Chris "Knuckles" Nilan turned fighting on the streets in Boston into a long career in the NHL as one of the league's most accomplished enforcers.
"Fighting was easy. It was second nature to me," said the 54-year-old Nilan, who retired in 1992. "Now, playing hockey was the hard part."
Nilan's story is being told in the new movie "The Last Gladiators," led by Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney. The movie, which also talks about enforcers Marty McSorley and Bob Probert, opens Friday in New York.
Playbook had a chance to talk with Nilan about his rise in hockey, his descent into drug addiction and how he turned his life around.
How did you get involved in this project?
"The producers were wanting to do a documentary on fighting and hockey and wanted to know whether I wanted to answer some questions. I had just gotten out of drug and alcohol treatment and talked to them the next day. After they interviewed me, they considered me the central figure of this movie. I had some time on my hands, and I trusted these guys. It was phenomenal."
You played nearly 700 games in 13 years in the NHL and won the Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1986. What do you think of your career?
"Are you kidding me? This is all I ever wanted to do as a kid. I grew up watching the Boston Bruins and Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. Fighting was very easy for me. I knew that's what my role was. Winning the championship was incredible."
Did you like the nickname Knuckles?
"Like it or not, that was the nickname given to me. I just rolled with it. It's part of my nature to be an aggressive guy. That how I grew up in Boston and how I played on the ice. The Bruins were my role model. They were a tough team. I wasn't a pushover in my neighborhood."
Do you think fighting is necessary in hockey these days?
"Everyone has an opinion on it. I think there is a place for it in the game if it's used properly. You need to protect your own guys. Can it be done away with? Yes. But what would the results be? I think there would be more injuries because if you hit someone and nothing happens, who pays a price for that? Someone has to answer for that. Back in the day, we had to police ourselves. Today, the league is trying to police it."
What did you think when you watched the movie "The Last Gladiators?"
"I went to the premiere in Toronto, and it was an incredible job. It was very emotional for me to watch. I was in tears. It brought back a lot of negative stuff in my life. I saw the pain I put my mom and my dad through."
The movie talks about your surgeries and addiction to painkillers and eventually to alcohol and heroin. And now your recovery. How are you doing today?
"I love my life. I'm comfortable in my own skin. I ended up in a bad place, and I lost myself. I started learning about alcohol and drug addiction. I got to the other side. I didn't have opportunities to do anything when I was messed up. No one wants to deal with someone like that. I don't blame them. I now have people that have faith in me and willing to give me a second chance at life. I'm working on radio in Montreal. I started an anti-bullying campaign and have spoken to about 100 schools. My life isn't over."