Nilan: The fight of his life

Former Canadiens enforcer Chris Nilan's toughest battle was waged against his internal demons —...

Former Canadiens enforcer Chris Nilan's toughest battle was waged against his internal demons — drugs and alcohol. (QMI Agency file photo)

DENIS POISSANT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:05 PM ET

Chris Nilan dropped the gloves more than 300 times in his 21-year career, but Bob Probert and Terry O’Reilly weren’t his toughest opponents.

The battle of his life was waged against his internal demons — drugs and alcohol.

Nilan has since overcome his problems and agreed to tell his story exclusively to QMI Agency. The 53-year-old says he decided to come clean on his substance-abuse problems to bury his demons and turn the page on his life.

His testimony comes on the heels of the tragic deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak, all of whom were NHL enforcers and battled depression or addiction.

• • •

Chris Nilan was loved or hated as the top tough guy in the National Hockey League through the 1980s.

The Boston native made his bones as a popular member of the Montreal Canadiens, protecting Guy Lafleur and other stars from 1979-88 before moving on to the Rangers and later his hometown Bruins.

Habs fans loved the heart and rage that Nilan showed in defending his teammates, especially late in his career when injuries began to break down his six-foot, 205-pound body.

By that point, his fights were enough of a high for him — he didn’t yet feel the need to lean on drugs.

But the Boston Irishman had no problem downing the odd beer with the boys after games, much to the chagrin of then-Canadiens president Ronald Corey.

Nilan’s real problems began in 1998, six years after his career ended.

Things quickly spiralled out of control.

• • •

The most celebrated tough guy of his time began a decade of misery marked by a dependence on alcohol and drugs. Now sober, Nilan credits girlfriend Jaime Holtz, whose ultimatum persuaded him to trash everything that was poisoning his body and his life.

“Jaime saved me,” he says.

“She could not stand to see me like that and left me. Then she agreed to see me on one condition: That I never touch drugs or alcohol. Without her, I don’t know where I would be today.”

The couple met in a litte Oregon town where Nilan, away from the big city lights, fought hard to get back on his feet.

He played with his life for years by using strong painkillers such as OxyContin and Percocet to relieve his battered body following a scrappy career that included close to 300 fights, 3,574 penalty minutes and a whopping 30 surgical operations.

At first, Nilan needed the drugs, but gradually he began abusing them. Then came addiction and a vicious circle that nearly sunk him.

Boogaard died at age 28 last May after consuming the same types of pills mixed with alcohol. Nilan knows it’s a deadly concoction.

“If I do it again I’m going to die,” he says.

“I understand what the consequences could be. I used to think: ‘What, me? A drug overdose? Never, that’s impossible.’ And yet, I had times when I passed out so bad and woke up with no idea what was going on.”

• • •

Nilan’s story will come to the big screen at the Toronto International Film Festival in the documentary The Last Gladiators by filmmaker Alex Gibney.

The filmmaker won an Oscar in 2007 for his movie Taxi To The Dark Side.

The film, which premieres Friday night, also features NHL tough guys Donald Brashear, Marty McSorley and Tony Twist. But Nilan is the star and for good reason.

“Knuckles,” a nickname that referred to his mangled hand joints, has lived the past 35 years of his life with the pedal to the metal. He learned how to fight in the streets of West Roxbury, a Boston neighbourhood that only looks like a quiet suburb on the surface. Scratch a little and you uncover a cauldron of ethnic and racial tensions.

Nilan, swelled by Irish pride, threw himself headlong into street fights whenever he had the chance.

Few back then could have guessed that he would ascend to a long career on hockey’s biggest stages. But Nilan made the big show by stoking an inner fire that sometimes bordered on insanity.

Taken 231st overall by the Canadiens in the 1978 NHL draft, Nilan kept his job by protecting the likes of Guy Lafleur, Mats Naslund, Guy Carbonneau and Stéphane Richer.

In just two seasons in the mid-1980s, he fought 67 times, while finding time to score 40 goals.

Today, a player of Nilan’s talents — he used on a checking line with Carbonneau and Bob Gainey against the best forwards in the league — would have easily earned $3 million US a year, probably more. Back then, Nilan pocketed only $125,000 a season.

His brand of fighting skills and scoring touch won’t easily be duplicated.

“Yes, I paid the price, but I have no regrets,” he says. “I loved my career.”

He loved it despite the dangers of the trade and the toll that the game took on his body.

“I was knocked out often in hockey, but I’ve always gotten up,” he says.

“Same thing in life. I always get back on my feet. That’s how it is now and that’s how it’ll stay. I’m more determined than ever.”

• • •

Nilan moved to the Montreal area last month with his girlfriend, Jamie. He plans to build a career in communications, already is active on Twitter and has his own website, KnucklesNilan.com.

He says he’s also won his fight against addiction.

“I don’t take drugs or alcohol anymore,” he says over lunch at Queue de Cheval, his favourite Montreal restaurant.

“And I quit smoking today.”

Queue de Cheval, with its wine list, is the kind of place that could tempt a recovering alcoholic. But Nilan quietly sips his Diet Coke. He props his aching leg up on the seat next to him, having just undergone three operations to heal a nasty ankle infection. Later, Nilan grimaces as he walks on crutches.

The pain could drive a former addict to relapse, but Nilan swears it will never happen.

Nilan has come a long way from a dark, lonely place. Several of his former teammates had tears in their eyes as they watched him waste away, his face gaunt, his eyes glassy, 15 pounds lighter. Having lost his bearings, Nilan nearly came to blows, sometimes even during friendly legends hockey games.

The ordeal left a few extra wrinkles in his face but his smile, and an internal peace, has returned.

“I don’t want to go back to this miserable life,” he says. “I’m sober. Jaime saved me and I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do that to my three children and my two grandchildren.”

Nilan knows he will need all of his courage to stay the course.

“It’s a fight, but I am vigilant,” he says. This is the fight of my life, and I will win.”


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