Former NHL hockey player Chris Nilan is fighting for different reasons now and he's winning the battle...
When he reached for the doorknob it was like dropping his gloves again, but this time he wouldn’t be going toe to toe with Terry O’Reilly or Dave Brown or Jay Miller; that would be a piece of cake compared to the battle he was engaged in now.
Back in town after a lengthy stay at a distant rehab facility, Chris Nilan, the West Roxbury kid known as Knuckles, was about to attend the first of 90 meetings in 90 days, joining other self-professed alcoholics in their anonymous efforts to reach and maintain sobriety.
But when you’re the Montreal Canadiens’ all-time leader in penalty minutes, a legendary combatant who had 222 fights during 13 seasons in the NHL, anonymity can be elusive.
“I stood at that door almost terrified,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Everybody’s going to know me.’ But then I figured if I was never embarrassed to have people seeing me half in the wrapper in a bar, why should I be embarrassed to have them see me sober? So I opened the door and said, ‘Hi, my name’s Chris,’ and admitted I was there because I was powerless.”
That was three years ago. By the grace of God he’s been clean and sober ever since.
He had tried it once before, but notoriety beat sobriety.
“I’d bump into people who’d say, ‘My friend saw you at a meeting the other night.’ It would really upset me because what you see in those rooms is supposed to stay in those rooms. But even in the rooms I’d meet guys who wanted to talk hockey, and I’d be so frustrated, thinking, ‘This is not why I’m here.’ So I’d stop going.
“Looking back, maybe I was just looking for an out. Maybe I just wasn’t ready.”
But now, at 55, Knuckles embraces a life second to none.
He hosts a daily talk show in Montreal, where he has become a highly visible pillar of the community, well-known in schools for his anti-bullying presentations and his advocacy of a program that supports battered women.
What he gives them all is the gift of honesty, letting them know they’re looking at a drunk who, by the power of his example, proves their past doesn’t have to be their future, too.
It’s the same gift he hopes to give readers of “Fighting Back,” his newly published book (Triumph Books).
“I fought a lot in the NHL,” he says, “but I didn’t fight every day. With this thing, you do fight every day. But thank God I’m winning, one a day at a time.”