First of all, there’s pain, lots of it, the by-product of 17 surgeries, which wouldn’t be so hard to live with if it weren’t for the depression and widening holes in his memory.
At 59, Kurt Walker is three decades removed from the seven seasons he played professional hockey; he still feels pretty much every minute of them in his body.
The rangy Massachusetts native wasn’t known for his skill or gentility – “Put it this way: I wasn’t a Lady Byng player” – he was just one in the steadily-flowing pipeline of tough guys to play in hockey’s rub-some-snow-on-it era.
“You’d get back to the bench a little wobbly, the trainer’d hold up some fingers and say, ‘How many do you see?’ It was always two,” the former Toronto Maple Leafs winger chuckled in an interview. “Then, he’d say, ‘Good to go,’ and I’d hop over the boards and go fight somebody.”
This week, Walker and dozens of his former hockey-playing brethren added their names to a class-action lawsuit aimed at holding the NHL to account for the pain and suffering of its retired and, in many cases, forgotten players.
News of the suit landed the same week the league reached a record-breaking Canadian broadcast rights deal; this a unique moment where an institution’s future intersects with its past.
While the $5.2-billion TV and multimedia contract augurs well for the financial road ahead, a growing group of former players wants to force a reckoning of sorts with the figures who grow smaller in the rear-view with each passing year.
Whether it’s forced by the courts is in some ways secondary; the former players are out there, thousands of them, and even if the class action fails, their anguish won’t disappear.
They hurt physically, sometimes, the distress is also financial and emotional.
“There are so many families that have broken up ... it’s a downward slide for a lot of them,” said Susan Foster, the widow of former Maple Leafs defenceman – and players’ union rabble-rouser – Carl Brewer. “Hockey is the only identity that a lot of these guys have.”
Foster remains in contact with many of Brewer’s former associates and their families (on the first Monday of every month, a group of NHL old timers gathers for lunch in Toronto) and says fans of the game likely don’t have a full grasp of the extent of the problems many former players are dealing with.
“I know players who are pain-ridden, who have injuries that can’t be cured, some of them are addicted to medication. Depression is another big problem,” said Foster, who is no stranger to receiving pleas for help – in one case, she was panic-stricken by a message from a former player who was clearly suicidal (the player reconsidered).
Nor is it just older ex-players who are left to deal with the after-effects of their career.
“I’m an eight-year postconcussion syndrome sufferer, and it’s only in the last 18 months that I’ve found even a semblance of normalcy,” said Keith Primeau, a 42-year-old who played for four NHL teams and has since founded StopConcussions, an advocacy group aimed at educating athletes about the dangers of head trauma. “Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean guys aren’t hurting.”
While the physical toll is more or less a constant, the financial situation for retired NHL players isn’t as dire as it was in the days before Brewer, Detroit Red Wings star Ted Lindsay and their ilk formed a players’ union – and later went after its leader, Alan Eagleson, for stealing from its members.
There’s a pension plan, and the league and the NHLPA each contribute $3-million annually to bolster the income of retired players and their widows.
But if you played between 1986 and 2012, to qualify for a full NHL pension you had to have played 400 career games (players who played 160 games are eligible for a reduced amount), and even then the maximum annual amount is $50,000 (U.S.).
If you live in the United States, it’s not going to buy you much in the way of health insurance, which is why the plan was overhauled in the last collective agreement.