Where Are They Now? Chris Nilan

Chris Nilan
Still hugely popular in Montreal

Canadiens fans of a certain age certainly will remember Chris (Knuckles) Nilan, whose enforcer skills with the Habs through a good part of the 1980s were a welcome addition to the roster.

Read on here for Gazette writer Ian MacDonald’s Where Are They Now? look back at Nilan’s career with the Canadiens and beyond.

Knuckles was one of the favourite athletes during his time – and still to this day – in Montreal and most everywhere else he plied his rugged trade.


  1. HabsFanInTampa says:

    I fondly remember the Chris Nilan (aka Cement Hands, Knuckles) that would step onto the ice and entertain us through the better part of the 80’s decade with the Habs. It didn’t matter who you were; Beck, Schnepts, Millar, O’Reilly, Neely, etc. Win or lose Nilan never backed down. Happy birthday Chris and thanks for the memories wearing our bleu, blanc et rouge.

  2. Sulemaan says:

    I remember two Chris Nilan’s. One was a tough right winger who become a good defensive forward who could score 20 goals and played on a defensive line with Carbonneau and Gainey. He worked damn hard to improve his skating and positional play. He would shake up the dressing room and the rookies when he felt they weren’t giving 100%. The man hated losing.

    I remember another Chris Nilan towards the end of his first stint with Montreal (before being traded to New York) where he would take very stupid penalties and often go to the box on his own. I remember one game when he butt-ended Rick Middleton and got a 10 minute intent to injury penalty. He became a problem in the dressing room and distracted the team. There was palpable relief when he was traded in 1988 as it eliminated a lot of discord. In 1989 the team made a run to the finals.

    When Nilan was at his best, he was the type of player who you hated playing against but loved on your team. When Nilan was at his worst, he was a major distraction and detriment to the team. I don’t think you can call out Nilan one way or another as he was both.

  3. knucklesnilan says:

    First let’s get this straight. A goon is a player who only plays about 4-6 minutes a game and he is only sent out there to fight. An enforcer is a guy who plays a regular shift, scores a goal here and there and stands up for his star players when they get run at.
    So Chris Nilan was an Enforcer, no doubt, anyone who thinks different is just stupid.
    And for those who say he was always taking cheap shots, I say he was doing what needed to be done. I always find it funny when Messier or Stevens cheap shotted someone, they were “sending a message” as the leader of their team but if Nilan or some player like him did something cheap they were goons and a disgrace to the league, pure and utter B.S. in my opinion.
    Best Nilan moment by far, one punching Terry O’Reilly. Some may call that a cheap shot but what did Terry think he Nilan was going to do… give him a hug!!
    True habs fun will always have a special spot in their heart for Knuckles Nilan.

  4. Hoegarden says:

    Peter, nice analysis but, in my humble opinion, I would describe him as a “disturber” with the Habs more than a goon. I agree that if he had an opportunity to nail you for no reason other than to nail you, he would.
    He came out of college with a clean record (penalty wise) and the AHL made him the player he was in Montreal. Had he backed down from the AHL real goons he would have never made it. They, the Glen Cochrane, Archie Henderson, John Paddock, Jeff Brubaker and many more took a pleasure at taking him on as a rookie out of a US College and he responded accordingly.
    The brass in Montreal took note of it and wasted no time in having him moved up after one year; scoring one goal every three games was certainly not the reason.

    Anyways, the Habs will soon find out if such a player should be in their lineup as part two of the season, better known as the “separation of men from boys” will start on Tuesday.

  5. habsguy says:

    If you want to call a fighter who could play awesome shut down hockey and chip in 15 to 20 goals a goon, ok I can live with that…But I do take exeption to your comment about late and dirty hits.. Quite frankly, I really don’t remember Nilan as a hitter.
    He did do what he had to when it came to a fight, including throwing a sucker punch, but dirty hits ?????
    Also ( and it kills me to say this )he wasn’t even close to being the best fighter of that time. When he fought the true heavyweights, he didn’t do very well..BUT he never backed down !!!
    He looked after his team and won more than he lost !!!

  6. G-Man says:

    There was one character trait you didn’t mention about Nilan: the man HATED to lose. There’s always room on my roster for players like that. For those out there who question his skill level, Nilan played with Carbo and Gainey for 3 seasons or more. A sore point, acquired by watching Habs futility the last 15 years, is that some Habs, highly paid players, who give nothing during the game but have plenty of excuses afterwards.
    As for his being a goon, well, unfortunately 300 PM kinda tells it all, but so do 3 seasons of 21,19 and 16 goals. He’d be fun to watch as a coach some where.


  7. New says:

    I don’t think Nilan was a goon. I don’t think Laraque or Brashear are goons either, although that’s the roll forced on them. I’d like to see both of them lighter, and displaying some of the great skill they both have.

    I think Chris Nilan kept the opposition honest, and looking over their shoulders. I think that gave some players a sense of being a bit bigger.

    Like it or not there are players whose game changes a great deal when the going gets physical. Get yourself 20 Bob Gaineys on a team and you don’t need a Nilan.

    Think back to Tremblay and Houle, goodbye Brashear, Roy, and Keane, almost overnight. I think I’m still in shock over that. Now there’s the outcome of a difference of opinion + temper tantrum. Blog away.

  8. Peter Young says:

    Well I can see Chris Nilan is as popular as ever among Canadiens fans and perhaps he deserves it. What I’m going to say will probably get me buried in scorn, but I hope it is remembered that disagreement, provided it is civil, is what makes things interesting on this forum.

    I was never a huge fan of Nilan or the kind of hockey he played, and I have to grasp for good things to say about him. The best I can come up with and still maintain my integrity is that he had the skills to play a different kind of game than the one he did play, that no one could fairly question his commitment to the team and that, given the Canadiens’ decline, perhaps his style of play was a necessary evil.

    Nilan went way over the top quite often with late hits and dirty hits–something I hated to see in a Canadiens player because I thought we were better than that or at least should strive to be better than that. What I really believe is that the need for his style of play reflected the gradual decline of the Canadiens in the Eighties. Sure, they won the Cup in 1986 with Nilan, but they had nowhere near the depth and power of the team of the Seventies, which didn’t need a Chris Nilan because it had players who were both tough and highly skilled, stars who could take care of themselves without the need for a goon-type enforcer and intimidator.

    Nilan says he was an enforcer and that those who call him a goon are idiots. Well, I’ll have to be an idiot in his eyes (and perhaps those of others) because I refuse to believe that you need a player piling up 300 minutes in penalties every season to remind the opposition that you can’t be pushed around, to keep things on the up and up. John Ferguson was an enforcer; Chris Nilan was more than that; he was a goon. I can understand his popularity among fans whose favourite part of hockey is fighting and whose second favourite part of hockey is any other kind of play that earns penalty minutes.

    There was plenty of rough and tough hockey in the Fifties and Sixties. But you didn’t have goons like Nilan loose on the ice. Lou Fontinato, the first player to get 200 penalty minutes in a season, was a far cry from a goon. Howie Young of the Red Wings is the first goon I remember; he came along in the early Sixties, but he didn’t last long in the NHL. Yet it was then that taking penalties for dirty play got a foothold as a deliberate and routine strategy in the game–not so much to deter the opposition from pushing one’s teammates around, but rather to disrupt the free-flow of play as an accepted and routine way of preventing the other (usually more talented) team from playing hockey. The Canadiens, thankfully, were one of the last teams to succumb to this decline in the game.

    In Ian McDonald’s story, Nilan equates the kind of hockey he played with “the North American brand we used to enjoy” and contrasts it with the European style. With respect–anyone who’s played with the Canadiens has my respect–the North American brand never was the no-holds-barred, everything-goes type that Nilan played. Rough and tough, yes, but not the unbridled goonery that Nilan often practiced.

    I will say this. Chris Nilan was my favorite goon. He played for the Canadiens.

  9. doug says:

    Agree. Nilan was tougher than Kostopolous, had better hands (scoring), and as far as comparing them as fighters. . . no challenge. The reason he would deter others is because he was so tough and would really hurt you in a fight. Kosto isn’t a good fighter whatsoever even though he doesn’t mind dropping the gloves (and losing) – look him up on youtube.

    As far as the article, it was nice to get some quotes but i was disappointed by how little there was on what he’s done since hockey and what he’s doing now. he was an assistant coach at his high school alma mater for a time, played a big role in getting a priest put away for molestation, etc. Further, there wasn’t enough about what an incredible member of the montreal community he was when he played for the habs. he grew up in boston (the city, not a suburb) where they bleed black and gold and adopted montreal as his hometown. what a man; i really miss him and am glad he retired a hab.

  10. Gormdog says:

    I see what you mean…

    Komisarek could be that guy for us, but (not in a cocky sense) he knows he’s way more valuable on the ice than in the box.

    Looks like it’s up to our big guns (Bouillon, SKosty) to defend our honour…

  11. Habs-Fan says:

    Kostopolus is a useful player.
    The real difference between a Nilan & Kosto is that opposition players will still take liberties on our players with Kosto in the lineup. Kosto will stick up for his fellow teammates, no question.

    Nilan would actually deter opposition players from any goofy stuff.

    That’s the difference.

  12. Gormdog says:

    I guess Kostopo doesn’t match up?

    Never really got a chance to see Nilan play at an age where i could appreciate him…

  13. Habs-Fan says:

    Chris is Exactly the type of player our team could use now. NO Goon but definitely an Enforcer.
    I think Neil in Ottawa comes close but I still would take Nilan in his prime over Neil.

    Thanks for the update on Chris.

  14. arcosenate says:

    chris nilan was awesome, it was a different league then and all roads led through boston. that meant beating them at their own game just as we did to philly in the 70’s. this was a guy that kept everyone honest (and entertained) and chipped in a bit offensively as well. he was one of my favourite canadiens of all time and frankly, a second coming for the cureent edition of the habs would be pretty cool!

  15. habsgod says:

    chris nilan was as tough as they come……..in his day was one of the toughest, if not the toughest guy in the league !and chris kept those idiot bruins tough guys like milbury,o’connell,o’reilly and secord from cheap shoting lafleur and company!he’d do the same with dave schultz and tiger williams back in the day!!i loved knuckles!we sure could use his type of player now!!either boogard or laraque would be just fine with me!!then let’s see the cheapshot bruins bring that big goof chara on the ice!!!both these guys(boogard and laraque) would mop the ice with that big idiot!!and then s.kostitsyn can concentrate on scoring and not fighting and tom kostopolous can go out and play his tough gritty energy role without getting beat up on!!

  16. Athenian says:

    With a Forum crowd chanting “Nilan, Nilan, Nilan!!!” and him coming off the bench to pummel Boston’s Jay Miller was a sight to see. Nilan is one of my all-time favourites and one of the nicest guys I ever met.

  17. westhab says:

    I’m old enough. He was great and was more Boston than Boston. But he wore the CH as well as anyone.

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