emptiness he didn’t know how to fill, which contributed “to my making choices that were dangerous and life threatening.” He had more than 30 surgeries during his playing career, including 11 on his right knee, two on each shoulder and four on his hands.
“Swimming in alcohol and burying myself in pills is how I handled the physical pain that resulted from hockey,” he writes. “It just so happened that it also started to work pretty well at numbing the emotional pain I was feeling.”
Eventually, the booze and drugs (along with a longtime affair) cost Nilan his marriage to Karen after more than 25 years and three children, and very nearly killed him.
“One morning, I woke up sitting on the toilet with a needle in my arm attached to a syringe of heroin,” he writes.
“Heroin is the final step before you die.”
Nilan writes that he has been clean and sober for three years now, living on the West Island with his girlfriend, Jaime Holtz, who he met while in rehab. He is working for TSN Radio 690, with a weekday show from noon until 3 p.m.
“I’m still fighting,” Nilan writes in the book. “I fight every day to stay clean and live smart and be responsible.”
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