“I have spoken to him since he was arrested and he just said he was happy for me that I was back on track,” Chris Nilan explained to Breitbart Sports of his jailhouse conversation with James “Whitey” Bulger, the Boston mob boss who for most of the last decade trailed only Osama Bin Laden as the FBI’s “most wanted.”
A Stanley Cup Championship, an NHL All Star selection, and setting the record for penalties in a game with ten in 1991 against the Hartford Whalers highlighted Nilan’s 13 years as an NHL tough guy with the Canadiens, Bruins, and Rangers.
“I never took s#!+ from anyone,” Knuckles recalls. “Some people will take s#!+. Some people are so scared to do anything nowadays–sock someone. If someone does something wrong to me, someone does something wrong to someone in front of me, I’m not going to walk the other way.”
The on-ice pugilist engaged in fisticuffs 222 times in the NHL–and on countless more occasions sans skates in Boston’s narrow alleyways. But Chris Nilan’s most memorable battles didn’t involve Terry O’Reilly or Tony Twist. Though Nilan mostly played on the wrong side of his city’s hockey rivalry, he found himself right in the middle of the controversies shaping modern Boston: busing, an organized crime ring enjoying the state’s imprimatur, the pedophile-priest scandal, and crippling chemical abuse the likes of which the Athens of America imagines happens in other metropolises.
In the early stages of Judge Arthur Garrity’s edict that forced busing upon Boston’s public schools to achieve racial balance, Nilan searched for a better education through the area’s many parochial schools. “I had some issues in school,” he tells Breitbart Sports. “I was kind of a wild kid. I got slapped around, punched, pinched, my ear twisted by nuns, which made me dislike a lot of discipline brought through fear.”
At hockey powerhouse Catholic Memorial, Nilan skated unnoticed by most scouts. But just as one controversial judge would influence Nilan’s high school choice, another, Paul King, guided his next step. King detected in Nilan a transcendent quality: toughness. Like the nuns, Nilan had branded his own type of discipline brought through fear, and at times his best qualities proved to be his worst qualities.
Judge Paul King, Nilan’s youth hockey coach, viewed him as raw talent hiding in plain sight and used his connections at Lake Placid, New York’s Northwood School to secure a postgraduate year for the blooming West Roxbury winger.
King, the older brother of the former Revere Beach bowling-alley worker and NFL-lineman-turned-Massachusetts-governor Ed King, appeared as the epitome of old-school Boston. The judge was a Boston throwback, a Dickensian character in search of a barstool at the day’s reprieve. A Judicial Conduct Commission’s report alleged King a regular patron at a Dorchester eatery and place of lounge where he “frequently and openly urinated in the parking lot of the restaurant.” The commission cited his tasteless remarks to women while wielding a district court gavel. In the midst of his peculiar ways as a judge, he had an unwavering and admirable loyalty to Nilan.
Following the stint at Northwood, without many college offers, King’s rolodex once again proved pivotal, alerting Northeastern University about Nilan. This proved the Tip O’Neill adage “All politics is local” as an inexhaustible key to triumph in Boston.
Providing an ironic twist to an already captivating tale, Nilan met his future wife Karen Stanley in the stands of Boston Arena. “The only reason I crossed paths with James Bulger was because I ended up marrying Karen,” Nilan told Breitbart Sports. Stanley was a Southie girl, whose mother Teresa dated the most detestable and feared figure of an organized-crime syndicate operating at its apex in the late 1970s and 1980s, James “Whitey” Bulger, convicted last year of 11 murders. Nilan says Bulger, curiously in possession of a Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup ring after his capture, “basically was my father in law.”
The Close Encounter of the Bulger Kind actually played as a sequel of sorts. “With Billy, I got arrested and I needed a lawyer,” Nilan explained as he reflected on his encounter with Billy Bulger, then a relatively young lawyer, whose lucrative four-decade career in the Massachusetts government loosely paralleled his brother Whitey’s career in the Massachusetts underworld. As Whitey loomed as the most powerful criminal in Massachusetts, his younger brother Billy reigned as the Bay State’s most powerful politician.
Billy represented Chris and two teenaged Catholic Memorial classmates in an assault and battery in Dorchester that left a victim eyeless, and the trio of assailants, for a moment, futureless.
“A lot of it has to do with Irish Neighborhoods,” reflects Nilan, “It creates that adversarial atmosphere, and that competition, you get in situations where a kid you hung around with got into a disagreement with other kids, and disagreements led to fights, different street corners versus different street corners.”
Surely Whitey Bulger could relate. And surely William Bulger could debate. The future president of the Massachusetts Senate used his gift of gab to ensure that Nilan skated another day. Not guilty!
While teenage hate brought Billy Bulger into Chris’s life, love projected Whitey, the head of the notorious Winter Hill gang, into Nilan’s journey. “Hey listen, I had a relationship with him, he was my father-in-law basically, and, like I said, he was always good to me,” recounted Nilan. “The things he did I don’t condone or look at it in a positive light.”
Nilan discovered his selection by the Montreal Canadiens in the last round of the 1978 NHL Draft on a bar stool. With the Canadiens already boasting an array of stars such as Bob Gainey and Guy Lafleur, Nilan easily embraced his enforcer role while borrowing from the impressive skillsets of his more seasoned teammates.
Nilan–more enforcer than goon–managed over 200 penalty minutes in every full year with the Canadiens and 19 goals and 15 assists in Montreal’s Stanley Cup-winning ’85-’86 season. But his vigilance to do right by his teammates wasn’t something that ceased off the ice.
“I had a couple of incidents that I stopped in hockey and one in particular, where Stephane Richer was taped to a hockey stick and his hands had turned blue,” Nilan explained. “By the time I got in the room, I took a pair of scissors cut him out of it and told everyone to leave him alone. I never took part of that in the NHL and never liked bullying.”
Injuries plagued the backend of Nilan’s 13-year NHL career. After stops in New York and Boston, he retired from playing in 1992, fittingly with the Canadiens, the organization that had listened to the advice of (Who else?) Judge King, who urged the Montreal front office to execute a low-risk, high-reward draft selection in Nilan.
“Hockey definitely kept me out of trouble,” said Nilan, who remained focused in his professional off-seasons, and was mainly a beer drinker until retirement.
In the 1980s, Nilan skated the straight and narrow with clenched fists, while the man Nilan acknowledges as “basically [his] father in law,” Whitey Bulger, held an open palm to the lucrative cocaine business plaguing Boston.
“I grew up in a culture of drinking and it certainly didn’t stop when I got to the NHL,” he recalls.
Pain inevitably followed a career in which Nilan sacrificed his body to protect others. “Drug addiction usually starts with pain and it ends with pain,” said Nilan, who, like most prescription drug users, followed doctor’s orders and initially used his prescriptions to numb chronic knee pain following hockey. But when Nilan hung up his skates, the opiate problem haunting Boston neighborhoods haunted Chris Nilan.
In his riveting memoir, aptly titled Fighting Back, Nilan asserts, “Heroin is the final step before you die.”
He remembers one beneficial consequence of drug addiction: “I eventually stopped drinking because I was on so many opiates.” After his marriage ended with Stanley, the destruction of the deadly painkiller Oxycontin and heroin led Nilan to a string of West Coast rehabs. “Rock bottom was waking up on the toilet with a needle in my arm overdosed.” Nilan’s rock bottom thankfully never sunk as low as the rock bottoms of Derek Boogaard, Bob Probert, and other NHL enforcers similarly dependent on narcotics.
While drugs decimated Nilan’s earnings as a professional athlete, the profits of drug dealing allowed Whitey Bulger to refrain from an honest day’s work for over five decades. In his 2011 capture, the $822,000 found in Bulger’s Santa Monica pad proved that, unlike the “he kept the drugs out of Boston” urban myth consecrated by his apologists, he never kept the drugs out of Boston. Whereas Nilan suffered because of narcotics, Bulger profited from them.
After bottoming out, Nilan cites NHL substance-abuse counselor Dan Cronin as well as league doctors as being “really pivotal in getting me to understand the issues I had and the issues that I had to deal with.” His relationship with his girlfriend Jamie, the woman he met in the West Coast rehab, remains pivotal to his quest to find serenity a day at a time. “Having Jaime in my life and being sober, it helps immensely,” he remarks. “We both understand sobriety, we both know what we have been through and don’t want to go back to it. It’s a great support system.” Nilan is sober today.
For a man who got paid for doing his teammates’s dirty work, he now gets paid for talking, both as a radio host in Montreal and as an anti-bullying activist in schools throughout Canada and the Northeast. The latter role comes natural. As he writes in Fighting Back, “I always stuck up for my smaller teammates.”
Proving that not only as a player but as a man the punisher had a propensity to right human suffering, Knuckles stood head to head with what in the early 2000s appeared to be Boston’s most infamous case of organized bullying, the Catholic Church abuse scandal.
Nilan confronted an accused priest, who, two decades earlier, in a wedding paid for by Whitey Bulger, married Nilan and Karen Stanley. According to Nilan’s account in Fighting Back, a Catholic Memorial classmate in the midst of a meltdown accused Father Frederick Ryan of molestation. In his second meeting with Ryan, Nilan writes that he administered a confession that the priest subsequently recanted.
For nearly a decade, improper Bostonian Chris Nilan haunted the Hub as a member of the Habs. For far longer, Boston haunted Chris Nilan.
The Irish Mafia, the Catholic Church abuse scandal, and forced busing have more negatively shaped Boston and the perceptions of the city than any other modern phenomena. Chris Nilan endured more than tangential relations to all three. Today, that terrible trio, like the NHL enforcer, exists in the legendary past.