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The Chris Nilan Story
By Chris Nilan
HarperCollins Publishers LtdCopyright © 2013 Chris Nilan and Don Yaeger
All rights reserved.
People call me "Knuckles."
If you know about my NHL career, you may think the nickname was earned during those thirteen seasons I was in the league, ten of which were with the Montreal Canadiens. While playing for Montreal, I established franchise records for most penalty minutes in a career (2,248) and most penalty minutes in a season (358). Actually, those 358 record-setting minutes, which I tallied during the 1984–85 season, were tops in the NHL that year. And whose Canadiens record did I break? Well, that would have been mine, set the previous season with 338 minutes, a total that was also the most in the league. Yep, I led the NHL in penalty minutes in two consecutive seasons.
Oh yeah, here is another stat: in my time in the NHL, I got into 222 on-ice fights. I don't begin to know how many off-ice fights I had during that period.
The Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1986, and in the eighteen games in the postseason that year, I posted 141 penalty minutes.
I spent a lot of time sitting in the penalty box. So much time that, to be honest, part of me was really hoping that when they closed the old Montreal Forum, the penalty box bench would somehow find its way back to me. After all, the Boston Bruins' great player and tough guy, Terry O'Reilly — with whom I had some good scraps — was given the Bruins' penalty bench when they closed the Boston Garden. I mean, really, c'mon. I heard the bench from the Forum was auctioned off.
Anyway, people were calling me "Knuckles" before I ever showed up for my first day of training camp in Montreal. It was a nickname I earned while I was in college — and it was inspired not so much by my aggressiveness on the ice as my frequent brawling off of it. In college hockey there isn't much fighting, because if you do fight you are suspended for at least a game. So I didn't do much fighting on the ice in college.
But when I was at Northeastern University and playing for the Huskies, when I was out at night with my teammates or guys from the old neighborhood, or other kids I knew from Boston, and if someone mouthed off to my friends or to me, well, that was an invitation to start throwing punches. And I was a very good fighter. Not trained in boxing or karate or kung fu or any of the martial arts — just a guy who liked, and knew how, to fight and who, most of all, was fueled by a deep and resonating anger that stemmed from the way I grew up (which I'll talk about later).
Of course, I started using my knuckles and fists long before I got to Northeastern. I was fighting in the streets of Boston when I was in grade school. I fought in self-defense, and when I was insulted — or merely felt I was insulted. What I didn't do, though, is look for someone to pick on. In fact, I stood up for the kid who was picked on. I was never a bully.
But I could punch. I could always punch. I can still punch. And if you talk to any of the top mixed martial arts coaches — you know, those guys who teach the ultimate fighters — they will tell you that the physical foundation of fighting is balance ... and punching. I really liked to fight. I knew my job and I was dedicated to doing it. I took pride in what I did.
I can't speak for anyone else, but for me, I loved every minute of my job. Did I have fear before a game, when I knew I had to go out there and fight guys twice my size — once, twice, sometimes three times a night? Sure I did. But it was that fear that motivated me and that kept me prepared and ready.
Listen, fear is a funny thing. It can affect a person in one of three ways: it can paralyze you, make you turn and run, or it can motivate you to stand and face it. Fear is what inspires me to stand and fight.
But my dream was to become a hockey player, not just a fighter. I wanted to be a great hockey player. Fighting was the easy part for me — the hard part was becoming a well-rounded player. Being a good fighter opened the doors of the NHL for me — someone who didn't have great passing, skating, or nose-for-the-puck skills in the beginning. Fighting might have gotten me to the NHL, but it was my unrelenting and diligent work and perseverance that enabled me to develop into an effective full-time hockey player and to have a thirteen-year career doing what I loved.
But the reality is that an enforcer wears down physically and emotionally. Hockey beats the hell out of you even if you are an offensive artist who rarely gets involved in heavy contact. If you are a grinder, a scrapper who fights frequently, you are just pounding yourself into early problems. I've had more than thirty surgeries, including eleven operations on my right knee and one on my left knee. Both of my shoulders have been operated on twice. I've had four surgeries on my hands. I've had several dental surgeries.
Today, I walk slowly, with a very dedicated limp.
I had my four front teeth knocked out by a punch in an off-the-ice fight, but I was able to get to the hospital in time to save them. Yet it wouldn't be a permanent reattachment, because a few years later, during a game, a puck smashed into my mouth and took out those same four teeth.
I am finally getting dental implants. It will be nice to have a smile again — you know, the type of smile where you want to actually show your teeth.
There's a price to pay for playing hockey the way I did, and I guess you could say I'm paying it. But I have no regrets whatsoever, and if I could, I'd do it all over again. Wouldn't change a thing. Swimming in alcohol and burying myself in pills is how I handled the physical pain that resulted from hockey. It just so happened that it also started to work pretty well at numbing the emotional pain I was feeling.
When I chew on all of this and think it over, I understand that a guy like Alan Stewart is a smart guy. You might not know the name Alan Stewart. His career and mine had some tight parallels. He is about my age, and he was tough and could fight with the best of them. During the 1980s, which was the bulk of my years in the NHL, Alan bounced around the American Hockey League and occasionally would get brought up to the majors to do the dirty work and to fight.
During the 1991–92 season, I was on the Boston Bruins but inactive because of an injury. We also lost the services of other tough guys to injuries and to trades. So the Bruins acquired Alan "Beef Stew" Stewart from the New Jersey Devils to provide some of the figurative and literal punch we needed. Alan played four games for us that season, and then he retired and went home to Canada. He said he was sick of fighting. Alan played another season of hockey, in the AHL, but I don't think his heart was in it.
Sure, I have my thoughts on what effects fighting and getting hit have in the short term, and in the long term, on enforcers in hockey. But I know my thoughts may not match up with those effects others feel. So I prefer to focus on my own hockey career.
I do believe strongly, though, that getting hit in the head is never a good thing. And getting hit repeatedly in the head is a bad thing that happens repeatedly. The trauma has to do lasting damage.
For example, Derek Boogaard was one hellish fighter, one of the best. In one fight, Derek slammed a punch with such force into the side of the helmet of his opponent that the helmet cracked.
Derek died young, at twenty-eight, from an accidental overdose of medication, while recovering from a concussion. His family donated his brain for medical research. What did the researchers find? That Derek had a form of brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy — or CTE — which can be caused by repeated trauma to the head. Is anybody surprised?
Of course, before the next NHL season would start, another of the league's players was dead.
NHL enforcer Bob Probert came from a family in which there was a lot of heart disease among the men. Bob died young, at the age of forty-five. His family did what Derek Boogaard's family did: donated Bob's brain for research. They found evidence of CTE. No kidding.
* * *
In a way, I fit a stereotype that Hollywood and the publishing industry have leveraged and put to work to make a lot of money over the past fifteen years — that of the hard-edged, tough Irish kid from a hard-edged, tough Irish neighborhood in Boston.
Shoot, I mean, wow ... let's see ... what do we have for movies? There is Good Will Hunting, The Town, The Departed, Boondock Saints, Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, and Monument Ave. — and three movies based on popular novels written by master storyteller Dennis Lehane: Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island. Then there are the books that haven't been made into movies yet, including All Souls, Brutal, and The Brothers Bulger.
It is said that an Irish baby in Boston comes into this world with his chin jutted out and fists balled and looking for a fight. That might be true — sometimes. I think that my Irish brethren also find this generalization demeaning and insulting. Then again, some of my brethren think this is as funny as all get-out.
I do have to say that hockey, a game that is the love of my life, gave me the opportunity to put that scrappy Irish kid in play and keep him active.
Every part of the game, including fighting, allowed me to channel all my energy and release it from my system in a healthy way. Well, sort of in a healthy way; you might argue that all the fighting wasn't healthy — especially if you look at the injuries I sustained. But when hockey was no longer in my life, there was an emptiness I did not know how to fill — and that void contributed to my making choices that were dangerous and life threatening.
When hockey was gone, I think the tough and scrappy kid, and all that emotion that was bubbling inside of me all the time, had no release, and it just stayed in me. There, it fed an animal that was emotionally and physically in pain and needed something to kill that pain.
I found that something — actually a few somethings — and it almost deep-sixed me. Indeed, there was a stretch in which I was about as dead as I was alive.
And I didn't only hurt myself; I hurt those who loved me. That is the biggest sin. If, when you fuck up your own life, you can do it without fucking up other lives, then go right ahead. But that is rarely the case. You almost always hurt others as well.
Today I am clean and sober. I have been clean for three years. For three years, I have stayed away from the booze and the pills, the poison I used to shoot into my arm on a daily basis. In my quest to get right, I had the help of so many who could have given up on me but didn't.
I owe a lot to my family, my friends, my former teammates, and substance abuse professionals who worked with me and truly consider what they do to be a mission, one that is as much about making a life as making a living.
I give my girlfriend, Jaime, credit over and over — credit she deserves totally — for saving my life. I met her when I was getting clean, and we've battled our addictions together. She supports and loves me, and when I messed up, she let me know that she wouldn't be there if I kept going that way.
Love is often tough.
What is my outlet now? How do I try to stay clean? What will support me staying clean? How can I stay healthy?
These questions bring me to this room in a beautiful retreat center and resort — Centre touristique La Petite Rouge — set in the hills about a hundred miles to the north of Montreal.
It is late in the morning on a weekday in early October 2012. In front of me are sixty students from Holy Trinity Catholic High School in Ontario. I am speaking to the students as part of a two-day retreat they are taking part in at the center. They have been selected on the basis of their leadership qualities and essays they wrote.
I would assume that most of these kids, but not all, come from fairly solid financial and family circumstances. I share with them the experience of being educated in a Catholic high school. I share with them the experience of being young and excited about the future — and also being somewhat apprehensive about the road ahead of me. I can relate.
This is also Canada. In Canada, everyone pays attention to the NHL and former NHL players.
Administrators at the school asked me to address these young people and talk to them about bullying. Speaking about bullying and advising how to counter and deal with it is one of the ways I make a living today. I also speak to corporate groups about tenacity and not giving up. I speak to a variety of audiences about my ongoing battle with addiction — about my victories and my losses in this fight, and how the fight continues every day.
And every weekday, from 1 to 3 p.m., I host a live call-in radio show called Off the Cuff on TSN Radio 690, an all-sports English station based in Montreal.
(Here, I would like to say thank you to TSN's Mitch Melnick, a longtime radio journalist in Montreal and one of Canada's most talented and popular media personalities. He gave me many opportunities to appear on his show through the years, and he consistently advocated for me with the station. I owe him a lot.)
On the show, I am honest, give my opinions and insights in a straightforward way, and don't try to pussyfoot around where I stand — on anything.
An issue I discuss on the show, and which I talked about frequently when I was a guest on Mitch's show, is fighting in hockey.
I believe that the NHL wants to take fighting out of hockey. They have implemented so many rule changes that it makes it harder for two guys to drop their gloves. I disagree with what the league is doing. I feel there is a place for fighting in hockey and don't think there is anything wrong with two guys spontaneously dropping their gloves and going at it.
I don't believe in "planned" fights — situations in which two guys discuss having a fight before a game, with the intent of getting the crowd hyped up. This type of fighting is almost a farce and detracts from the sport — it cheapens it.
But fighting is part of hockey; it always has been and always will be. Enforcers allow the "greats" like Gretzky, Lafleur, and Crosby to be great; enforcers make room for the scorers to do what they do best.
I also talk about bullying on the show. I take advantage of whatever outlets and opportunities that are available to me to address bullying.
I particularly value and enjoy standing directly in front of grade-schoolers and teenagers when talking about this major social problem. It is the best way to connect with these young people and to emphasize and push the message — to transfer the urgency and energy I feel about the issue. And in these situations, I am there to answer questions — and to pose questions — and afterward speak one-on-one with kids.
Speaking in front of big groups is not a natural thing for me. I have had to work at it, and practice and practice and practice — even though I am primarily of Irish descent, and the Irish are known for being glib and storytellers. Yes, the Irish can talk; in fact, the Irish say that a writer is a failed talker. Growing up, I heard from my parents about the Blarney Stone in Ireland — legend has it that if you kiss it, you will be given the gift of gab. Truth be told, I don't think anyone of Irish descent needs to kiss the Blarney Stone to be able to tell a tale or spin a yarn.
So I am thinking that, after the time and effort I have and continue to put into public speaking, my inner Irishman enables me to deliver in an interesting and engaging fashion the message I want to put across to audiences.
It's funny — I sometimes got nervous playing hockey in front of 16,000 people. For a while, I got more nervous speaking in front of sixteen people. I've heard that people's number-one fear is public speaking; it is even ahead of the fear of death. So I guess, as it has been said, people would rather be in the box than delivering the eulogy.
Today, I am far more comfortable speaking than I was even two years ago. I have my own straightforward way of talking, and I don't pretend to be a loud and poetic and flowery orator. I am not an arm-waving preacher at the pulpit. In fact, I don't like to stand at a lectern or podium when I speak. It isn't me. I stand in front of the crowd and I talk and I am direct, and I have an even cadence, and I tell the truth — sometimes the painful truth. And while I won't use vulgar language, I most certainly do use — as necessary and where appropriate — hard and harsh language, and sometimes language that makes people feel uncomfortable.
I tell stories that aren't pretty. And I get across what I want to get across, and I teach the lessons I want to teach. People tell me they remember what I say.
This is good — for I definitely need the kids I'm speaking to today to remember what I'm saying about bullies and bullying. There have always been bullies. There were bullies when man still lived in caves and had just discovered fire and still walked with his knuckles dragging on the ground. The need to assert power and gain confidence and control by picking on the weaker — or, at least, perceived weaker — person is hardwired into our biology and psychology. In the animal kingdom, we see bullying as well.
Excerpted from Fighting Back by Chris Nilan. Copyright © 2013 Chris Nilan and Don Yaeger. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
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