BOSTON (CBS) – Boston native and former NHL player Chris Nilan was a guest in studio Friday morning on the Toucher and Rich Show and talked about a wide array of topics, starting with his time growing up in Boston.
Nilan grew up in West Roxbury as a Bruins fan, and when he got his first shot in the NHL as a member of the rival Montreal Canadiens it didn’t bother him in the least.
“I was just happy to be drafted to be honest with you. I was surprised to be drafted. I was drafted so late in the 17th round.”
Nilan spent the first nine years of his career with the Habs, and after a three-year stint with the Rangers he finally made it home to Boston and fulfilled his childhood dream of playing for the Bruins under then coach Mike Milbury.
“I absolutely loved playing for Mike Milbury. He was a good coach. I think if you asked any of the players they would say they enjoyed playing for him. He was the type of guy you would go through a wall for – at least I would,” Nilan said of his former coach.
Nilan spent over 3,000 minutes in his NHL career sitting in the penalty box and was known for playing a tough style of hockey. Despite the toll it took on his body, Nilan was (and still is) always ready to drop the gloves, even to the very end of his career.
“Growing up how I grew up I was always ready to fight. I just was, you had to be, and playing the game of hockey just kind of fed into that. I didn’t come into the league looking to play that role, although I grew up watching that role and the Bruins used to fight all the time. For me it was easy to do the fighting part. It got difficult at the end for me, I started to question myself at times. My last year in Boston I felt I was losing that half step, and that’s difficult to come to grips with. I knew it was happening but I couldn’t admit it.”
Another aspect of Nilan’s story that gets a lot of attention is his relationship with reputed mobster Whitey Bulger. Nilan dated and eventually married Karen Stanley, the daughter of Whitey’s girlfriend, and before their dating got serious he was sat down for a fatherly chat with Bulger.
“He gave me the typical, you know, the way a father would talk to any guy that was taking his daughter out – only he had a gun in his lap. I left the house, and he said ‘Hey Chris I want to talk to you get back in here.’ So I went back in and he reached over the table, grabbed [the gun] and just talked to me. He wanted to see how I would react. I just answered his questions, what’s he going to do? Shoot me before the first date? I wasn’t worried about it. He gave me some money before I left and told me to have a good night, and that’s what we did – we had a good night.”
“He was my father in law. I knew his reputation, but I didn’t know the extent and no one else did either. I knew he was a bad guy, just to what extent? It’s a difficult situation to be in. I was married to Karen, I wasn’t married to him.”
Like the many players before him, and the many players since, Nilan was in so much pain that the medicine just wouldn’t make it go away. He fell into an out-of-control spiral.
“The pain medication helped get me through the day; I had some arthritis issues in my knee, my hand, my shoulders, back, my ankle – everything. I was hurting. After one of the surgeries I started taking Percocet. They worked for me, and the progression, the disease is such that you got to take more to get the same effect – that just took off, and then I got on Oxycontin. I tried to kick it on my own and I couldn’t, it made me sick as a dog. Honestly the pills really helped. I went and golfed and thought I had a Tiger Woods swing. I get up the next morning and I feel stiff, so I take the pills and I’d feel fine.”
“The addiction just took off. I got to the point where I went to rehab. I got out, stayed sober for awhile, had surgery again and relapsed. I tried to kick the Oxycontin again on my own and couldn’t. Eventually I couldn’t get pills anymore. It was difficult to get them. I ended up getting heroin. I snorted heroin, and then did something I said I’d never do and that’s shoot heroin. I don’t minimize it, and I don’t justify it, but the fact of the matter is I was in survival mode. It sounds crazy, but when you’re addicted to opiates like I was you’ll do anything to take that pain away.”
Nilan is three years sober now and even hosts his own radio show in Montreal. His book Fighting Back: The Chris Nilan Story talks about his journey and recovery.
Listen below for the full interview: