MONTREAL – Chris (Knuckles) Nilan makes no bones about having been an NHL enforcer.
The former Montreal Canadiens tough guy, who ended up showing he could play a little hockey as well as drop the gloves, makes that clear in the plain-worded autobiography Fighting Back: The Chris Nilan Story, that was released Nov. 5.
Other ex-enforcers may be wracked with self-doubt, but Nilan has no regrets about the 222 times he fought in a 13-year NHL career from 1980 to 1992. Or the other times, mostly undocumented, he fought away from the rink.
“I like fighting,” he said Friday. “I hear a lot of guys had a tough time with the job.
“I loved to fight. I loved my job. It was the easiest part for me. To become a full time NHL player, I had to work so hard and do all that extra stuff and to punish myself to get better. But the fighting just came to me. It was in me.
“I hear guys say they couldn’t sleep the night before, couldn’t go to a movie. I could have seen a creature double feature the night before. Even if we were playing the Boston Bruins and I’d have to fight three times, I’d be sound asleep in the afternoon.”
Of course, the book shows there was much more to the stocky Bostonian than fighting, even though it was his fists that got him into the NHL and helped keep him there even after coach Jacques Lemaire added goal-scoring to his game.
It would be a much thinner volume than its 335 pages if it were only about fighting and not about the other battles Nilan endured—including a struggle with drug addiction that all but ruined him.
And there was his marriage to Karen Stanley, daughter of the significant other of perhaps Boston’s most notorious mobster, James (Whitey) Bulger. Nilan recounts how Bulger pulled out a gun during their first meeting as a reminder to treat her right.
This week, the 83-year-old Bulger was handed two life sentences for a list of crimes that included 11 murders.
“He was my father-in-law and actually he was a good friend of mine,” said Nilan. “I don’t agree with the innocent people that were killed.
“Yes, he’s a calculated and very mean person, when it comes to that business he’s in, but he was good to me, and when people are good to me, I’m good in return. I’m a loyal friend.”
Today, Nilan is sober and busy.
He has an afternoon show on TSN 990 radio in Montreal and delivers his anti-drugs and anti-bullying talks at schools and other institutions. He also does work for a women’s shelter. He has gone from protecting teammates on the ice to helping others battle a different sort of intimidation.
It is an abrupt change from only a few years ago, when Nilan hit bottom with his addictions, first to painkillers and later heroin.
“I lost myself,” he said. “I was a sick person.
“I had help to get my life back. Some important people stepped in and made me look at what was going on. I’ll be forever grateful to those people.”
He credits former teammates Serge Savard and Bob Gainey for reaching out to him when he was down and helping to get him into rehab.
Part of the healing process was working on a documentary about hockey enforcers called The Gladiators. That continued with his decision to write a book.
“I wanted people to see the rise to the top, where I came from, the things I went through, and my downfall and the redemption,” he said. “People can realize how low you fall down the totem pole and how bad things can get in life but there’s always that possibility to get back on our feet and, not only get your life back, but be a better person.”
Nilan set Canadiens records of 358 penalty minutes in one season and 2,248 in his career, but he also scored 110 goals in 688 career NHL games.
His high point was between 1983 and 1986, when he had seasons of 16, 21 and 19 goals. The man most thought of as a one-dimensional fighter had become a player, albeit a feisty one.
He says Claude Ruel, who had two brief stints as the Canadiens coach but who was mostly involved in player development, had much to do with nurturing his hockey skills.
But Lemaire took him to another level.
“I always worked hard, but Lemaire refined it,” he said. “He had me work in a smarter way.
“He said ‘Here’s where you’re going to score goals from—down in front of the net, rebounds, screens.’ So I worked on tipping pucks, putting pucks up high from in close. He worked on my foot speed. He helped me be that 20 goal scorer.”
Nilan won a Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1986, but two seasons later was traded to the New York Rangers.
He moved in 1990 to the Bruins. He was preparing for retirement when he was placed on waivers late in the 1991-92 campaign, but was claimed by the Canadiens. He played his final 17 regular-season and seven playoffs games back in red, white and blue.
“I never wanted to play for another team,”he said. “Even if I could have become a free agent, I don’t know if I would ever have tested the waters.
“I never wanted to leave. I was forced into that. I was devastated when I got traded. I don’t know how guys play for five or six teams because I’m so loyal. I was never quite the same when I left (Montreal).”