NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario — The resurrection of Chris “Knuckles” Nilan began several years ago on the fringe of Boston. After 30 surgeries from his 13-year career as an NHL enforcer, he was gobbling pain-killers as if they were M&M’s. When his supply ran out, he scored some heroin.
“I was in a hotel room by myself,” said Nilan. “I was sick, sick as a dog. I was shooting up and sitting on the toilet. I shot it and passed out on the toilet. I woke up and I saw the needle still in my arm and the blood. I’m like, ‘What the [expletive]?’ and I stood up right away.”
But his legs were numb.
“I fell forward and hit my head on the wall and I knocked myself out,” he said. “I woke up and I said, ‘I’ve got to stop. I’ve got to get help.’ I was playing Russian roulette with five bullets in the chamber.”
So he got down on his knees and prayed, as his mother taught him to growing up in West Roxbury.
“I don’t normally ask for help for myself,” said Nilan. “I pray for my kids, that God will watch over them and my parents, and my grandchildren.”
There were two stints in rehab, set up by the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse & Behavioral Health Program. Nilan also went to see an addiction specialist in Hawaii recommended by his girlfriend, Jamie Holtz, executive assistant of the The Knuckles Group.
“I was embarrassed and ashamed to ask for help,” he said. “But I was killing myself.”
Since then, Nilan has been battling to stay sober every day. He had 251 fights in his NHL career, but this is the longest and toughest fight of his life.
“Some fights never end. I am a drug addict and an alcoholic,” he said while sipping a cranberry juice and soda water before a recent speaking appearance. “My condition is in remission, 17 months. No booze, no pills, no nothing. Clean and sober.”
His marriage of 25 years is over. He blames no one but himself. He said it was not fun and he didn’t do drugs to get high. He regrets hurting his family.
“I was sick,” he said. “When people get cancer, they get sympathy, but when people are alcoholics and drug addicts, it’s, ‘Oh, it’s self-induced. Just stop.’
“People don’t know that sometimes when you take a drink, the drink takes you. You don’t take the drug, the drug takes you.”
But this is not a sad story. Chris Nilan is back.
A full plate
Nilan, 54, recently spoke at six schools in Ontario in one week, part of his year-long “No More Bullies” Tour. He urges students to be defenders against bullying. Don’t be a jellyfish, he tells them. Have a backbone and confront the bully.
“Say, ‘Stop, leave them alone. Stop it now,’ ” he tells students at Saint Michael High School.
The gymnasium is packed with 800 students but it is quieter than an empty NHL arena.
“You know what happens when someone says something, in most cases? The bullying stops in five seconds,” he says. “Five seconds, which seems like a lifetime to the victim.”
Afterward, a weeping girl thanks Nilan for his support.
“Knuckles” will never win a Nobel Prize, but his peacekeeping mission is well-received in Canada during Bullying Awareness Week.
“The fact that he was an NHL hockey player tweaked the students’ interest initially, but once they started to listen to his message, they were really taken in by what he had to say,” said Kristy Carbonara of the Success Program at Saint Michael High School.
“He was very personable, very human,’’ said Briana Domenegato, a student. “He just really related to us. It was very, very good.”
Nilan’s life is on a roll now.
He is the star of “The Last Gladiators,” a poignant and powerful new documentary film by Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney. He appears five times a week on English-speaking radio in Montreal, talking hockey. He has started his own “Knuckles” line of clothing and donates 50 percent of sales from “No More Bullies” T-shirts to the Kids Help Phone (knucklesnilan.com). He journeyed several times to Afghanistan to visit the troops. This month, he is growing a mustache he absolutely hates for a fund-raiser to promote colon cancer research. And he is touring schools, speaking out against bullying and drug and alcohol abuse.
Some people find it ironic that Nilan is tackling the issue of bullying, but not Knuckles.
“I wasn’t a bully,” said Nilan, flexing his arthritic fingers, one of which is missing a knuckle, and another that was nearly bitten off. “The fact of the matter is, I stuck up for my teammates. I wasn’t a bully, I was a defender. I defended my smaller teammates.”
Lost after the games
While growing up in West Roxbury, Nilan wanted to be Bobby Orr. He played hockey at Northeastern University, and when a teammate got into a fight during an exhibition game against the Big Bad Bruins, Nilan took on Mike Milbury and Terry O’Reilly. Even his father, Henry Nilan, didn’t give him much of a chance to make the NHL. In “The Last Gladiator,” Henry jokes that the only way his son would be drafted was if there was another war.Continued...