He had fought his way up from the minors to the Toronto Maple Leafs only to end up years later in a living-room chair, watching a TV show he couldn't follow. In his hand was a fistful of Xanax and Valium. The physical pain had become so bad that month after month he had gone from taking one pill every four hours to taking at least four every hour.
His children didn't understand. His wife kept saying he needed help. “I was basically out of it,” he recalled. “I was thinking, ‘This is crazy. I'm going to die.'”
But Kurt Walker, the tough guy who broke his hands, separated his shoulders and ruined his back protecting his teammates, didn't die. He got lucky instead. His friends intervened. He went to rehab and reclaimed his life. The pain remains, said Walker, who underwent 17 surgeries, but at 56 he has learned to manage the discomfort that comes from having done the dirtiest job in pro sports – being a hockey heavy, an enforcer, a fighter.
We may love it. Teammates may applaud it. But for the men who stand on skates and throw bare-knuckled head shots at one another, there is no joy. Their usefulness, their livelihood depends on beating another player into submission or not getting beat in return. It's a taxing, exacting way to live, the buildup to that crucial shift, the challenge, the threat of being hurt or embarrassed in front of 17,000 people.
That kind of pressure, Walker said, has been shared by everyone who's ever had to drop the gloves for a living.
“You knew what you had to do and you had to create that anger to fight,” he explained from his home in Murietta, Ga. “I got screwed on pain meds. You'd be surprised how many of us fell into that pain opiate addiction. You fight, you wake up in the morning feeling like you'd been run over by a truck and there's this jar [of pills] and there you go. You take them.
“That's how I coped with everything.”
Talk to enough hockey enforcers, especially those in retirement, and Walker's tale of woe strikes a familiar chord. All too many were fun-loving sorts who became tortured souls. They needed something to get them through the exercise and on to the next fight. For Steve Durbano, Link Gaetz, Brantt Myhres, it was alcohol. For John Kordic and Bob Probert, it was alcohol and drugs. As former reigning heavyweight Georges Laraque put it: “It's the most dangerous job in professional sports. I know a lot of tough guys who had problems with drugs and alcohol from just that pressure.”
No one starts off playing hockey to break faces for a living. Somehow the opportunity finds them, then pushes them to the NHL, where losing a fight could mean being sent to the minors. No more big money, maybe no more job.
Knowing so much depended on roughly 90 seconds of on-ice fury made the emotional demands every bit as alarming as the physical.
“My wife would tell me I was in a different world before games,” said Ryan VandenBussche, the former New York Ranger who ended Nick Kypreos's career in 1997 with a devastating left hand. “I knew there'd be certain teams I'd have to fight against and I'd go into my zone 24 hours prior. It was draining and stressful.”
VandenBussche took his share of beatings, enough to have suffered so many concussions he took to hiding them from his team's trainers. The reason, he explained, was so he could stay in the lineup, otherwise someone else would take his place and perhaps his job. Three years ago, VandenBussche was cleared of assault charges stemming from a fight outside a Southern Ontario bar. After being slammed against a wall, he was tagged with pepper spray and three Taser blasts from police. Informed of VandenBussche's concussion history, the judge ruled his reaction “was not the product of an operating mind.”
“Before all this came out – postconcussion symptoms, [chronic traumatic encephalopathy], protein and after-effects – you had enough in your head worrying about getting knocked out,” said VandenBussche, now a realtor in Ontario. “Now we're hearing how concussions can speed up Alzheimer's and dementia. You've got to have a huge passion for what you do to be able to look past the consequences.”
Probert's death at 45 and Derek Boogaard's at 28 has raised new questions: Has an already hazardous job become even more so given our growing knowledge of brain damage? While Probert died last July of a heart attack, researchers at Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy did a posthumous examination and determined he was suffering from a degenerative brain disease.
Boogaard was found dead May 13 in his Minneapolis apartment. On Friday, a medical examiner in Minnesota ruled his death was caused by a mix of alcohol and oxycodone. The Hennepin County medical examiner released Boogaard's cause of death and stated that no further details will be released. His death has been ruled as accidental.
A funeral service for Boogaard will be held at 10 a.m. Central Time Saturday at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police depot in Regina. Boogaard's family members have also donated his brain to BU.
Stu Grimson used to be regaled as The Grim Reaper, a nom de punch he picked up in major junior hockey and could never shake. In one of his early NHL scraps, he suffered a broken orbital bone at the hands of Edmonton Oiler Dave Brown. Right there, Grimson's career could have ended. He not only came back, he played 729 career games with eight teams and totalled 2,113 minutes in penalties, a hefty sum involving many a fight.
A university graduate and a lawyer with a Nashville firm, Grimson is both happy and healthy these days, an exception among most former enforcers. He rationalized his role as a way to earn a living. His conflict now has to do with fighting's place in hockey and mounting evidence it can lead to brain damage.
“Part of me says, ‘How does a sport so bent on cutting down blows to the head still allow two players to throw bare-fisted punches at one another's head? How do you reconcile that?” Grimson asked. “But part of me also says the way the sport is played, if you have someone like me on the bench, the other team knows it could be held accountable. It's a tough issue.”
Grimson, a born-again Christian even as a fighter, insisted it was Probert's death that made him examine his own health.
“Everyone is different, but there is no one who's a better comparable,” Grimson said. “We have the same birth year, the same body type. We played a similar role for the same length of time. I'd be naïve to say something like that doesn't get my attention.”
Laraque was often criticized for not being mean enough when he fought. He pulls no punches in retirement. As the NHL's most feared big man, he hated his job, hated having to live up to a reputation he never wanted. While he fought more than 130 times in 13 seasons, Laraque was quick to find solace in his charity work and religion. That was what it took for him to get past what he did on the ice.
“I always defend the job because I respect the guys who do it,” Laraque explained. “But I never liked it. What I hated the most was that I was promoting violence to the youth. You see kids at [NHL] games and they clench their fists and yell, ‘Kill him' and you're supposed to be a role model. Then they fight in minor hockey and that's my fault. That's how I felt.”
VandenBussche dreaded sitting on the bench waiting for the coach to tap him on the shoulder, the signal it was time for him to go out and make an impact. Grimson described that moment as a jolt, “like going from 0 to 60 mph.”
As for Walker, who took on all comers for an NHL salary of $70,000, all those fights, from the minors to the NHL, exacted a chilling toll. Every three months he needs an epidural to numb the ache in his lower back. His neurosurgeons have told him “what's happened to me is because of the trauma I put my body through playing hockey.”
He said it all came down to that night, sitting in front of the TV with a handful of pain pills, his children watching, his wife pleading. Who cares for the hockey heavyweight and what happens to him once the cheering stops? Walker does. He hopes others feel the same.