Nilan battles off-ice demons

 

In his 10 seasons with the Canadiens, Chris Nilan was among the toughest, most feared and most penalized players in the National Hockey League. He played to inflict pain, to intimidate.

 
 
 
 

In his 10 seasons with the Canadiens, Chris Nilan was among the toughest, most feared and most penalized players in the National Hockey League. He played to inflict pain, to intimidate.

You can find his name in the team's media guide in the list of all-time records: Nilan: 2,248 penalty minutes. Nilan: most penalty minutes in a season: 358.

There was nothing complicated about his game plan: hit first, hit hard, and he was well-schooled in it.

They were lessons he learned growing up on what was then the mean and unforgiving streets in West Roxbury, where Boston's Irish ruled with their fists, and woe to anyone of another religion or colour who dared to walk there.

Once, he was the darling of Canadiens fans because he wore the CH on his heart. Doors in Montreal and elsewhere were open to him. Life was good, but that was then, this is now - and it's not a pretty picture.

Nilan: addicted to pain-killing drugs.

Nilan: alcoholic.

He is 51, a grandfather, and he remembers the first time he plummeted into the ugly, mind-bending culture of pills and booze. He can recall how in their own clawing, gnawing way they crept into his mind, convincing him they were the only way out of a life of pain. Instead, in the light of day it was a life gone wrong, including a divorce after 25 years of marriage. (Karen and Chris have two daughters - Pauline, 26, Tara, 19, and a son, Christopher, 23.) Where does it start? When? Why? "Probably the first time I saw the pills was after I finished playin'," Nilan said.

"I was coachin' the Chesapeake Icebreakers in the East Coast Hockey League. Two years. First year, I got coach of the year. Second year, I'd had surgery in the offseason and I took some Percocet. It's an opiate. I got addicted to 'em.

I needed them. If I didn't have them, I was real sick.

"The Percocet ... it's mixed with Tylenol. My tolerance to them grew pretty quick," Nilan added. "With opiates, you start out taking two every four hours like the doctor says you should. At the end, I was taking 60 a day, 5 mg, and I wanted something stronger.

"I got goin' after the Percocet. I got onto a stronger medication called OxyContin. It's very strong ... very addictive. It's stronger, so I didn't have to take as much. I got goin' with one, see, at 80 mg, and by the end I was taking 15 of them just to get the same effect." (OxyContin is this strong, this addictive: Some of its street names are Oxy, O.C., Killer and Hillbilly Heroin.) "Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to make excuses," Nilan said.

"People characterize drugs as a disease. They tell you alcoholism is a disease. I'd like to buy into it, but what I'm goin' to tell you is I truly believe I had a choice. I had a choice to take it or not.

"At the beginning, I chose to take it because of pain from surgery. It made me feel good. And when I became addicted to it, I became a slave to it.

"I kicked it on my own two times, and when I didn't have it, I drank. Then I quickly went back to the pills. When you don' have it, you're sick, so you always crave it.

"All the good things ... the euphoria thing it does for you ... it does in reverse when you come off it," Nilan continued. "It gets into your bone marrow. It feels like your joints are in a vise when you come off it. So you need it. You'll do anything to get it.

"I was hopelessly addicted, but I had a choice and afterward I lost my choice. I had to take it. Just to be well. Just to feel well. Just to kinda feel normal and not be sick.

"You talk to anybody who's been addicted to opiates ... it's ... it's just a terrible thing. You're locked in. You can't get out. There's only one way out. You have to ask for help and you have to be willing to, uh ... take a look at yourself and decide how you got there.

"And like I said, I had a choice. I was stuck on it. I'd be okay one day and then I couldn't wait to get up in the morning to do them again. I obsessed about them all the time because I knew I had to have them to be good, and if I didn' have them, I had to drink to take away the pain of ... of ... withdrawin' from them.

"I'm a drug addict and an alcoholic," Nilan said. "I'll always be, but now I'm not drinkin' and I'm not usin'."

"You sure?" I asked him.

Nilan, the player, had a low boiling point on and off the ice. He still does, and now the colour in his cheeks rose hearing those two words.

"Listen! When I'm gonna talk, I'm straightforward," he said. "Honest to God, I'm gonna tell you the truth. I've been a straightforward guy with you my whole life, regardless whether I'm drinkin' or on drugs. You don' have to f----n' ask me the question twice. Don' ask me that question again," he said, his voice rising to an angry yell.

Then he sat back, breathing deeply.

Finally: "The first time I got sober was back in 2001," he continued. "I went to treatment. I was helped by the NHL. I stayed sober for about a little over two years. And one night, I had a drink of wine. I started drinkin' again.

"Back then, I knew I was a drug addict. I knew I had a problem with the pills and I got off them, but I didn' believe I was an alcoholic. I thought, you know, I can still drink.

"I was okay. I wasn' the guy I really am when I drank. I had another surgery on my shoulder, on the rotator cuff, and instead of takin' the pills like the doctor ordered, I started takin' them again like an addict takes them. One's too many, a thousand's not enough. And I got addicted again. I was a slave to it. It brought me to my knees again.

"The most difficult thing for me to do is ask for help. The phone is very heavy, you know. I guess it's the way I was brought up. I had some survival skills. I had some values, some morals that my mom and dad brought to the table for me. Regardless of what people think of the Catholic church, that was a big part of my life and still is.

"I always had God in my life. I'm not findin' God. I always prayed. My mom taught me how to get down on my knees and pray. Even when I was f---ed up, I prayed. I prayed for other people. I didn' pray for things for me.

I prayed for people I love and care about, but I was so hopelessly addicted again.

"Here's what happened to me a year ago on Pearl Harbour Day. I was on the road in Iberville on my way up to Montreal ... comin' up to see a game. I was drivin' a Cadillac SUV. I wasn't buckled.

"I was with a friend of mine who was buckled in. I was buzzin' along, goin' a little too fast. ... It was snowin' and a truck came by and shook the front of the car a little. I spun around, just missed a tractor trailer, went into a ditch. Flipped three times.

"I was ejected from the vehicle," he added. "I was unconscious. My friend, who dislocated his shoulder, had to slap me around to get me awake. There was glass all over the place. Head cuts. We went to the hospital ... got taken care of, and came to Montreal.

"I went right to the bar and drank. And then I went home the next day.

"Not much in my life has ever shook me to the core like that did," he said. "I always had that feelin' of invincibility. It would never be me. But then, when I thought about the people I love and care about, I thought how selfish that would have been.

"I mean ... I got thrown from the vehicle. I don't know why I didn't break my neck. No ... no ... I don't know why I said that, because I kinda know why," he said in a trembling voice.

Grown men don't cry. Tough men sneer at people who weep. Now, though, Nilan's lower lip shook uncontrollably. His breathing came in tortured gasps. His words were barely intelligible when he spoke about the pain his addictions had brought to the people he loved and those who cared for him.

"I could have been dead," he said. "I thought I was dead. My friend thought I was dead. I thought about my children ... my mom and dad. I couldn't get it out of my head that I knew I had a problem and I knew I needed help. Still, it took me over a month to pick up the phone and call for help.

"I was told to call (NHL consultant) Brian O'Neill, who helped me the first time. I called Brian and I told him I was sorry because he had heard the same thing before. They had me on a plane two days later. I went into treatment where they medically de-toxed me. I stayed in treatment for 60 days in the facility."

Nilan sat back, still breathing heavily.

"I got sober Feb. 19, my son Christopher's birthday," he sobbed.

"Now I'm livin' with a guy and his wife in a little town. There's 300 people there. They have, like a garage out the back of the house. I have the loft with a kitchen and a bathroom. I've been livin' there since May. I made a commitment to stay there for a year from the day I got there. I made a commitment to the end, to get back on my feet and that's what I'm doin'.

"It's good for me," he said. "I went there, to ... to get well. It's really been good for me. You know, I always thought it's not how many times you get knocked down, it's how many times you can get up.

"I failed a lot of good people who know me through all this, you know, and that I deeply regret. I have a lot of friends. Steve Shutt, Rejean Houle, Bob Gainey. Steve noticed somethin' was wrong with me and challenged me a couple of times ... what was goin' on with me.

"I got to the point where I was not much of the man I used to be. I guess they were pullin' for me just to be the person I could have been."

I like Nilan. Always have. Most people do.

I liked him when he first joined the Canadiens late in the 1979-80 season after being drafted 231st overall the year before. When he dropped his gloves and fought for his teammates and when he scored 21 goals with the Canadiens in 1984-85. Liked him when he scored 19 the following season when the Canadiens won their 23rd Stanley Cup.

Now, listening to him, feeling for him, almost crying with him in the knowledge he was facing the fight of his life to overcome this painful, mindless, violent and dangerous trip into the drug and alcohol culture, I like and respect him even more.

"You know, I love this quote I once heard," Nilan said. "It goes: 'I ain't what I wanna be. I ain't what I oughta be. I ain't what I'm gonna be. But I'm sure glad I ain't what I used to be.' (When he was drinking and taking drugs.)

"I can talk all I want to talk, but this is something I have to live my way out of," he said.

"I can't talk my way out of it. I can't fight my way out of it. I can't play my way out of it. I have to live my way out of it.

"It's how I live that's gonna determine, you know, if I get to be just the person I was before - and maybe better!"

 
 
 
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