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Former NHL player and minor league coach Ed Johnstone at the Vernon Civic Arena on Wednesday September 29, 2010. The Civic is actually the arena that Ed played in, and then went on to coach the Vernon Lakers a Junior A team and went to a couple of Championships. (Jeff Bassett for the Globe and Mail) (Jeff Bassett)
Former NHL player and minor league coach Ed Johnstone at the Vernon Civic Arena on Wednesday September 29, 2010. The Civic is actually the arena that Ed played in, and then went on to coach the Vernon Lakers a Junior A team and went to a couple of Championships. (Jeff Bassett for the Globe and Mail) (Jeff Bassett)

Allan Maki

The painful truth about the NHL and its pensions Add to ...

He could barely walk by the end. His ankles, knees and even shoulders ached so much from his hockey injuries that his friends had to help him in and out of vehicles. Then came the seizure that put him in the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre for three days.

That was enough for Walt Poddubny. He figured he had to do something. He was going to tell his story so that the NHL and its players would do more for those who helped the game grow and had stumbled on hard times.

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Two months later, the former Toronto Maple Leafs forward and 40-goal scorer went to sleep in a bedroom in his sister's home. He had split with his wife, couldn't work because of the pain he endured and needed extensive surgeries. He closed the bedroom door and collapsed. He was likely dead before he hit the covers.

When 49-year-old Poddubny succumbed to a heart attack last year, his posthockey plight spoke of a man who had played hard and made good money for his time, but nowhere near what today's NHL players receive. In that regard, he was hardly alone.

Lost in this era of multiyear, megamillion-dollar contracts are more than 100 former NHL players struggling to make ends meet. These aren't ghosts from a distant past, names such as Camille Henry or Doug Harvey, who was found living in a railway boxcar after his career ended, or even Derek Sanderson, who blew his fortune on self-indulgence and song.

These are players who skated into the 1980s, only to leave the game having missed out on the NHL's salad days. They made no more than $200,000 to $350,000 (U.S.) a year at the height of their careers. Their pensions weren't upgraded the way Gordie Howe and Andy Bathgate had theirs bettered in 1993 when an Ontario court ruled more than 1,300 former NHL players were owed a $50-million surplus by the league's Pension Society.

Instead, Paul Shmyr, a rugged defenceman who played in the World Hockey Association and NHL, had next to nothing when doctors diagnosed him with throat cancer, friends said. Bob Kelly couldn't work because of a bad back, had no health insurance living in the United States and almost lost his home had the NHL Alumni Association not stepped in. Ed Johnstone, the former New York Rangers' forward, has had two strokes and, at 56, still has to work for a living. He is waiting on his NHL pension, a whopping $12,500 a year.

"I think there are hundreds of guys like that," said former NHL great Brad Park, who outlined his story and how people wrongly think he must be set for life. "The most I ever made was $350,000. The government took 50 per cent and the state took 5. … My pension at age 45 was $13,000 [Cdn.] I'm living in the U.S. and I just started taking it. I waited until I was 62."

The business of hockey has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Poddubny's biggest payday was $350,000 (U.S.). He earned that playing in Europe in 1992-93. Johnstone's top contract was for $165,000 (U.S.). And when the Calgary Flames won the Stanley Cup in 1989, they had a payroll of $7-million (Canadian). This season, Jarome Iginla will make $7-million (U.S.) and the Flames will have 15 players earning more than $1-million.

With all that cash floating around, you'd think a healthy portion would trickle down to the men who forged hockey's legacy. It hasn't happened across the board. Legal battles have produced payouts for the older pensioners who had overcontributed in their day. And last year, the Ontario Superior Court ruled the NHL had shortchanged the former players' widows and ordered the league to make good on $30-million. But the NHL players who retired 20 or 25 years ago have been overlooked or forgotten. Some even missed out on the lump-sum payment that was promised to them at 55, providing they fit into a specific formula.

According to Johnstone: "You had to play in 30 games in 1986 and have played in 400 NHL games in your career. I had the 400 games and I was called up by Detroit that [1986]season. I played in six games, then they sat me down. I missed it by 24 games."

Johnstone was an emergency-room regular during his career. His right knee was torn up, his right shoulder separated and never operated on. He fractured a cheekbone in a collision with a teammate. That put him in a hospital for three days where he developed conjunctivitis in his eye. When the team said it needed him, Johnstone played with one good eye.

Then came the strokes. The first occurred years after he'd retired as a player. The second happened when he was getting out of a shower. He fell forward and put his head through a wall.

"The specialist said what I had is very common among athletes," Johnstone said. "Stress and adrenalin, those were the two main factors. I don't begrudge the players making all this money now. I'd just like to see them do more for the guys who paved their way."

René Robert was a member of the Buffalo Sabres' famed French Connection line and the second executive director of the NHL Alumni Association, which was formed more than a decade ago. He said he helped "50 to 75" former players, some from his era, who needed money. He also recalled the time he asked the modern-day NHL players to do more for their predecessors.

"Years ago I once sent a memo to all the player reps asking them to help," Robert said. "I even had Don Cherry go on national TV and say the players should cough up $1,000 each to help the older guys. Not one [player rep.]replied. What's $1,000 to these guys? They lose that much in card games."

Currently, the NHL and the National Hockey League Players' Association each contribute $2-million to the senior retired benefits program. (One insider said of the pool: "It's not enough. … It really only covers bare necessities for some guys.") There's also the emergency assistance fund for those who require immediate aid. That money comes from NHL player fines controlled by NHL executive Brian O'Neill. And there's the BreakAway program, which assists former and current players by allowing them to upgrade their education. It, too, is subsidized by player fines.

Mark Napier, current head of the Alumni Association, insisted it's "totally false" to think today's NHL players don't care about the former players, many of whom were their heroes growing up.

"The players did bump their contribution to $2-million," Napier said. "Do they have to do it? No. Is it the right thing to do? Yes. That's a start. Unfortunately, the rest has to be collectively bargained [between the NHL and the NHLPA with its soon to be appointed executive director, Donald Fehr]"

The Maple Leafs alumni tried to help Poddubny, but he never expressed the true depth of his troubles. When he was finally ready to push for himself and his fellow retirees ("I know there are a lot of other guys like me out there," he once said), his heart gave out. Those who knew him best believe it was a loss on many fronts.

"He was too proud a man to cry on anyone's shoulder, but he was beaten down," his brother, Peter, said. "Telling his story was going to be his way of getting things worked out. In the end, it was what-ifs and maybes, and you just don't know."

 

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