He was so committed to the Toronto Maple Leafs that he would one day have the team’s iconic logo tattooed on his thigh – him, the kid from Weymouth, Mass., who told his family and friends he was going to play in the National Hockey League. It didn’t matter if there were only a handful of American players in the NHL at that time. It didn’t matter, either, if he first started playing the game as a tall, skinny 10-year-old who wasn’t much of a skater.
Kurt Walker dreamed the improbable, then made it happen. He overcame the odds and adversity to become the Leafs’ enforcer in the Darryl Sittler-Lanny McDonald-Borje Salming era of the mid- to late-1970s. His teammates loved him; his rivals respected him. He once fought Philadelphia Flyer Broad Street Bullies Jack McIlhargey, Don Saleski and Jim Watson during a bench-clearing brawl that earned him 44 minutes in penalties, along with an ejection.
After his playing career ended, Mr. Walker, once known for fighting other hockey players, began taking care of them. He founded Dignity After Hockey in 2011, an online meeting place aimed at obtaining affordable health care for former NHLers, many of whom were living in the United States and didn’t have enough money. Mr. Walker called them his "band of brothers.”
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He was trying to assist them right up until his death on Aug. 17. He had fractured vertebrae in his neck two days earlier while digging fence posts at his home in Atlanta. He took an Uber to a medical centre and made a call along the way. He phoned friend and business associate Jeff Brubaker, another American-born former Leafs tough guy. "He says, ‘Jeff, listen … I think I broke my neck. Worst pain I’ve ever felt. But look, never mind me … I’m texting you the name of a guy in Atlanta that could use your help. Would you please give him a call?”
Mr. Walker was turned away from the medical centre – no one is sure why – before being accepted at a nearby hospital. His daughter, Zoe, spent three hours with him on Aug. 15; his son, Cole, spent several hours with him on Aug. 16. The next day, Mr. Walker was put under anesthetic for a four-hour MRI. When his blood pressure dropped, efforts were made to resuscitate him. He died soon after. His family was told he had sepsis, a life-threatening complication arising from infection. He was 64.
“We’re just trying to make sense of it all,” Zoe said.
Born June 10, 1954 in the Massachusetts South Shore, young Kurt first aspired to become an actor. Then he tried hockey at age 10 and improved enough over the next few years to attend a hockey school run by Boston University coach Jack Kelley. One night in the fall of 1968, Kurt and his father went to Boston Garden to watch the Bruins play Toronto. His dad noticed the two men sitting in front of them were Leafs’ owner Harold Ballard and his sidekick King Clancy.
Kurt introduced himself, saying he was a hockey player who wanted to make it to the NHL. It was suggested he should sign up for a hockey school featuring Toronto Marlboros’ head coach and general manager Jim Gregory.
That chance meeting stoked Mr. Walker’s desire to play for the Leafs. He became a huge fan. But knee problems he experienced while still in his teens almost ended things.
His family doctor examined Mr. Walker’s swollen right knee and sent him to a hospital with what was diagnosed as a staph infection. Amputation was said to be a possibility. He spent 28 days under hospital care and was told he would never again play hockey. He was 18 and had to relearn how to walk.
Through sheer will, Mr. Walker trained his way back into shape and played for the Junior A Weymouth Conquistadors. From there, he was signed by the Sherbrooke Castors of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and later played for the Saginaw Gears of the International Hockey League. In Sept., 1975, he was invited to the Leafs’ training camp. They needed an enforcer. By the end of camp, Mr. Ballard offered him a contract and he took it.
On the first shift of his second NHL game – in the Philadelphia Spectrum madhouse, no less – Mr. Walker went about fighting every Flyer he could, thus changing the Leafs’ reputation as a push-over outfit. It wasn’t long before he had the team’s logo tattooed on his thigh.
“Kurt was a tough guy but he could play, too,” said former Chicago Blackhawk Steve Ludzik, who befriended Mr. Walker after their NHL careers ended. "He had such a big heart. A lot of people don’t know this, but he spent money out of his pocket to help some players.”
Mr. Walker spent parts of three seasons with the Leafs. He scored four goals, added five assists and rang up 152 penalty minutes. In the summer of 1978, Toronto traded him, Scott Garland, Brian Glennie, future considerations and a second-round pick in the 1979 NHL draft to the Los Angeles Kings for Dave Hutchison and Lorne Stamler.
Mr. Walker spent the next three seasons in the minor leagues before retiring in 1980. He subsequently went to work as a salesman for a company that installed and dismantled trade show booth exhibits, primarily for the dentistry field.
His hockey injuries began taking a toll, however. He had endured 17 surgeries and was in such pain one night that he was ready to swallow a handful of Xanax and Valium and damn the consequences. He pulled out of his downward spiral and vowed to do what he could for other former players who were suffering.
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Mr. Ludzik thought of his friend Mr. Walker when he happened to meet Mike Ditka, a former National Football League player and coach who is on the board of directors of Gridiron Greats, an assistance program for former NFL players. “I put Kurt in touch with them. He wanted to do the same thing for hockey players.”
Mr. Walker was relentless in his good work. He raised Dignity After Hockey’s profile by challenging the NHL Alumni Association to do more. Eventually, he got players access to the Society for Professional Athletes, a non-profit organization in Warren, Mich., that provides life and business information plus health insurance.
“Kurt died the way he lived – trying to help people,” said Mr. Brubaker, the managing partner of Players Capital Group, the organization Mr. Walker hoped would produce additional funding for his brotherly band. "Instead of begging for money, we figured, let’s go out and make our own [through business dealings and hockey connections]. This was just starting to come to fruition.”
As always, Mr. Walker was pushing for more. "He cared so much,” said former L.A. Kings player Gene Carr, who has undergone multiple surgeries to his damaged spine.
Mr. Walker took a particular interest in the class-action lawsuit players were attempting to launch against the NHL over head injuries and their long-term effects. Last month, however, Judge Susan Richard Nelson denied class-action status for the former players.
“Kurt couldn’t believe it,” Mr. Carr said. "He was upset.”
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Nine days before his death, Mr. Walker sent Mr. Carr an e-mail that read: “Does [Judge Nelson] have any idea what she has done to us, how many lives she has tampered with?”
Mr. Walker’s family has donated his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation at Boston University. He leaves his partner, Joanne; son, Cole; daughter, Zoe; two brothers and a sister.