A Former Hockey Enforcer Searches for Answers on C.T.E. Before It’s Too Late

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Chris Nilan is a quintessential Bostonian of a certain time and demographic, the kind they make movies about: A tough, working-class hockey player of Irish descent, hundreds, if not thousands, of local kids yearned to be just like him. He was born on Feb. 9, 1958, at the Faulkner Hospital in West Roxbury, Mass., the son of Henry and Leslie Nilan, a hard-working, blue collar couple who raised their four children in a strict household. Chris still found his way into scraps as a kid, and soon discovered he was a capable and fearless fighter. Often, he said, it was in defense of others. Later, he mixed it up with groups of kids and young adults on the streets and in the bars of Boston.

He met Karen Stanley at Northeastern University and they fell in love. When people asked about Bulger, Nilan would point out that he married Karen, not her stepfather. He described their 1981 wedding, with Henry Nilan’s Green Beret buddies on one side, Bulger and his cohorts on another and Nilan’s hockey pals up the middle.

“We could have invaded a small country,” Nilan said with a laugh.

Several years later, Bulger was photographed with the Stanley Cup after Nilan’s Canadiens won it in 1986. Nilan stresses he was never aware of Bulger’s criminal activities, but described tension between Bulger and his own father, an honest, taxpaying working man who disapproved of the then-reputed gangster’s “lifestyle.”

Once, when both sets of parents were visiting Montreal, Bulger bought Nilan’s mother an expensive fur coat, which upset Nilan’s father. Bulger adored Nilan’s fearless and pugnacious demeanor.

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