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Kurt Walker, Toronto Maple Leafs, 1976 - 1977. (file photo)
Kurt Walker, Toronto Maple Leafs, 1976 - 1977. (file photo)

Sean Gordon

Seven seasons, 17 surgeries and Kurt Walker is still in pain Add to ...

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.

“People don’t generally understand that when you’re out of the game, you’re on your own,” said Brad Park, a Hockey Hall of Fame defenceman who played for the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins and Red Wings. “I had both my knees replaced, but I had to join a big corporation to get the health coverage to be able to afford it.”

The nine-time all-star retired outside Boston in 1985, after a career where his top salary was $350,000 (his initial pension was set at $13,000), a healthy chunk of which was eaten away by taxes.

Park is not among those who have signed on to the suit – he says he was approached – but understands why someone might.

“I would hope the lawsuit acts as an attention-getter: there’s problems out there, let’s make sure we deal with them,” he said. “If they’re not taken seriously, I would probably be on the lawsuit side.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the lawsuit against the NHL is that it was filed at all.

Stoicism is ingrained in hockey culture, and whiners aren’t tolerated. Foster, who was part of the first group of former players to successfully sue the league and the NHLPA in the 1990s over pensions, said: “They’re programmed not to rock the boat.”

As Park put it, regarding his generation: “If you were worth your salt, you went into the corners a lot and banged with people. We didn’t play the game because we were mild-mannered. ... Guys are proud, they don’t want to say when they’re hurt, and in some cases with head injuries, they might not realize there’s a problem.”

In a 2012 interview with The Globe and Mail, around the time a series of lawsuits was filed on behalf of retired NFL players, Walker said hockey players aren’t naturally litigious, and “nobody wants to bring the lawyers in and set the wolves on everyone.”

He added the time might come – many U.S.-based former players have been agitating for increased benefits for some time – and the recent $765-million settlement in a similar case filed by the NFL’s retirees means that day is now.

Because of universal health care, the situation in Canada may be slightly better than it is in the United States, although the so-called Obamacare plan could level the playing field. But public medical insurance doesn’t cover everything.

Former players can always apply to the NHL’s Emergency Assistance Fund, which is jointly administered by the league and NHLPA, but it’s generally accepted only the truly destitute will qualify for help.

The fund, whose president is former NHL vice-president Brian O’Neill, does not reveal a lot about where its money goes – like many other facets of the league’s operations, it isn’t exactly a model of transparency.

According to regulatory filings with the Canada Revenue Agency, it held about $9.5-million in total assets in 2012, most of it long-term investments, took in about $3-million (almost all of it from fines to current players) and disbursed more than $2-million. The management costs were negligible.

It’s a great benefit to a great many people, but it’s not enough to stop everyone from falling through the cracks.

California-based lawyer Mel Owens, the former NFL linebacker who is one of the lawyers spearheading the class-action case – he grew up in Detroit, a Red Wings fan – said his main preoccupation is that the players get their due.

“The NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA have worked in concert to end disability benefits for pro athletes in California and other states,” Owens said. “They don’t care about the players once they’re done ... these leagues are in the hurt business and they’re trying to limit their liability, and we believe that’s not right.”

It’s not going to be an easy fight, but it is one the players are intent on pursuing.

“Only when the NFL was forced to do it, did they settle,” Owens said.

The NHL’s first reaction – anticipated by the players’ lawyers – was to push back.

“We believe that this is a lawsuit without merit ... and we intend to defend it vigorously. We have been extremely proactive on the whole issue of player safety, we think our record in that regard speaks volumes,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said during last week’s announcement of the league’s mega-deal with Rogers Communications Inc.

Legal experts suggest the NHL will almost certainly deny it has any further obligation to the former players.

“The first defence will likely be that these claims have been pre-empted by collective bargaining and that it’s not a matter for the courts,” said Michael McCann, a sports-law expert at the University of New Hampshire who believes the NHL is in a position to muster stronger arguments than the NFL did.

McCann said even if efforts to dismiss the case fail – “I’d be very surprised if this ever gets to a jury” – the NFL lawsuit was settled as the parties began the discovery process, which would have forced the league to turn over documents on a number of fronts.

One thing the NHL won’t be able to say – certainly not as convincingly as in the past – is it doesn’t have the means to help out its broken and battered retirees.

Coupled with the 10-year, $2-billion U.S. television deal it signed in 2011 with NBC Sports, the Rogers pact means the NHL’s North American annual broadcast rights are worth only slightly less than the NBA’s.

The increased revenue, which is divided among all the clubs, will ease the pressure on the league’s financial basket cases – who are largely located in the U.S. Sun Belt.

Grim predictions that the NHL would be overtaken as a spectator sport in the United States by the likes of NASCAR, will need to be revised.

Indeed, it’s been a remarkable two years for Bettman, who signed the NBC contract, negotiated a raft of national sponsorships (including a multimillion-dollar arrangement with Molson Coors Brewing Co.), forced a work stoppage that ultimately delivered a 10-year collective agreement, then capped it off with the multibillion-dollar Canadian-rights deal.

It’s expected he will put yet more cash into the owners’ – and by extension, players’ – pockets within the next three or four years, when the league decides to go ahead with its not-so-secret expansion plans.

Questions of legacy are believed to matter to Bettman – some in the hockey world believe he could step aside in or around 2017, when the league celebrates its centennial and the commissioner reaches pensionable age.

Foster said she considers Bettman “a hero” for what he did to bolster the pension scheme – something she said is due primarily to the commissioner’s wheeling and dealing.

The retired players clearly hope Bettman will add another element to his bequest before retiring: A financial settlement that can help ease the pain of men who gave their all to the game.

With a report from Allan Maki in Calgary

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