One-on-one with Chris Nilan

Earlier this week, I wrote about agitators and enforcers over the last 40 years, and the changes in their productivity (HERE is the link to that post). The statistics showed that players are almost half as productive as they used to be 30 years ago, and they are also taking fewer penalties. I found these results very interesting, and I had a few theories as to what has changed, although I had no proof to back them up.

What could account for the transition in statistics we have seen over the last 40 years? I decided to get in touch with someone who has first-hand experience in the field, Montreal Canadiens’ former tough guy Chris ‘Knuckles’ Nilan. Chris is a former Stanley Cup champion (in the 1985-1986 season), and is one of only 9 players to crack the 3000 PIM milestone, with a total of 3034 penalty minutes. He showed up in my research 6 times, topping the league in PIM in the 83-84 and 84-85 seasons. If anyone knows about high penalty-minute players and their roles on the team, it’s Chris.

I asked him about the clear changes in the statistics over the last 40 years, and what has changed. “Well, I think that the rule changes that the league has made over the years has had an impact on the way tough guys can play the game. They have made rule changes to tone down fighting, such as the instigator rule, because they want to discourage the staged fights. Taking out the red line also sped the game up. There are rule changes to make the game faster, and that makes it difficult for the tough guys to keep up.” He also pointed out that there has been a change in the way the game is played. “In today’s NHL, to be competitive you need to have 4 functional lines. You can’t have a guy who sits on the bench, and only goes out and fights. It’s difficult to win when you have players who you can’t put on the ice for 10-15 minutes.”

He also touched on the fact that players who can both fight and play are rare. “There’s players like Neil, Clarkson, Lucic, Prust. They can all fight, but they can also score. Back in the day, teams liked to have three or four tough guys on their team. In Boston, they usually had about five, and they still do. They have Lucic, Chara, McQuaid. These are all guys that can fight and play at the same time. You’re lucky if you have players like that. It means that they can react to what happens on the ice at any time. Before, you had to wait until the next shift to put your goon out. These days if Lucic is on the ice, he can respond if a player on the other team crosses the line.”

I asked Chris if, as an enforcer, he felt that his role was to simply bring energy and defend his teammates, or if there was still an emphasis on producing offensively. “Well, first and foremost, I was a hockey player. I had a role on the team. I knew my role, I knew how to do my role, and I liked my role. As an example, when I played with Guy Carbonneau and Bob Gainey, we were always put up against the other team’s first line. We had a defensive role, which was to shut down their best players. But when you could help the team offensively, I did. And I was effective for the team offensively. I scored 21 goals (In the 84-85 season) and 19 goals (in the 85-86 season), so I also helped the team when I could.

I then asked Chris what he thinks the future holds for the enforcer role. “To be honest, I don’t know, I can’t predict the future. But I don’t see them banning fighting anytime in the near future, I think they would have a hard time justifying that. I think we might start seeing less and less emphasis on the role of enforcer. Unless they change the rules again, I don’t see it going back to the way it was in the 80s. “

“The NHL doesn’t like showing fighting on their networks or in the highlights. It makes them look violent. No other sport has fighting like that, except for boxing. Showing fights also bring up the debates about fighting in the NHL.”

“It also seems like these days, guys are dropping the gloves at all the wrong times. Every time a guy does a clean hit, they have to defend themselves. It’s almost as if teams are on edge, and that they’re too eager to drop the gloves, even after a clean hit. On the other hand, players don’t always go after another team’s player after a cheap shot. When I was playing, if a guy gave a cheap shot, he was damn sure he’d pay for it. And in those days, we didn’t see the types of concussion problems we have in the current NHL. It might be the speed of the game, but how fast has it really sped up? Maybe it’s because guys aren’t afraid of retaliation after cheap shots. They can get away with it without having to pay the price.”

I just want to thank Chris Nilan for doing this. I think it’s worth sharing how I got the chance for this interview. I emailed the information section of his website, asking for his opinion on my research. I suggested an email or I could meet him in the coming weeks. The next morning I check my phone, and I see that there is a voicemail. The voicemail was from Nilan himself, saying that he wanted to talk about the article, and to call him back. He then gave me a ten-minute interview, answering any questions I had. He had no obligation to help me, and he took time out of his day to help an amateur blogger with an article. He is an incredibly nice man, and I really appreciate the time he took to help me. I just thought you should know how nice of a guy ‘Knuckles’ is. He is the kind of guy who’s heart is as big as his fists.

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