Chris Nilan was approached to be the subject of the film The Last Gladiators following time in an Oregon treatment facility. (QMI Agency)
EDMONTON - Chris Nilan made a living trading punches with opponents during his lengthy NHL career.
But the biggest fight of his life came after hanging up the skates, battling substance addiction and trying to cope with life after hockey.
Having won the battle, Nilan is now the subject of a documentary film, The Last Gladiators, which is screening Thursday (7:30 MDT) at the Cineplex Odeon South Edmonton Cinemas.
Directed by Academy Award Winner Alex Gibney, it also features Marty McSorley, Bob Probert and Tony Twist.
“I was in a treatment centre called Astoria Point in Oregon and when I got out I was going to stay in Oregon for at least a year to get my feet under me,” Nilan said. “Barry Reese, one of the investors and producers of the film, got in touch with me and told me he was doing a film about the fight game.
“He said they were looking for a main subject in this film and they asked if I was interested in doing it. Once I found out Alex Gibney was involved, I decided to do it.
“I wanted to keep busy for one, and two, I wanted to tell the story of what each of us goes through as guys who fought in the NHL, which I perceive to be the toughest job in hockey.”
The film opens nationwide on Oct. 26, but Nilan is touring the country attending special screenings.
The Bare Knuckles Tour promoting the film began in Calgary last Sunday and made stops in Winnipeg and Vancouver before arriving in Edmonton.
From here, Nilan will be heading to Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa.
“The film was an extension of my therapy in a lot of ways,” Nilan said. “It talks about the enforcer’s role. There are other guys in there, and they talk a little bit about what the enforcers go through and it talks about what it feels like to fill that role on a nightly basis. It talks about that and shows what it takes to be an enforcer in the National Hockey League. It does get into my issues and what happened to me after the game of hockey.
“I had a tough time transitioning away from it. I think that can be the case with anyone, whatever employment they do. When it’s taken away from you at a young age, it’s difficult to move on to something else, no matter what, I don’t care who you are.”
Nilan, 54, spent 13 seasons in the NHL, the majority of them with the Montreal Canadiens.
He was a member of the Canadiens 1986 Stanley Cup championship team, played for Team U.S.A. in the 1987 Canada Cup and was selected to the 1991 NHL All-star game.
However, the former enforcer struggled with his addictions following his playing career, which is chronicled in the film.
Talking about his struggles on film was difficult for Nilan at first.
“I have been through treatment, I had to address a lot of those things, I had to be vulnerable, which I was never in my life,” Nilan said. “I could never show any weakness or anything like that.
“When I grew up in Boston, it was the same thing in the neighborhood that I grew up. It was uncomfortable for me but I knew if I really wanted to get better, I had to be honest with myself and I had to get open and really address the core issues and get through what I was trying to get through.”
Nilan amassed more than 3,000 penalty minutes in his day and was considered one of the league’s fiercest enforcers.
But the Boston native also developed a game, scoring 21 goals one season and adding 19 in another.
“I loved what I did, I didn’t have a problem doing it,” Nilan said. “It was easy for me to fight. Yes, I was nervous, yes, I had fears, but I walked through the fear and did what I had to do. I enjoyed it, it was tough, but I enjoyed it.
“To be a hockey player was the hardest part, to be able to play and get to that point at my career where I could be put on the ice every night in almost every situation. That was the toughest part for me.”