Christopher John Nilan earned every minute of the 688 NHL regular season games he played patrolling the right-wing for the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. Fiercely loyal to his teammates and his club, Chris answered the call every time, racking up over 3,000 penalty minutes during his pro career, many of them earned against some of the toughest players the NHL has ever seen. For an Irish kid from the streets of West Roxbury, Massachusetts, where the Irish settled scores with their fists, there was no other way. Chris learned one important lesson early on: whatever happens, never back down, never stay down. The lesson stuck.
Growing up, Chris played his youth hockey with the Parkway team of the Greater Boston Youth Hockey League (GBYHL). He loved the Big Bad Bruins of that era and idolized . hockey legends Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, Wayne Cashman, Derek Sanderson and Gerry Cheevers. Chris knew he wanted to live the same dream. The fact that he would do anything to make it happen became clear later on when he was playing college hockey for the Northeastern University Huskies, and then pro with the Nova Scotia Voyageurs of the AHL, where he scored 15 goals and had 304 penalty minutes in only 49 games.
Nilan was selected 231st overall by the Canadiens in the 1978 NHL Amateur Entry Draft.
He was called up from the Voyageurs for the last 15 games of the 1979-80 season and played five play-off games with the big club. This was not the day of big money and big contracts in the NHL. Players fought for their spots and had to win their right to play. Nilan was always considered a long-shot to make the NHL, but he knew how to play on the edge, knew how to take care of his team-mates and showed that he was willing to fight for his team if he had to. Chris knew this was what got him to the NHL, and he knew it was what would keep him there. Beginning in the 1980-81 season, Nilan became a regular in the Canadien’s line-up for the next 8 seasons.
The fans in Montreal loved Chris because everyone knew he had the CH stamped on his heart. He was an enforcer, the team’s protector, did the dirty work in the trenches, and he could score. You don’t play 8 pro seasons with the NHL’s most storied club and win a Stanley Cup along the way just because you think you’re tough and like to fight. You have to earn it. You have to be there night in night out for every game and every minute. You also have to play. Nilan scored a career-high 21 goals with the Canadiens in 1984-85 and he scored 19 more the following season when the Canadiens won their 23rd Stanley Cup.
Like so many of his friends from the era, Chris has had his challenges since leaving the game. He’s been trying to figure out who he would be after the lime light of the show faded away. He’s been knocked down more than a few times but true to form he hasn’t stayed down. He’s taking another run at life – spend a few minutes on this website to see how.
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