Chris Nilan isn’t just from Boston. The guy called Knuckles is Boston, from his youth at St. Theresa’s in West Roxbury to his Cask ’n Flagon visits while at Northeastern to his encounter with Whitey Bulger – which, naturally, involved a gun.
But now, the 55-year-old Nilan is based in Montreal, where he works the afternoon shift at TSN Radio 690. From behind the microphone, Nilan sounds like legions of his fellow Montreal residents. Nilan believes that after the high-end likes of Carey Price, P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov, and Max Pacioretty, the former Flying Frenchmen are too puny to compete against the NHL’s big boys.
“They’re not big up the middle,” Nilan said. “Overall, they’re a small team. I think ultimately that will catch up with them. They’ve got a really good core group of players. They need to sprinkle the infield with some of them gritty guys — third- and fourth-line players. They’ve really got one pure goal scorer in Pacioretty. Other than that, the offense comes from the back end with P.K. and Markov. It’s a pretty good team. But as far as a team that can compete to go all the way, they’re going to get worn down in a seven-game series where size catches up.”
Nilan has known life no other way. Of Nilan’s 688 career NHL games, he played 523 while wearing the bleu, blanc, et rouge. Nilan is a Bostonian. But Montreal, like it did when he was on skates, provides Nilan with the platform for his life — one he is lucky to have.
“I was playing Russian roulette every night with five bullets in the gun,” said Nilan. “Not one. Five. I was surviving. I was trying to get through that sickness. Until I was able to ask for help, I was on a collision course with death.”
Nilan chronicled his story in “Fighting Back: The Chris Nilan Story,” which was released in November. Nilan wrote the book in collaboration with Easton author Ross Muscato. Nilan will be signing his book at 7 p.m. on Jan. 30 at the New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton.
That Nilan is alive — and as a published author, no less – might be more notable than a tough West Roxbury kid playing for three Original Six teams and winning a Stanley Cup with one of them.
“Fighting Back” is a breezy, insightful read. Nilan’s yarns are doozies. He describes a wild night at the Montreal Forum on Nov. 21, 1981. After a fight with Paul Baxter, Nilan threw a puck at the Pittsburgh instigator while both were in their penalty boxes. Nilan wanted more. When Baxter went to the Montreal training room for stitches, Nilan went in with confrontation on his mind. Arena security made sure Baxter didn’t require additional repairs.
Away from hockey, Nilan’s best story is about former wife Karen. Her mother was Teresa Stanley, Bulger’s longtime girlfriend. Before a date with Karen, Nilan met Bulger for the first time. During their conversation, Bulger took out a black gun and reminded Nilan to be good to Karen. Bulger then gave Nilan $500 for their date.
But Nilan’s most revealing anecdotes center on the post-hockey battle he fought with alcohol and drugs. It was a fight far tougher than any of the scraps Nilan had with Terry O’Reilly or Jay Miller.
The trouble started with Percocet, which Nilan took after undergoing knee surgery in 1999. On nights when Nilan drank between 12 and 20 beers, he’d average one or two Percocets. The habit escalated to OxyContin.
With help from the NHL, Nilan entered rehab in California. Upon his recovery, Nilan worked in government in Rhode Island, helped coach the Catholic Memorial hockey team, and took classes to become an addiction counselor.
But Nilan resumed drinking and taking painkillers in 2004. Nilan and his wife divorced in 2007. Nilan got help from the NHL once more. He entered rehab in Oregon in 2009. Later that year, Nilan was arrested for disorderly conduct and shoplifting a bathing suit from a Lord & Taylor at the South Shore Plaza. The charges were dismissed.
Nilan continued to take painkillers. He then progressed to heroin.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t get pills anymore,” Nilan said. “When you can’t get them from the doctor anymore, you get them on the street. That led down the terrible dark road to using heroin. It sounds crazy, but I was doing it to survive.”
In 2010, with help from girlfriend Jamie, Nilan committed to rehab once more, this time in Hawaii. He has been sober since then.
“It’s part of my life,” Nilan said of his post-hockey turbulence. “That’s what life was. Do I regret that it happened? No. It happened. I accept it. I accept that it happened to me. For me, the whole thing is to understand it, have clarity with the whole thing, and move past it.”
Nilan worked hard to score 110 career goals and 115 assists. His best production took place when he skated alongside Bob Gainey and Guy Carbonneau. They were deployed as a checking line. Like good defensive forwards, they created chances by limiting those of their opponents.
But Nilan was best known for his gloves-off work. In 1984-85, the season when he scored a career-high 21 goals and 16 assists, Nilan topped out at 358 penalty minutes. If opponents gave Mats Naslund or Mario Tremblay a sideways look, Nilan would be there with fists ready.
Nilan was a natural fighter. Now, Nilan is just at ease talking, whether it’s about his life or the Canadiens. Neither subject is lacking in material.
“It’s not as easy as people think — that you just show up and talk,” Nilan said of sports radio. “There’s preparation. You’ve got to have valid points. I have my views on things, I stick with them, and I back them up with thoughts, feelings, and my experiences in life. I enjoy doing it. I’m no Jim Rome. I’m no Dan Rather. I’m Chris Nilan.”
Chiasson chasing another hot streak
All Alex Chiasson has known is scoring goals. Last season, Chiasson scored six goals in his first seven NHL games. He started 2013-14 just as hot. Chiasson scored in each of Dallas’s first three games, and became just the sixth NHLer since 1943-44 to score nine goals in his first 10 games.
Chiasson’s goal-scoring touch has vanished just as quickly as it emerged.
The three-year Boston University standout (36 career NCAA goals) entered this weekend with no goals in his last 19 games. The right wing’s last goal was Dec. 3 against Chicago.
“I’ve got some mental problems,” Chiasson said with a smile. “I’ve tried pretty much everything.”
Chiasson once rode shotgun on Dallas’s No. 1 line with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. But with his hands turned into concrete, Chiasson has been skating most recently with Ray Whitney and Vernon Fiddler, trying to reclaim what once came to him so naturally.
“When you’re hot, you’re hot. You don’t even think about it,” Chiasson said. “You play your game. It just happens. You don’t have to worry about much. When you’re not going good, and you’re not scoring, that’s what your mind is all about. I’m pretty sure that’s not the right mind-set.”
Chiasson’s shot is still heavy. The 23-year-old has a quick release. But a big part of scoring goals is believing that you can. That belief has been gone for a while.
In a recent meeting, Stars general manager Jim Nill reminded Chiasson that he is a rookie, and that this drought will not be his last.
NOT SO FAST
Keith’s offense isn’t enough for the Norris
Entering the weekend, Duncan Keith was second in points (3-41—44) among defensemen, which automatically puts him in the conversation for the Norris Trophy. P.K. Subban won the Norris last season after leading all defensemen with 38 points. Two years ago, Erik Karlsson racked up a dizzying 78 points (25 more than second-place Dustin Byfuglien among defensemen) and claimed the Norris. Nicklas Lidstrom won his seventh Norris in 2010-11 after trailing only Lubomir Visnovsky in points.
Keith does not deserve the award this season.
The tricky part is the definition of all-around defenseman, which is the award’s criteria. There are no guidelines on how to weigh offensive and defensive contributions.
There is no doubting Keith’s offensive touch, which starts in the defensive zone. Keith is as good as they come in retrieving the puck and triggering the breakout, either with a quick pass to a forward or a solo skate through center ice.
But part of the reason behind Keith’s silky breakout skills relate to his competition. Coach Joel Quenneville prefers to deploy Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya as his shutdown pair over Keith and Brent Seabrook. That leaves Keith playing against second lines instead of top units — think Vladimir Sobotka and Vladimir Tarasenko instead of David Backes and T.J. Oshie. By several measures of advanced statistics, Keith does not rank among the top 50 defensemen when gauged by the quality of his competition.
If you’re going to win the Norris, you should be playing against the best. Ryan Suter, Zdeno Chara, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and Alex Pietrangelo draw top-line duty and score points. They’re more deserving of the Norris than Keith.
Shawn Thornton has a fan in Chris Nilan, who admires the enforcer’s all-around game. “Just because a guy’s a fighter doesn’t mean he’s not a hockey player,” Nilan said. “I turned myself into a hockey player. You’ve got a guy right there in Boston in Thornton. You can put him on the ice and he can play the game.” Nilan understood why Thornton attacked Brooks Orpik on Dec. 7. But like many from his generation, Nilan believes Orpik should have accepted Thornton’s initial query. “He doesn’t have a problem cross-checking guys from behind or in front of the net,” Nilan said of Orpik. “He’s not at all a cheap player. But he did hit a guy without the puck just coming off a concussion. If you want to play that way, if you’re going to play on the edge sometimes, you better answer the bell.”
On Wednesday, for the second time in a little more than six months, the Kings traded a backup goalie. Ben Scrivens, marginalized by the emergence of Martin Jones, was traded to Edmonton for a 2014 third-round pick. On June 23, 2013, the Kings acquired Scrivens from Toronto in the Jonathan Bernier deal. The trades underscore how the Kings’ continued emphasis on the game’s most important position turns into assets. It isn’t good enough for Los Angeles to have the league’s best goalie, when healthy, in Jonathan Quick. The Kings signed Jones, now Quick’s backup, as a free agent. In 2009, they drafted Jean-Francois Berube in the fourth round. There could be a time when the Kings flip Jones or Berube for more picks or prospects. Full credit goes to GM Dean Lombardi, former assistant GM Ron Hextall, and co-director of amateur scouting Michael Futa, as well as goaltending coaches Bill Ranford and Kim Dillabaugh. Scrivens will be under siege behind the defensively challenged Oilers. The Kings don’t care. They flipped an expiring contract for a high pick in the third round.
The Jets are 2-0-0 since sacking Claude Noel and replacing him with ex-Carolina coach Paul Maurice. The wins were against a struggling Phoenix team and the down-and-out Flames. But the Jets are playing with more structure than they did under Noel. Perhaps the biggest change is Byfuglien’s play at forward instead of defense. The move took place before Maurice’s arrival. But for three straight games, Byfuglien (one goal, three assists) has been at ease creating havoc in the offensive zone alongside Olli Jokinen and Devin Setoguchi. Given Winnipeg’s skill level on the blue line, Byfuglien is best served playing a Brent Burns-like role on the right wing. On defense, Byfuglien is too much of a freelancer. Up front, he is free to take all the risks he wants.
Through 48 games, Sidney Crosby averaged 22:09 of ice time, most of any forward. It’s Crosby’s highest workload of his career. Crosby’s previous high was in 2009-10, when the Pittsburgh captain played 21:57 per game. That season, Crosby scored 51 goals and 58 assists in 81 games. Some of Crosby’s increased responsibilities relate to injuries to Evgeni Malkin. Without their second-line center, the Penguins have needed Crosby to assume more shifts. Good for the Pittsburgh coaching staff to take advantage of the game’s best player. Crosby can handle the work. More coaches should do the same.
There’s mutual respect between Claude Julien and Lindy Ruff, who will be two of Team Canada coach Mike Babcock’s three assistants at the Sochi Olympics. Ruff praised Julien’s insistence on details. “Claude does an exceptional job with the fundamentals of the game — stick on puck, being in the right place, being in the right lanes, how to win battles, how to get above the puck, making people come through you,” Ruff said. In turn, Julien noted the pleasure he had in gaining intelligence from Ruff during Olympic meetings last summer. “Just talking, it’s amazing how you learn from each other,” Julien said. “It’s not a bad thing. We’re like anybody else. We want to improve. Sharing ideas, it’s not like you’re keeping a secret. You’re getting better.”
On Tuesday, Jaromir Jagr scored his 695th career goal, passing Mark Messier to claim seventh place on the all-time list. It has been a delight to watch the evolution of Jagr’s game. Jagr used to score his goals with speed and skill. Now, Jagr might be the NHL’s only player to spend most of his time facing away from the net. Jagr’s strength, reach, and hockey sense allow him to play his unique style . . . Local hockey people have nothing but good things to say about Jack Gardiner, who died on Jan. 10 because of cancer. Gardiner, a San Jose scout since 2004, also worked for Toronto, St. Louis, and the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau . . . Good guy Stephane Robidas, once feared lost for the season because of a broken leg, is targeting a return this year. Robidas, injured on Nov. 29, will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. It will help Robidas’s search for his next contract if he can play this season. He could have been a trade pickup for a team seeking a veteran right-shot defenseman. But Robidas’s injury made that impossible . . . Johnny Boychuk and wife Sheena welcomed daughters Kenzie and Zoey on Monday. During their first ultrasound, the technician briefly thought a third baby was present. Twins are enough. But a three-baby flurry would have been a bigger handful than any odd-man rush Boychuk and Chara have ever stared down.