Former hockey goon Chris Nilan is the subject of a new documentary. Liam Day remembers him as the neighbor who stopped him from running away.
I grew up the next street over from Chris Nilan, the former NHL player known as much for fighting and racking up penalty minutes, some 3,000 over his 13 seasons, as for any of the goals he might have scored.
I was, from about the age of 8 until the age of 12, his parents’ paperboy. If memory serves, they had subscriptions to both the Boston Globe and Boston Herald. Later, I attended, some ten years after he had graduated, the same high school, Catholic Memorial, which has sent a number of its graduates on to the NHL.
Though 54 now and long since retired from hockey, Chris is in the news again because he is the star of a documentary which recently opened in New York and premeried on demand last week. The Last Gladiators tells the story of the hockey goon, the guy on every NHL team whose job it was to provide the muscle to protect the team’s star players. During a time before the NHL started cracking down on fighting, the goons were often fan-favorites, the everymen who acted out the fans’ violent fantasies on the ice. There was, however, a price to be paid.
The documentary intersperses archival footage of some of hockey’s classic fights with present-day interviews with the goons who fought them, principally Nilan. The focus is on the physical and psychological scars left by all that fighting: surgeries, a shoplifting arrest, drugs and alcohol.
But Nilan’s is something of a redemption story. Clean and sober, he’s living in Montreal now, where he played the majority of his 13 NHL seasons. He’s working in radio, has his own clothing line, and has launched an anti-bullying program. There’s even been mention of his story being sold to Hollywood.
The anti-bullying program is what caught my eye, not because it seems at odds with the public persona Nilan sported for so many years as a bully on the ice, but precisely because it squared with the Chris Nilan I knew.
I have two distinct memories of Chris. The first is a small one. One day, just about the time his career with Montreal would have been peaking, he was back visiting his parents. He was standing on the screened front porch when I came by with the papers, but I had made a mistake and all the Globes I was carrying with me that morning were the previous day’s. I was only about 11 and rather flustered that I had not only to back track on my route and pick up all the Globes I had already delivered and replace them with that day’s paper, but that it was Chris Nilan who discovered my error.
When I returned later with the correct paper, Chris again met me at the door. As I was walking away, however, he called out to me in what I perceived to be an angry voice, “Hey, this is tomorrow’s paper.” I froze, completely at a loss as to what to do. Though it was probably only a second or two, it felt like an hour before he smiled and I realized he was joking. (Probably not much to my credit, it took me most of the walk home to realize he had to be joking.)
The other memory I have is this: I was 4, maybe 5 years old. Chris was probably a student at Northeastern, where he played his college hockey. It was summer and, for a reason I can’t now recall, I had decided to run away from home. I got as far as the end of the block, where Chris was in the parking lot of the pizza shop on the corner. He may not have recognized me, but he certainly recognized I didn’t have my parents’ permission to leave our street. (He was right; I didn’t.)
Chris brought me into Tony’s, bought me a slice and a Coke, and then took me back out into the parking lot, where he lifted me up and sat me on the hood of what I assume was his car so that if anyone came looking for me I could be easily seen. I don’t know whether he sent one of his buddies up the street to my house to fetch my father while I sat steeling myself with pizza and Coke for the journey I was still intent on taking, or whether my father happened to notice my absence and come after me, but, either way, the hood of the car was as far as I would get that afternoon.
The Boston Irish Catholic personality is unique, one that’s clearly fascinated Hollywood over the last 15 years. (One of the reasons why it’s likely Chris Nilan’s story is getting some attention right now.) It is a mixture of the sacred and profane. Venal sins—swearing, drinking, fighting—are to be tolerated if they are committed within the trajectory of a life that’s led in pursuit of cardinal virtues—loyalty, respect, generosity, and the defense of those who are weaker than you.
There is a dark side to this stereotype—Boston’s unfortunate racial history, the code of silence that gripped the neighborhood of Charlestown for so many years, the saga of Whitey Bulger, which, yes, you guessed it, is coming soon to a theater near you. And God help strangers. We won’t give you the time of day. But if someone can breech our exteriors and get to know us, there is little we wouldn’t be willing to do for that person.
In many ways, Chris Nilan is the stereotype—hell, he’s almost the archetype—of the Boston Irish Catholic personality. As quick as he was to drop his gloves on the ice, he was also willing to look out and stick up for the younger, smaller kids in the neighborhood. It does not surprise me that he now runs an anti-bullying program for children in Montreal’s schools. That is the Chris Nilan I knew. It is also the Chris Nilan who is getting well-deserved screen time in The Last Gladiators.