Unless you were on the other end of one of his punches, you may not remember the name Chris “Knuckles” Nilan.
The Montreal Canadiens’ enforcer in a 15-season career that spanned the 1980s and into the ‘90s admits he “loved” fighting, amassing more than 3,000 penalty minutes in 688 games.
To shine a light back on what made brawling such a part of the NHL years ago is part of the documentary, “The Last Gladiators,” which finally reaches distribution in the U.S. after its release in Canada back in 2011 (It debuts on video on demand this weekend).
Former Kings toughie Marty McSorley is matched up again against Tony Twist, Todd Ewen, and even the late Bob Probert subjects of the movie made by Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney. But it’s Nilan’s storyline of prescription drug and alcohol addiction in his post career that leaves the most bitter aftertaste for viewers who may now have regrets for ever having cheered during a on-ice melee.
In today’s NHL, enforcers aren’t as sought after with smaller rosters and the need for a more a well-rounded skill set. Boston native and Northeastern University grad Nilan would like to think he could have survived in the game today because he did turn out to be a decent offensive player.
Nilan, who turns 55 today but may look and sound years older, is just glad to be alive, making himself available to speak to school children about how to stop bullying.
He came with an honest expression of gratitude when we talked recently about seeing his life played out on the big screen, and how Hollywood may be able to tell his story again soon:
A: Maybe if we did it six months to a year later, there’d have been more there as far as some progress I’ve made. (Director) Alex Gibney and (executive producer) Barry Reese made it easy for me. I had some time on my hands, I just got out of rehab, I thought it would keep me busy and be fun – and it was. The timing was great because in a way it was an extension of my therapy, talking about what happened and what went wrong.
Q: How are some guys cut out to be enforcers, and others aren’t but end up becoming one anyway? And how did you, at 6-feet and 200 pounds, made it work for you by also becoming a scorer and not just a fighter?
A: Honestly, I don’t think I could have played the game if I just fought. I never came into the NHL thinking, ‘I’m gonna be a fighter.’ I wanted to play hockey. I knew fights could happen and if they do, I had to be ready. But I wasn’t out to start a fight and try to impress anyone. I didn’t have a fight in training camp in Montreal, got sent down to the American Hockey League and that’s where the fighting started. Here I was, an American college kid, so everyone up there thinks you’re a pussy, so you’re out there playing physical, getting involved, letting the coach know you want to be out there,. And then some of the Canadian guys drop the gloves. But the next thing they know they’re getting stitched up and wondering what happened. That’s how it started for me. I just happened to be good at it. Once you start and make a name for yourself, everybody’s coming after you. My personality is also one where I always stuck up for my friends and family no matter what. That process took over when I was on the ice.
A: John Kordic, my teammate in Montreal, he hated it, but they told him in juniors that if he wanted to play in the National Hockey League, he had to get tougher, get bigger and that’ll be your best chance. John wasn’t the most gifted player. He ended up doing that because he warned to be in the National Hockey League so bad, he fought. He didn’t like fighting. Me? I loved fighting. Fighting was easy for me. Being a hockey player was the most difficult part. Becoming a full-time NHL player, I had to put so much work into it, and that’s the part I’m most proud of. I think I accomplished that. I could never have stay around as long as I did if I just fought, sat on the bench, played one minute a game. I would not have been a happy camper. I hate that. Now, I’ll fight anybody and I’ll fight more than anybody, but I gotta play, too. Only one coach said I fought too much, and that was Jacque Lemaire. He said, slow down, you can play, too. That meant the world to me. But I never slowed down. (In Lemaire’s only full season coaching the Canadiens in 1984-85, Nilan had a career-best 21 goals and 16 assists to go with a career-top 358 penalty minutes).
Q: During your playing days, the top L.A. enforcer was Marty McSorley. Do you have any stories about scraps you got in with him?
A: I remember fighting him in Edmonton, in Pittsburgh, in L.A. Marty was always an honest player, good team player, a tough kid. I honestly felt bad for that whole situation that happened to him (that led to his retirement, injuring Donald Brashear in 2000). Everyone pointed the finger at him, the league f–cked him, but, c’mon. Did he make a mistake? No question. (Brashear) didn’t deserve what he got but I could see how it happened. You can’t see that unless you’ve been in that situation before.
A: Sure, I wish Marty chopped him in the ankle or the knee instead of the head. That would have been more accepted. He lost it, he was pissed off, and he had a coach who didn’t understand the situation in the game. I never let a coach tell me to go in and fight. And that may have been my downfall here (in Montreal) when I got traded (to the Rangers in 1988), because there was an inference by the coach that I wasn’t fighting enough. With a minute left, all the sudden the other coach puts Brashear on the ice — stupid to begin with — so Marty’s sitting there and the game’s almost over and his coach is yelling at him to get in, so he’s thrown into the situation, trying to fight the guy. And the guy turns on him, after coming over the bench to taunt everyone. I can see how it happened. As bad as it was, Marty McSorley got f–cked by the league. All this fighting is allowed to go on for years, and then someone wrong happens and they take that noose and put it right around (McSorley’s) neck. Then they tighten it up. I’m glad he’s got through it. But what a way to have a career ends. I’m empathetic to his situation.
Q: At least people in L.A may not be blaming him any longer for the curved stick and putting a curse on the Kings for losing in the 1993 Stanley Cup finals to Montreal.
A: There were probably 12 guys in that game with illegal sticks and he got bagged. But that didn’t lose the series either. I don’t care what anybody says. But we need a culprit, and boy we can find them when we want them.
Q: What do you remember about coming out to L.A. to play the Kings? Was it kind of a culture shock?
A: I loved going to L.A. Most everyone did. That was the era when some of the stars going to the games, not just the Lakers’ games. Coming from (Boston), nine feet of snow and freezing your balls off, you get there and it’s like 70 degrees, like the middle of the summer for us. We used to go to the beach sometimes and play volleyball, bring coolers full of beers, go swimming in the ocean sometimes in Huntington Beach. And the people would be walking around with winter jackets on. They don’t know what winter is. Everyone’s go the Kleenex out blowing their nose.
Q: One of the great lines in the documentary is when you say winning the Stanley Cup with the Canadiens was so great – because at least you didn’t do it with a team named like the ‘Mighty Ducks.’ What do you think about today’s NHL, not so much a sport thriving in Canada but more a big business coming off labor issues again?
A: I still think playoff hockey is awesome, unbelievable. During the season, you see some good games, sometimes you don’t. Like any league when you play 82 games. You’ll get some stinkers in there. A lot of good games during the year are divisional games, rivalry games. It’s different.
Q: Was it strange for you to see the Kings win the Stanley Cup?
A: I was happy for those people who were fans in L.A. from the get-go, that love the game and the Kings. For so long, all they had to cheer about was Marcel Dionne and the Triple Crown line. Now they have plenty to be proud of. It was an awesome thing in hockey for the winners to come from L.A. I remember guys like Jimmy Fox and Mark Hardy, who played there through the lean years, just to be around that now and see L.A. be taken seriously, it’s a great accomplishment. The guys should be proud of what they have there. Dean Lombardi comes in (as the general manager) and puts a group together with the common goal of winning the Stanley Cup, bringing (Daryl) Sutter in there and the job he did – it speaks for itself. They truly opened a lot of eyes. The parity now in the NHL is something that it lacked years ago. There were a lot of haves and have-nots. Now it’s pretty level.
Q: It seems people forget about Canada’s ties with the sport.
A: They hate that, let me tell you.
Q: But the last Canadian-team Stanley Cup winner was when Montreal beat the Kings in 1993.
A: But again, look at where the majority of the players come from. (He starts to sing the Canadian national anthem). Even if they haven’t won, it’ll happen again. How soon? Who knows. It depends on the organizations putting the teams together, the way they draft. Look at New Jersey (a team where Nilan was an assistant coach in 1996) and what they’ve done, it’s ridiculous. They draft better players who produce year after year, and see how many Cups they’ve won. And they keep drafting later, but they’ve maintained a good, competitive team all the time, having that chance. That’s estimate to how they draft. Doesn’t matter if you’re in Canada or Timbuktu, it’s the organization’s commitment.
Q: There was a movie called “Goon” that came out last year, with Sean William Scott as a kid who found out he was good at fighting and that’s what got him into the game. What did you think of it?
A: I hate the word “goon.” The movie was stupid. I wasn’t even going to watch it. Someone gave me a copy, I was interested, but . . . Now, “Slapshot” is a different story. Back in the day, there was a lot of that stuff going on that you see in that movie. That’s kinda of a cult movie, far different from the other.
Q: Did “Slapshot” reflect how violent play, goon play, was really entertainment for the fans, enough to make it a memorable movie?
A: No, society is that way anyway. Right? C’mon. Since the gladiators, for Christ’s sake. Why do we watch football? We like to see a touchdown pass but we also like to see someone get cranked over the middle. We love seeing NASCAR when a car flips over 20 times. Whoa! People love hockey, but not just for the fights. But boy, I’ll give you an example, my girlfriend is from Hawaii and had never seen a hockey game in person until she came to Montreal with me. Montreal scores a goal, everyone’s on their feet. Only other time they’re on their feet is when there’s a fight. There was a good one last year, and she was up on her feet the whole time, couldn’t believe it. Afterward she said, ‘That was unbelievable.’ That captured her interest. She understands the game better now, but here’s someone who didn’t know a thing about it then but thought that was really cool. I don’t think there’s any problem with two guys dropping the gloves to settle their differences, whether it’s something between them or to protect a teammate. The brawls, I don’t care for. Never did. Even when I was in them. I hated them.
Q: There’s a website dreammoviecast.com where speculation is that your life story may be ripe for a Hollywood drama movie, and people have connected actors like Sean Astin or Michael Rapaport as the best matches to play you. You even tweeted out you’d like to see British actor Tom Hardy to play you. Is a movie the next reality?
Q: I have spoken to Mark Wahlberg, and he may do something. Michael Rapoport, I’ve met with. It wouldn’t be just a hockey movie, but the real story here . . . hey, we’ll see what happens. I know some people are trying hard to make it happen and get it going. If it happens, great, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Just like in this documentary.