TORONTO – Twenty years on from the NHL, Chris Nilan still feels the pain.
“I deal with arthritis every day. I need a new right knee. My left ankle’s a mess,” said the 54-year-old former tough guy who struggled with addiction after hockey. “You know, I deal with it. I deal with it in a different way—through therapy.
“I use a lot more ice than when I used when I was in the middle of my addiction,” he added with a chuckle.
An anti-inflammatory helps. So does a high pain threshold.
“I was always able to suck it up. It’s not fun to have to suck it up,” Nilan said of his hockey-playing days. “Today I suck it up a bit. Certain days I have to deal with it, there’s not a whole lot else I can do. And that’s OK with me today.”
Pain medication helped in the past—”big time.” But soon the hard man known as Knuckles couldn’t live without them.
“Before I knew what was happening to me, it was too late. And then I was trapped. And I really didn’t know where to turn and how to get out of what I was in.”
“The Last Gladiators,” by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney, tells Nilan’s story as well as those of other enforcers like Tony Twist, Bob Probert and Marty McSorley.
Still the others essentially are footnotes to Nilan.
He is at the heart of the documentary, pouring out his heart from the credits when the camera focuses on his battered hands while he details the abuse he put them through as a hockey player.
Just about everyone has days when they want to punch their boss or a co-worker in the mouth, he notes in the film.
“And they never get to do it,” he adds. “But they like to see someone else do it.”
Nilan is shown as a baby-faced rookie with the Canadiens, a tough guy that many thought had a screw loose. Fast forward to today and Gibney’s camera lingers on Nilan’s craggy, weathered face—the pain showing through sleepy, sunken eyes.
He still looks like he could cut a swath through a bar fight.
Nilan, who played for Montreal, the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins from 1979 to 1992, collected 110 goals, 115 assists and 3,043 penalty minutes in 688 regular-season games.
A Boston boy, Nilan will always be a Hab, however. The film clearly shows the love affair Montreal had with Nilan, who makes his home there today.
While well aware of the cost of his career, it’s clear Nilan relishes his reputation as a hard man.
He quotes an AHL teammate saying Nilan fought his way through the minor league’s tough guys “until there were no more takers.”
“What a line,” a smiling Nilan says in the film.
In an interview, Nilan says filming the documentary and the subsequent media promotion “although tedious, it’s an extension of my therapy in a sense that it allows me to revisit those terrible times in my life which I should never forget.
“I don’t dwell on them but it’s good for me to remember where I was and how I got there. And be grateful and fortunate to have survived it and to be where I am today, with the help that I received to get there.”
Hockey was always Nilan’s anchor. His dream to play in the NHL.
Gibney details Nilan’s playing career and those of his fighting contemporaries with a vast array of game clips and interviews of hockey observers throughout the years. A Who’s Who of hockey contributes to the documentary.
It makes for a compelling story, even with the obligatory clips from “Slap Shot.”
“Slap Shot, it’s the ‘Casablanca’ of hockey fight cinema,” David Singer of Hockeyfights.com says with a smile.
Singer’s website, by the way, credits Nilan with 251 NHL fights.
The film also details Nilan’s efforts to become a well-rounded player and his inability to get on with some coaches.
Jacques Lemaire nurtured him, challenged him. There was no respect between Nilan and Jean Perron, Lemaire’s successor, and it showed.
Nilan was traded to the Rangers after a confrontation with Perron, a move he said that “broke” him. After a stint with the Bruins that ended badly, he finished his career back in his beloved Montreal.
A short stint as an assistant coach in New Jersey behind him, he struggled in his life after hockey. The visits to the bars started earlier. The pain of some 26 surgeries led to too many painkillers.
Booze and pills eventually led to heroin. A bad car accident triggered his long and bumpy road to recovery, prompting him to call an NHL and NHLPA substance abuse counsellor for help.
At times the documentary is painful to watch.
“Some of those less than admirable things have tainted some of the good things I’ve done. And honestly I don’t like that,” says Nilan, his lips pursed with emotion.
Nilan’s father Henry, a former Green Beret, is cruelly blunt about his disappointment at learning the full extent of his son’s addiction.
“I was ashamed of him,” said his father.
You want to reach through the screen and shake him.
Chris Nilan admits he was in tears watching the film for the first time.
“It was tough. But I made sense of all that. I understood other people have feelings and they have their point of view what happened and they expressed it. Although it was tough to watch the first time, the second time. Like I said, I made sense of it … It’s OK.”
Chris, meanwhile, pulls no punches in talking about his frustrated father hitting—and scaring—him as a kid after yet another escapade landed him in trouble.
“As much as I hated that, I still love my Dad,” he said. “I also understand where all that comes from from him, so I’m OK with it.”
He even gave his father his Stanley Cup ring.
Today Nilan has a girlfriend, is building a career in the media and appears on Montreal sports radio. He is involved in numerous social and charitable causes.
“It’s nice to be able to get a second chance,” he said.
He recently went across the country for a series of film screenings. “The Last Gladiators,” which was shown in 2011 at the Toronto International Film Festival, is showing in select cinemas this month.
It is slated for DVD release next.