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COMMENTARY : Milbury's All-Star Selection a Joke

January 20, 1991|ALAN GREENBERG | THE HARTFORD COURANT

Chris "Knuckles" Nilan, an All-Star? Why not give Sonny Corleone the Lady Byng award and make Dan Quayle a Rhodes Scholar?

As if we didn't already have enough evidence to convict, Boston Bruins' Coach Mike Milbury has further underscored why the NHL is a bush league. Hockey is a hard game to disgrace, but Milbury has managed to do so by putting his favorite Bruins' goon on the All-Star team.

An All-Star team should represent the best of its sport. Nilan represents the worst. It's bad enough that the rules haven't been tightened to eliminate goons like him from the game, but to honor him in this game is to glorify everything that is wrong with hockey.

Milbury says he picked Nilan because Nilan has worked so hard this season. David Duke works hard, too, but does that mean the governor of Louisiana should appoint him to a committee on race relations? Some people's best efforts deserve contempt and scorn, not awards.

Milbury is a bright guy with an impish, outrageous streak. During his playing days, that meant sticking his thumb in your eye. As an All-Star coach, it means thumbing his nose at tradition, which says there is a place in the sport for guys like Nilan, but the All-Star game isn't one of them. Milbury knew he would take flak for honoring Nilan, and he couldn't care less. He probably thinks naming Nilan is a gutsy move.

No, just an obnoxious one. You think Milbury would have named Nilan to the All-Star team if Nilan still played for the New York Rangers or Montreal Canadiens? Are you kidding? Nilan has been in the league 12 seasons, and for some strange reason, previous All-Star coaches have seen fit to ignore.

You don't think Milbury picked Nilan for his brains, do you? Before the official announcement, but days after Milbury privately told Nilan he was going to pick him, Nilan was leaving a team meeting at Boston Garden when he spotted a few guys out on the parquet, shooting baskets. Nilan went out there and promptly sprained an ankle horsing around.

That was nine days ago, and Nilan hasn't played for the Bruins since. It's uncertain whether he'll be sufficiently healthy to play in Saturday's All-Star game at Chicago. What a loss.

It would be interesting to see Nilan in the All-Star game, sort of the way it would be interesting to see Roseanne Barr sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. All-Star games are famous for being clean, non-physical affairs. What business does Chris Nilan have in a game like that?

Probably shouldn't get so worked up about this. It's only hockey. I was straining to think of a baseball, basketball or football analogy to Nilan being named to the All-Star team, and I really couldn't. Making Nilan an All-Star is like making Greg Kite an All-Star, except Kite only fouls people, and then only because he's too clumsy to make a deft play. Kite doesn't beat people up. Rick Mahorn? Nah, he's got a lot more talent than Chris Nilan.

This has been a wonderful season for Nilan. He grew up in Boston and still has to pinch himself when he finds himself driving to Boston Garden to work, rather than Madison Square Garden or The Forum. The Rangers sent him home this summer, in exchange for the rights to Tie Domi and Mark Laforest. I'll bet if the Rangers realized they were trading an All-Star, they'd have asked for a lot more.

At the end of 1990, People Magazine named its "25 most intriguing people of 1990," and the girl who models Guess jeans was ranked right up there with Nelson Mandela. History may make a somewhat larger distinction between the two, but the problem is, more Americans read People than history.

To a much smaller extent than People trivializes Mandela's accomplishments, Milbury trivializes those of Wayne Gretzky and the other All-Stars by including the likes of Nilan. All-Stars occupy the highest echelon of hockey society. Nilan belongs with the riffraff. He has no business being there.

And he knows it. Nilan admitted that when Milbury told him he was going to choose him. "I thought it was a joke," he said.

It is. But not a very funny one.

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