The light finally goes on for Nilan

Chris Nilan, a former Canadian strongman, poses in Mount Royal Park for his return to Montreal,...

Chris Nilan, a former Canadian strongman, poses in Mount Royal Park for his return to Montreal, August 17, 2011. (Chantal Poirier/QMI Agency)

DENIS POISSANT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:57 PM ET

The debate rages: Should the NHL finally abolish fighting?

Chris Nilan answered yes in a recent interview with QMI Agency. He believes that the instigator rule prevents players from policing on-ice transgressions as they did in the old days. The 53-year-old added that fights nowadays are just for show -- no point to it since they have no impact on the final result of a game.

But, he says, if the NHL bans fighting, it should not be for fear of the physical and psychological effects of the league's tough guys.

Nilan says there's no clear evidence that life as an enforcer is what led to the deaths, this year of tough guys Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak.

The former Montreal Canadiens winger says he never suffered a concussion in his 13-year career as the NHL's top scrapper.

But one thing is certain: Once Nilan hung up his skates, he paid another price for his kamikaze style of play.

In Friday's first instalment of this two-part series, a portrait was painted of a man worn down by years of injuries and more than 30 surgeries. A guy who, during his career, fought the toughest men in hockey despite fragile joints, a banged-up shoulder and a crippled knee.

The former man of steel says his own weakness was to blame for an addiction problem that took much longer to vanquish than any of the men he fought on the ice.

"I have a high tolerance to pain," he says. "I think sometimes I just used (the drugs) as an excuse to not have to deal with the pain."

The excuses grew up to a point where, daily, for many years, he endangered his life.

* * *

Three years ago, Chris Nilan was at wit's end. The former strongman had gradually transformed himself into a human wreck, desperate to obtain stronger doses of pain-killers.

He knocked on the door of countless doctors from his hometown of Boston to Montreal in search of medication, using every excuse in the book -- a toothache, arthritis, his bum knee.

Nilan was hurting but he had also become a junkie, plain and simple.

"I must have had enough pills for a month, but I used them in five days," he says.

Eventually, the doctors refused to give him any more prescriptions once they saw that his problems had more to do with drug addiction than chronic pain.

"That's when I had started taking heroin," he says.

At first he snorted. Then he started injecting it directly into his veins.

"It could cost me $400 a day," he says. "And I was totally unable to shake my addiction. When it wasn't drugs, it was alcohol."

How did it come to that? He did it secretly, in small doses.

* * *

Nilan has never been one to complain about his ailments. And, God knows, he's had them, from head to toe.

In 1998, after cutting his teeth as an assistant to Jacques Lemaire in New Jersey, Nilan became the head coach of the Chesapeake Icebreakers in the East Coast Hockey League.

It had been six years since he had hung up his skates and his arthritis was getting worse. And the endless bus trips in the minor league didn't help.

"That's when I was prescribed medication," he says. "It helped me overcome the pain I endured, day after day."

Initially, the drug Percocet worked. It contains five milligrams of oxycodone, an opioid that is similar to morphine.

But Nilan gradually got used to the drug and, even though he increased his dosage, the effects eventually wore off completely.

Then he graduated to another drug, OxyContin, a much more powerful product that contains pure oxycodone.

Meanwhile, Nilan's stint in the ECHL ended after two seasons when he refused to move to Mississippi with the franchise. With no job in sight, at home doing nothing, the blues set in.

"It was getting crazy," he says. "I thought about OxyContin all the time. I started with one, then two, three, four, five, six pills a day. I was sick as a dog when I stopped taking it. I was in pain all over my joints. I had diarrhea, chills and I was throwing up. Then, when I managed to get pills, everything was fine.

"I was totally hooked."

Realizing he had a big problem, Nilan reached out to his former teammate, Bob Gainey, who put him in contact with the NHL's substance-abuse program. Nilan accepted and successfully followed a three-month program.

He was clean and sober for four years, until 2005 when he underwent a shoulder operation, then quickly turned back to the alcohol and medication.

"I had forgotten that (the AA meetings) were important," he said. "I thought I could control my drinking. I only had a few beers. But it was a mistake. It quickly got out of control."

His rolodex contained the names of several doctors and the search for OxyContin started up again.

Like many junkies, Nilan knows all the tricks to get a maximum high. Rather than ingesting the pill, which gives only 10 milligrams of medication an hour, he crushed and snorted the powder in one go, ingesting eight times greater than a single dose. The relief was immediate and the addiction just kept growing.

Then in 2008, the United States passed a law to control OxyContin abuse. Bummer. To Nilan, 10 mg of drug an hour was no stronger that children's Tylenol.

But OxyContin tablets were still available in Canada, so Nilan simply secured prescriptions from doctors in Toronto and Montreal. By that time, he was so addicted to the drug that he snorted a month's supply in just five days.

Desperate, Nilan turned to street dealers, who made a fortune peddling OxyContin to junkies.

"It cost 70 bucks (a dose), and I could take 20 a day," he said.

That's when Nilan reached rock bottom with heroin, which cost him $400 a day. He even used heroin-like "black tar" -- a powerful drug produced in Mexico under questionable conditions.

The round of injections lasted for months.

"There comes a point where you don't feel the buzz," Nilan says. "You feel sick without the drug. When you take it, you feel normal and that's it. It's a sh---y life. You're just thinking about it, your next pill, next heroin pill. It's an obsession."

* * *

It was a stormy night when Nilan travelled to Montreal from Boston in hopes of getting another fix.

He was driving with a friend on Route 133, a small Quebec highway leading north from the New York border. They stopped at a gas station before taking off again, seatbelts unbuckled. Five minutes later, Nilan skidded to avoid colliding with a truck. His car made several flips and he was thrown through the window.

"My friend thought I was dead," says Nilan. "He found me on the side of the road in a snow bank. I couldn't remember anything."

But Nilan knew now that he had had enough. He contacted the NHL again and spent a year in Oregon -- far from big cities and the temptations that come with them -- to sober up again.

That's where he met Jaime Holtz and fell in love. All was well ... until he had another relapse and a disgusted Holtz left him.

"She could see that I was all messed up when we were talking on Skype," Nilan says. "Later, she wrote me a long letter (saying) how much she loved me. How my family was important to me. I had to stop lying to myself. I had to take charge."

Holtz tells QMI that she was "afraid that one morning, I would hear the news of his death in a newspaper."

Jaime came back, but with one condition: He had to stop taking drugs.

Nilan agreed.

It was hard to stop using, but he bit the bullet and joined her in Hawaii, the island of her birth.

"Since then, I have not touched drugs or alcohol," he says, AA booklet in hand.

"Now, I know I'll die if I relapse. I'll lose everything. The most important person in my life, my family, my children."

Does Chris Nilan consider himself lucky to be alive?

"Lucky is not the right term," he says. "Blessed is better. If I'm here, there's a reason. I understand it and I'm acting accordingly."


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