MONTREAL – Hanging up the skates and stepping away from the limelight can be a tough transition for any player. Chris Nilan describes his fall from grace – and how he clawed his way back – in his new movie, The Last Gladiators.
Admitting you have a problem is often the most difficult step. After spending 12 seasons as one of the most popular and feared NHL enforcers of his generation, the former Habs tough guy woke up one morning to the harsh reality of life after hockey. Adapting to his new situation drove Nilan deeper and deeper into the world of drugs, alcohol and pain killers.
Once he realized his destructive habits had overtaken and overshadowed all his previous accomplishments, he knew he was in trouble. Nilan made the brave decision to ask for help and he wasn’t afraid to let cameras document his recovery along the way. His story was so poignant, director Alex Gibney decided to make the retired winger the subject of his new film, The Last Gladiators.
“I had to be honest and open up. I couldn’t hide from my past and I couldn’t sweep it under the rug,” admitted Nilan, who retired following the 1992-93 season. “In order for me to get through it, I had to confront it, make sense of it and then move on. The crew made it easy for me because they were really professional and that obviously helped.
“I went from someone who was a part of the movie to the focal point of it,” he added. “I had a lot of time on my hands when I got out of treatment and it gave me an opportunity to keep busy. It was sort of an extension of my therapy to really open it up and be honest about my situation.”
From his days growing up in Boston and winning the Stanley Cup in 1986 to his tumultuous departure from Montreal, Nilan reveals how he lost his passion for the game he had loved his entire life after being traded to the Rangers in 1988. Revitalized by a stint with his childhood Bruins, he was thrilled to come back to where it all started to cap his NHL career.
Having enjoyed as many highs as lows on and off the ice during his playing days, the 54-year-old is ready to pay it forward to help those who are following in his footsteps. While he’s clear his participation in The Last Gladiators wasn’t meant to be a warning to them, Nilan admits that current players could learn something by checking out the documentary.
“I think it would be a good movie for NHL players to see to understand the history and that part of the game that some of them may not know as much about,” explained Nilan, who is still ninth all-time on the NHL penalty minute leaders list. “As athletes, it’s easy for us to overlook the pitfalls that could come about when you least expect it. They can happen to you when you don’t even know they’re coming. It could be a good film for them to see to understand that side of the game, but the film also gives a sense of hope that no matter what happens in our lives, we slip and we fall, but we have the capabilities to get back on our feet and move forward again.
“I’ve heard from a lot of guys, both on Twitter and in person,” he shared. “Guys like Josh Gorges, Colby Armstrong and Brian Gionta had very nice things to say. Mr. [Marc] Bergevin had very nice words for me about it. I got a lot of positive feedback and support from the guys who know that role and have been around the game for a while and understand it. It’s a nice feeling to have them in my corner.”
Currently wrapping up a cross-Canada tour that saw him visit seven cities in 12 days, Nilan has seen that despite being out of the public eye for almost two decades, he’s still able to have an impact on his fans. That opportunity and responsibility is what drives him these days.
“The reaction from the public has been really good. To be honest, I’ve been surprised about how positive it’s been,” confessed Nilan. “People have been excited about the film everywhere I’ve gone. They liked the hockey part of it, but they also liked the personal stories from guys like me.”
Hugo Fontaine is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Shauna Denis.
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