MONTREAL - Chris Nilan may have made his living as a feared and successful fighter in the NHL, but that's not to say he doesn't know the feeling of being down and out.
Nilan, or "Knuckles," as he's commonly known, racked up a whopping 3,043 penalty minutes - ninth-most in NHL history - over 13 seasons with the Canadiens, New York Rangers, and Boston Bruins and was and remains much-beloved in Montreal for playing the role of enforcer.
But after retiring from playing hockey in 1992, Nilan - who scored 110 goals for 225 points in 688 career games - fell victim to drug and alcohol addiction.
Taking the plunge and asking for the help he badly needed to get his life back on track, however, was the greatest decision he ever could've made, albeit not an easy one.
"I never in my life had to reach out and say, 'Hey, can you help me?' to someone. I was ashamed to do it. I was ashamed of where I was in my life," admitted Nilan, who, according to hockeyfights.com, has 253 fights on his resume, 174 of them with Montreal. "It was very difficult for me to take that step, but it was the best thing I ever did in hindsight. It allowed me to get into a position where I was able to turn my life around and get out of the mess that I got myself in."
By speaking out, not only was Nilan able to get the professional help he needed to overcome his addictions, but he was also showered with support and empathy from those around him and from the public.
"There's a lot of positivity around it, anytime you're able - as a man - to have the courage and wherewithal to accept your weaknesses, and understand them," explained Nilan, who scored a career-high 21 goals in 1985-86 before winning the Stanley Cup with the Canadiens that spring. "And to be able to share those with other people in the hope that maybe, just maybe it will give somebody the confidence to come out, if they're struggling, and ask for help.
"There's no shame in asking for help. Especially when you know you need it."
The soon-to-be 62-year-old has built a new life for himself in Montreal, currently hosting his own show, Off the Cuff with Chris Nilan on TSN 690, where he's been able to keep a close eye on his beloved Canadiens.
He was particularly impressed with center Nate Thompson's ability to overcome his own addiction issues, a story which was most recently told in a segment that aired earlier in January on Hockey Night in Canada.
"Good for him, to recognize it. His wife [Sydney] certainly had a role in that, where she certainly opened his eyes to the way he was living his life. He took a good look at himself and did something about it. Kudos to him; I'm happy for him," praised Nilan, the Canadiens' 19th-round pick (231st overall) in 1978. "He's a sober man today and it's really helped him, not just in hockey, but in his life. That's the key thing. Especially... he's an older guy who's coming into a transitional period in his life that is extremely difficult for a lot of athletes and he's on the cusp of that. And to be able to tackle that head-on with a good head on your shoulders, being a sober man, making good decisions, not running from life anymore, it's certainly beneficial not only to him, but to his family. That's a good thing."
And what kind of message does Nilan have for anyone out there suffering from addiction or mental illness?
"My message would be: if you're struggling, put everything else aside, focus on yourself, and reach out and ask for help. There's no shame in asking for help. For a lot of people who struggle, it will probably be the best thing you ever did. It'll open your eyes to a new way of life. There's no shame in asking for help," concluded Nilan. "You're not weak; you're not a wimp. As a matter of fact, it takes a lot of courage to do it."
The Canadiens held their Hockey Talks night on Monday at the Bell Centre. #BellLetsTalk Day takes place on Wednesday, with Bell donating 5¢ for every applicable text, call, tweet, and social media video view throughout the day to raise money for mental health initiatives in Canada.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or with their mental health, click here to access some resources for help.
If you are in crisis, please go to your local hospital, call 911 immediately or locate a Crisis Centre in your region.