His Fights Are Legendary. How Did That Leave His Brain?

When it comes to CTE research, Chris Nilan could end up being a fascinating subject
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 1, 2023 4:25 PM CDT
His Fights Are Legendary. How Did That Leave His Brain?
Chris Nilan played 523 of his 688 NNHL regular-season games with the Montreal Canadiens.   (Getty Images / bephotographers)

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, can only be diagnosed after death, and that diagnosis has been made hundreds of times among former football and hockey players who have suffered repeated blows to the head. Boston University's CTE center is now running a study on living subjects who might be likely to have it; Chris "Knuckles" Nilan makes for an obvious participant. The 65-year-old holds the NHL record for the third-most fights in league history, at 316. In a piece for the New York Times, David Waldstein describes one game in 1980 when the hockey enforcer took on "two of the most feared pugilists in league ... hockey's equivalent of boxing Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson within an hour of one another." Though while Nilan struggled with addiction and violence following the end of his 13-year career, he didn't attribute those issues to his time in the sport.

Joining the study meant submitting to cognitive, neurological, and medical tests that are repeated annually and donating the brain upon death. Nilan got the results from the tests he underwent this spring, and they're the opposite of what you might expect: normal or even above average. That could make Nilan an invaluable study participant. "Researchers want to know the factors that have made Nilan appear resistant so far to degenerative neurological disease, whether genetics, medical history, the types of head impacts, his lifestyle or other factors," Waldstein explains. He writes, beautifully, "In some ways, Nilan's contribution to the study was an opportunity to do in retirement what he loved most as a player, defending teammates." (Read the full story, which weaves in a bit on Nilan's former father-in-law: Whitey Bulger.)

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