Former NHL  enforcer Chris Nilan joined Dennis & Callahan on Thursday to talk about his hockey career, his post-NHL addiction issues and his friendship with Whitey Bulger that continues to this day.
Nilan, a product of West Roxbury and Northeastern University, was selected 231st (of 234 players) in the 1978 NHL  draft but managed to have a long career with the Canadiens, Rangers and Bruins. He still holds the Canadiens franchise record for penalty minutes in a career (2,248) and season (358). He had 222 fights in his 13 NHL  seasons, including 43 in 1985-86 during the Canadiens’ Stanley Cup-winning season.
Following his retirement after the 1991-92 season, Nilan had issues with alcohol and drugs, he was arrested for shoplifting and his 25-year marriage dissolved. Nilan says he has been clean and sober for three years, living with his girlfriend on the West Island of Montreal. He recently wrote a book: “Fighting Back: The Chris Nilan story.”
Nilan, now 55, grew up in Boston in the 1970s and fell in love with hockey while watching the Big, Bad Bruins. He made the NHL  as a tough guy but worked to develop his game and ended up averaging 20 goals over two seasons in the mid-1980s. He said the drive he used to get him to the NHL  came in handy when he hit rock bottom after his career.
“I had a dream of playing in the NHL  one day,” he said. “I think the story somewhat reverts back to the things that — I had my transgressions and my drugs after hockey. Through alcoholism and drug addiction, I kind of reached back and used some of those things that drove me and got me to the National Hockey League  to get me sober.”
Nilan said his turning point in his fight against addiction came after he started shooting heroin, something he promised himself he would never do.
“I was wrapped up in that for about eight months,” Nilan said. “And that night, sitting on the toilet, I basically overdosed. I woke up probably three hours later. I stood up and I fell forward and hit my head on the wall and knocked myself out again. And when I woke up from that I had I guess what you’d call the gift of desperation. I knew I needed to get help. I was in such a bad place. I was so beaten down; I beat myself down. I made a phone call and asked for help. It was the best move I ever made. … Clean since. And sober.”
After spending three months at a treatment center in Oregon, Nilan realized he needed a change of scenery.
“I spent three months [getting treatment] there, and I stayed out there for two years,” he said. “I didn’t come home. I made a life for myself out there, just because I wanted to get well and really focus on the things I had to.”
Nilan was back in the news recently because of his friendship with Bulger, his former father-in-law. Nilan recalls his initial meeting with the South Boston crime boss, before Nilan’s first date with Bulger’s daughter, Karen Stanley.
“I guess any concerned parent, any parent who has a daughter — it was his stepdaughter — you have that sit-down you do with your daughter’s boyfriend, and you let him know how you would expect her to be treated,” Nilan said. “I had my sit-down with him. When I walked in, he sat down, he had a pistol on his lap. He basically told me how he expects her to be treated. That was fine.
“At the end of our conversation, I just said, ‘Well, you didn’t need to pull out a gun to tell me that.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s the way I do business” — with a smile. I think he was testing me to see if I was going to be shaking in my boots, and I wasn’t. We’re going out on a first date after I meet him. What, is he going to shoot me before we go out?”
Nilan ended up becoming close with Bulger, something he’s conflicted about now.
“I’m going to be honest with you: Did I know he was a bad guy? Of course. I knew just about as much as everybody else did,” Nilan said. “Did everybody know his relationship with John Connolly? No. Did everybody know he was involved supposedly with those two women that were murdered — and those are terrible things, believe me. What I will say is my relationship with him was really good. I got along with him. He was a friend of mine. I think like anybody … if you happen to be in the same situation as I, and were married to Karen at the time, that you would have gotten along with this guy.
“Yes, I knew all the stories about James Bulger. I knew he was a bad guy. He’s the guy who actually in ways protected me. … He never wanted me around that stuff, and that was fine. He was protective of me that way. I used to sit and talk with him every night I’d go over for dinner. To me, he was a good friend to me. And he was a fascinating guy to sit and talk with.
“Listen, I’m a loyal guy. I don’t agree with what he did. When I look at what happened to the innocent people that were killed in this, those women, Roger Wheeler, the guy who was with Brian Halloran that day, unfortunately. I don’t agree with that. A lot of the other stuff — again, I’m not condoning it — but a lot of times when you get involved in that stuff, bad things are going to happen. When you want to play that game, bad things are going to happen. It’s the same thing with me when I got involved in the drugs, when I became addicted. You get involved in that thing, bad things are going to happen. You could die.
“Again, I’m not condoning anything he did. I’ll just say my relationship with him was good, and we got along very well.”
Nilan said he continues to communicate with Bulger, including a visit after Bulger was captured in 2011 following 16 years in hiding.
“We write back and forth quite a few times, we have,” Nilan said. “When he was arrested and he was brought here, I went to visit him one time, said hello to him, asked him how things were. I hadn’t seen him in all those years. We had a nice talk for a half-hour, and I left. And it’s weird, it’s hard to explain. To be honest with you, when I was walking away, leaving that cell block in Plymouth and I looked back at him, I actually felt bad for him.
“You say how could someone who has done so much harm to people, how could you feel bad for him? I looked at it as, listen, this guy was such a bright guy and an intelligent guy, if he could have ever chose a different life that he would have been good at something else. It was actually kind of sad looking at him in that state.
“I’ll be honest with you, I never thought he would have gotten caught. He did. A lot of people speculated he’s dead and this and that, the government killed him. Not for once did I think that was true.
“I’m a loyal person. He was a friend of mine.”
On Shawn Thornton ‘s 15-game suspension: “I think for the most part he’s been a clean player, he’s been a guy who took his job seriously and did his job well. He wasn’t known for doing cheap things. Listen, I had an incident myself with Rick Middleton. If there’s one thing I regret in my career that happened it was that.
“Right after it happened, I’m sure [Thornton] regretted it, and he still does to this day. Now, what he did, I’ll tell you: Brooks Orpik is not Bobby Orr . He’s a good player, yes. He’s a guy who hits hard. He’s a real tough player out there. He cross checks a lot of guys from behind in front of the net. He’s a tough player. He made a questionable hit on a guy [Loui Eriksson] who did not have the puck who’s just coming back from a concussion. So that gets everybody’s [attention], and he goes off the ice. That obviously whips up the fans in a frenzy. I know the coach probably wanted retribution — he put Shawn back out on the ice. Shawn tried to fight Brooks Orpik. …
“I think Brooks Orpik the first time should have dropped his gloves and fought him, regardless of who he is or what stature he has in the league, and then it would have been over. It’s unfortunate, Thornton gets put back on the ice, [Brad] Marchand gets kneed in the head, things get whipped up again, there’s a lot of pressure on Shawn Thornton  to do his job there.
“He goes to try and engage, he ends up tripping him, knocks him down. He punches him a couple of times in his jaw. And if you really look at it, it doesn’t look like he hit him that hard. He didn’t drive his head into the ice. He didn’t get down on him and start beating him.
“It was unfortunate what happened. I think he should have got 10 games; he definitely has to pay a price for it. I’m sure he’s very regretful. Again, it’s a tough situation to be in — all that adrenaline, everybody jacked up, the coach wanting you to do the job, the fans, you want to be there for your teammates. There’s a lot of pressure to do your job. He definitely made a mistake.”
On Milan Lucic ‘s run-in with a fan at a bar in Vancouver: “It’s a long road trip, he’s in his hometown, went out for a few beers. I don’t have a problem with being out ’til 4 in the morning. He can sleep on the plane and he’ll be fine for the next game. But you’re always going to run into some donkey with a loud mouth who thinks he’s tough. I’m just surprised [Lucic] didn’t hit him back. I’ve got to tell you, if I ever got punched, I couldn’t have showed that restraint that he showed. Good on him.
“I think he might have been thinking at [that] point — maybe it’s too late then, because you’re out, you put yourself in that situation — but he’s probably thinking, ‘Oh, if I do something, my chances of playing for Team Canada are out the window.’ I’m sure Cam Neely  understands what went on there. It’s unfortunate.”