THE FIRST TIME I met Todd Ewen, in late November 1991, he didn't properly introduce himself. I was playing for the Bruins, he was with Montreal, and he ambushed me, throwing a couple of uppercuts. I had 222 regular-season NHL fights, but this wasn't one of them. We received slashing and roughing minors.
The next time was a few months later, after the Canadiens picked me up on waivers near the end of my career. Ewen was a friendly guy, but we didn't warm to each other right away. Then I saw him drawing on the team plane. He'd sketch monsters and superheroes. Really good, too. He told me he collected comic books. He had a rare Superman from back in the day, and Captain America and stuff. Todd was more Picasso than Hercules.
When I heard the sickening news last week that he'd died, at 49, my first question was, How? Car accident? Heart attack? Then I got a call from my best friend, in Boston: It was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
In recent years there has been a string of suicides and other hockey players whose lives ended much too soon. Wade Belak was 35. Derek Boogaard, 28. Rick Rypien, 27. Steve Montador, 35. These guys were all fighters or, in Montador's case, a physical guy. Now Todd.
In the aftermath of his death, everybody's been in a hurry to connect the dots in a straight line—from hockey fights to concussions to CTE to depression to suicide. It strikes me, a guy whose nickname is Knuckles, as all too simple. Maybe people should draw a circle instead, examining the whole person's life, who he was and not just what he did for a living. You have to wonder what in their pasts allowed these guys to get to the point where they could do the most difficult job in sports. What fueled their anger and ability to summon that aggression on demand? Kelly Chase, a pretty tough kid when he played, once compared the anguish of a hockey fighter to that of a boy sitting in class, watching the clock, waiting for the three o'clock bell and knowing that when it rang, he was going to have to fight on the playground. No other job in sports tests you physically, mentally and emotionally like being an enforcer. Todd said he was never afraid of getting into a fight, just of losing one—because if he did, he might lose his job.
After I left hockey the emotional and physical pain lingered, even while I tried to drown it in alcohol and fool it with Percocet, OxyContin and finally heroin. I never thought of killing myself, though inadvertently I almost did. (Heroin is the last step before you die.) I'm 57 now. I've been clean for more than four years. I have an amazing girlfriend, Jaime Holtz. I work out four times a week with my trainer, Stéphane Therrien, who has helped me rebuild the strength and alleviate the pain in my hands after a 688-game career in which I took many of my 3,043 penalty minutes five at a time. I host an afternoon radio show in Montreal. It's all good.
I like fighters because they are selfless guys who stick up for their teammates and their teams. But I won't sugarcoat this: While I don't necessarily want to see fighting removed from the NHL, I don't think it belongs there anymore. Does that make sense? When two players are pissed at each other and it's like, O.K., let's settle this, I see nothing wrong with it. But as a tactic, I don't like it. I look back at some of the melees I was in with Montreal in the 1980s—the Good Friday Massacre with the Nordiques, the pregame fight with Philadelphia, the Boston brawls—and a lot of it seems nonsensical. I'm embarrassed by some of that stuff.
I'm not a born-again abolitionist, but thinking about what's happened, how life has changed, hockey fighting looks to be past its expiration date. I don't know how people will react when they read that Chris Nilan, the last gladiator, thinks hockey fighting has outlived its usefulness. Maybe they'll be outraged. Or maybe they'll think I never got a concussion, that I still have my head on my shoulders. RIP, Todd.
I don't necessarily want to see fighting removed from hockey. But I don't think it belongs there anymore.
COURTESY OF TSN
DENIS BRODEUR/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES
Tough Road Nilan (in white) spent 13 years in the NHL trenches with the Canadiens, Rangers and Bruins.