Fighting Back: The Chris Nilan Story by Chris Nilan (HarperCollins, $32.99)
By Stuart Nulman
In the chapter of his autobiography dealing with his take on fighting, former Montreal Canadiens player Chris Nilan succinctly summed his pro hockey career this way: “I never wanted to be known exclusively as a fighter; I wanted to be a complete hockey player. I think I established myself as both. Maybe it will always be in the cards for me to be known first as a fighter, not as a forward who could skate, pass, score and defend. Ah, I’m not complaining – I lasted thirteen years in the NHL.”
However, a tough upbringing in a tough neighborhood in Boston (in which Nilan got into his share of fights and fighting during his youth) developed Chris Nilan into one of the toughest enforcers the NHL has ever seen during the 80s, and earned him the nickname “Knuckles” which has forever stuck with him.
But all that fighting on the ice that he did for the Canadiens also forced Nilan do some of his own fighting off the ice, especially after his playing days ended in 1992. And all of those personal and professional battles are retold in his autobiography Fighting Back.
The Chris Nilan that is portrayed in this book is the Chris Nilan I expected from his days as the Habs’ main enforcer. It’s tough, unabashed, and no holds barred. It’s basically states how a life of violence bred a career of violence, and how it almost came to a violent end.
Somehow, from his early life on the streets of West Roxbury, to the corridors of Catholic Memorial High School, to eventually the Montreal Forum, you get the impression that maybe Nilan wasn’t cut out to be a professional hockey player. He developed his skills in a college that wasn’t Ivy League or top ranked NCAA school, he was drafted as the 231st overall pick in the 1978 NHL Draft (and didn’t know he was picked up by the Canadiens until he was at a bar in his native Boston and was informed by the bartender), and he was drafted by a Canadiens team that was going through the withdrawal effects from a dynasty that won four straight Stanley Cups, and by the time he was officially signed by the team, was struggling to stay alive beyond the first round of the playoffs.
But through a lot of grit, hard work and determination, Nilan earned his spot on the Habs’ roster, and proved that he was not just another aspiring young hockey player who was one of the many who were called up, but not chosen. Through his ability to play solid hockey, Nilan became one of the integral parts of a new generation of Habs players who revived the team in the mid-80s that led to the team’s 23rd Stanley Cup championship in 1986. And of course, his abilities as a team enforcer helped towards that revival. In fact, Nilan gives a lot of blow-by-blow accounts of the fights and brawls he got himself involved with on the ice that earned him the “Knuckles” moniker, and will certainly entertain those hockey fans who enjoy the dirty side of the game.
The book also deals with Nilan’s toughest fight, and that was how he coped with life after his playing days were over. He managed to do some minor league hockey coaching and NHL assistant coaching to a degree of success, tried his hand an selling insurance (but didn’t have the patience for it) and even had a do-nothing job with the state of Rhode Island, in an administration that would later be investigated for widespread corruption. But his biggest battles dealt with his addictions to drugs and alcohol, which lead him to two stays in rehab, and a relapse that steered him towards heroin that almost ended his life. However, Nilan battled these demons with the same grit and determination as he did when he wanted to earn his spot on the Canadiens roster. The end result is that Nilan is clean and sober, has returned to live in Montreal, and is spending his days as a broadcaster and a motivational speaker, in which he speaks to school children about how to fight bullying.
And there are plenty of interesting anecdotes that are peppered throughout the book that are entertainment, and some that border on the bizarre. One of my favorites is the time when he was about to go on his first date with Karen (who would end up being his first wife). It just so happened that her mother was dating notorious Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger at the time. Bulger decided to have a “talk” with young Chris before he and Karen left for their date … but not before he pulled out a gun and later a wad of bills that added up to $500 (which he gave to Chris to spend on Karen for that date night).
Fighting Back is a raw, courageous story of a successful, raucous career in professional hockey, and how an individual who was painted as a goon first and a player second managed to emerge through the darkness from all the demons that were attached to such a perception. As well, it gives other professional athletes who are trying to conquer similar demons the inspiration and hope to pull themselves out of that hell. It’s a good thing that Chris Nilan still has a lot of fight left in him to emerge from it all.
Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at www.peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at www.CyberStationUSA.com, www.KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on www.PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.