Chris Nilan opens up in 'Last Gladiators' documentary

Undated photo of former pro hockey player Chris Undated photo of former pro hockey player Chris Nilan. Photo Credit: Handout

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept. ...

Chris "Knuckles" Nilan has not punched people for a living for more than two decades, but the passage of time has done little to dull his famously feisty edge.

Fortunately these days that feistiness mostly is limited to the safer realm of sports talk radio. He talks hockey on an afternoon drive time show in Montreal, using language presumably cleaner than in a recent phone interview.

Among his concerns is that the modern NHL micro-manages players, to its detriment. Some of his thoughts on that (expletives deleted):

"I think there's no one to answer to. The only person you have to answer to now is [disciplinarian in chief] Brendan Shanahan. I think players did a good job policing themselves; now the league is doing the policing. It's not working."

Nilan's comments were timely on two fronts. One is that the lockout-delayed season has brought with it an early spate of fights, with the Rangers - one of his former teams - leading the league with eight major penalties through Sunday, according to HockeyFights.com.

Another is that Nilan is the centerpiece of a compelling documentary called "The Last Gladiators" that opens in limited theatrical release Friday, then on video on demand Feb. 8.

The original idea was to feature a variety of players known for their willingness -- and ability -- to fight, but director Alex Gibney suggested centering the film on one particularly compelling figure.

Enter Nilan, one of the most fearless, pugnacious players in NHL history, who took his fists, his underdog mentality and his vintage Boston accent to Montreal and helped the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup in 1986.

Executive producer Barry Reese said after his initial 15-minute phone call with Nilan, he called producer Larry Weitzman and said, "If this guy is for real, he's incredible."

He is a character almost too good to be true for a documentary filmmaker.

"What separated Chris from all the other guys is he was totally open, genuine," said Reese, whose son Dylan was an Islanders defenseman for parts of the last three seasons and now is in the Penguins organization.

"He was willing to be vulnerable. He wasn't afraid. He gave you everything . . . I've come to love him. I don't think I've met another person who is willing to be so completely honest. It's just different."

That was in keeping with Nilan's approach to hockey. He willed himself to develop skills in addition to his fighting and became hugely popular among discerning Montreal fans.

But eventually he ran afoul of coach Jean Perron and in 1988 was sent to the Rangers, where his 2 1/2 seasons in blue mostly were a disappointment because of injuries and his difficulty adjusting to a new environment.

"For sure, I had a hard time getting over the Montreal thing," he said. "But I was there for my [Rangers] teammates. I did everything I could for them there. I put my body on the line.

"I loved being in New York, but all the injuries piled up. The fans were unbelievable to me. Up in the blue seats the fans were awesome. I wish I could have been better, but that's what it was at the time. My body was breaking down."

The process continued until he stopped playing in 1992, after which he descended into abuse of alcohol, painkillers and other drugs. When the filmmakers first approached him, he had just finished a treatment program.

"I was always able to suck it up, but when I got into the pills, they helped me suck it up better," he said.

The most emotional portion of the documentary is an interview with Nilan's father, Henry, a hard-edged former Green Beret who speaks of his shame at seeing his son hospitalized and addicted.

Nilan, 54, said he cried when he first saw that scene at the Toronto Film Festival. "If I had cancer I believe he would have felt bad for me; he wouldn't have felt embarrassed," Nilan said. "But I'll always love him and respect him. He's always my hero. That's the way he felt. Even though it did hurt, I understand it."

Among his post-career problems was a shoplifting charge in 2009 that descended into a brawl with security guards.

These days, he said, he is "sober and clean." In addition to his radio work, he makes speaking appearances warning young people against bullying. He also wants to expand into motivational speaking and is working on a book about his life.

The only things he takes for aches and pains now -- including a right knee that needs replacing -- are Aleve and an anti-inflammatory called Arthrotec, he said. Surprisingly, he insisted he has had no post-concussion symptoms of any kind despite his 3,043 career regular-season penalty minutes, ninth in NHL history. (His 688 career games are the fewest among the top 15 on that list.)

"My head's fine," he said, "but my girlfriend might have something to say about that."

He added, "I've thought about donating my brain to that study at [Boston University] whenever I croak. I've considered that."

Not all of his fellow former fighters have been as fortunate. Among the several interviewed for the documentary was Bob Probert, who died in 2010.

One thing that comes through in the film is the code of honor among the fighters' fraternity. That is something Nilan laments in the NHL of 2013.

For example, he doesn't like the instigator penalty because he thinks "players sometimes use that as an excuse not to fight and not to do their jobs . . . I think there's a little bit less respect for the game nowadays."

You also may be interested in: