Chris Nilan holds out a pair of gnarled hands and wonders if he could have been a doctor.
Maybe a few hapless victims of his powerful punches over a 13-year NHL career wish Nilan took a different career path.
Born in Massachusetts where he dreamed of becoming the next Bobby Orr, Nilan instead put those hands to use as one of the league’s premier tough guys of the 1980s. It’s no surprise a player billed as “Knuckles” used his fists to fight his way toward more than 3,000 career penalty minutes.
But in the opening scene to the documentary, “The Last Gladiators,” Nilan stretched out his hands, then makes a pair of fists and showed part of the sacrifices he’s made for earning that nickname. The knuckle on his right pinky finger is ground to about nothing. The one was on his index finger was shattered and is now gone, nothing now but a soft patch of skin.
“I feel it days, you know? It’s part of paying the price,” he said in the opening scene. “I can still use them.”
Busted-up knuckles are only a small part of Nilan’s issues since he retired in 1992. Nilan goes into great detail describing his battles with alcohol, painkillers, and heroin, and becomes the focus of the documentary that explores the life of the enforcer and his role in the unspoken code of the NHL.
The film is in theatres this month in select cities and debuts on video on demand Friday.
Fighting was easy for Nilan. Life after hockey was hard.
“I had a difficult journey after hockey,” Nilan said by phone. “I had an overabundance of injuries that really took their toll on me. I ended up getting on painkillers. They really helped me. But when I tried to stop taking them, I couldn’t. I was sick.”
Nilan is featured during the 90-minute documentary as a man with no regrets for making a living with his fists more than he ever did with his stick. He scored 110 goals in 688 games, mostly served as the backbone of the Montreal Canadiens, but had 3,043 penalty minutes, ninth on the career list.
His best year with Montreal was in 1985-86, when he scored 21 goals and helped them to a Stanley Cup championship. His fighting prowess and aggressive, no-nonsense style made him a wildly popular player with Canadiens’ fans.
“The Last Gladiators” producer, Barry Reese, contacted Nilan’s daughter on Facebook about the project right as Nilan was leaving treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. He was pitched to take part in a documentary on fighting and hockey. He quickly takes over the film, his brutally honest story serving as a form of on-screen therapy—and a cautionary tale for future players who want to slug their way into an NHL roster spot.
From the start, Nilan talks of following a man who attacked his daughter and finding him in a store.
“I hit him with bottles of Coke. I beat him,” he said in the film. “Yeah, I beat him.”
Nilan followed with stories of one bad decision after another in retirement once the fame of his playing career dried up. He was charged with shoplifting in 2009 (the case was dismissed). He talks of gobbling painkillers, multiple overdoses, and falling asleep with heroin needles in his arms.
“My whole day was being consumed with, ‘How am I going to get pills,'” he said in the film. “And if I had them, how am I going to make them last?”
Nilan was in tears when the movie screened in Toronto. While the film touches on other noted enforcers, like Donald Brashear and Bob Probert, it’s Nilan’s story that pulls it all together. His father is interviewed and tells how he’s “got to be ashamed” of his son.
“In some respects,” Nilan’s father, Henry, said, “I wish he had never played hockey.”
Nilan refused to totally blame the sport he loved for years. But the game wrecked his body. Nilan counts about 30 surgeries. Both shoulders were worked on, as were both hands. He needed screws in his left ankle and nearly lost it because of a staph infection. And he endured 11 operations on his right knee. Clearly, he beat up his body playing hockey worse than he ever beat up another hockey player.
All that said, he’d love to find his way back into hockey in some form, and he might be able to call upon his experience behind the bench. He was a head coach in the East Coast Hockey League, and was also an assistant for the New Jersey Devils in 1995-96.
“There’s a lot of people that believe in second chances,” he said by phone. “I had my issues and I’m working my way through them. As long as I’m sober and stay clean, there will be opportunities there. The opportunities will turn into realities.”
Nilan, who turns 55 on Feb. 9, insisted he suffers no lingering effects from fighting. He said the only concussion he endured came after a stiff shot at centre ice from Minnesota’s Fred Barrett in March 1981. He would, however, like to donate his brain to Boston University and its School of Medicine and Sports Legacy Institute, which studies brain disease and head trauma.
Nilan, who lives in Montreal, will celebrate another year of sobriety this month. He does radio work, started an anti-bullying program and has made multiple trips to visit troops in Afghanistan as part of the Canadian version of a USO tour.
“I’m just keeping my nose clean, he said, “and doing the next right thing.”
Follow Dan Gelston at Twitter.com/apgelston