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Hank Nowak’s missing wallet turned up in the mail this year, with what appears to be the dying request of a man he’s never met

Hank Nowak holds up one of his hands, displaying a few souvenirs he collected over a decade in pro hockey.

“I’ve got scars from teeth in here,” says Nowak, 73, pointing to the knuckle on his right index finger.

Nowak played parts of five seasons in the NHL throughout the 1970s, divided between Pittsburgh, Detroit and Boston, back when pro hockey was a much different game. “In my time, if I could skate from here to that door and not get in two fights, that was pretty good,” he says.

But in the spring of 1973, Nowak was a 22-year-old winger with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears, riding cramped buses between minor-league stops such as Cincinnati, Providence and Rochester, hoping to play his way into the big leagues.

One night in March, the team rolled into Connecticut to face the New Haven Nighthawks in a late-season matchup that bore little consequence in the standings. Nowak doesn’t remember much about the game itself, all these years later.

The scoresheet shows he had two goals, assisted on another, and somehow managed to stay out of the penalty box. There were 6,486 spectators. The Bears won 5-2.

By his standards, it was a good night.

But as the bus left town and the lights of New Haven became a distant glow in the rear-view mirror, Nowak was either too tired or too distracted to check his pockets. He’d failed to notice his wallet was gone.

For the first few weeks, Nowak figured it would turn up. When it didn’t, he assumed he’d never see the wallet again. He’d lost some cash, but he replaced his identification and moved on.

Then, early this fall, Nowak’s wallet suddenly reappeared, 50 years after it went missing, with what appears to be the dying request of a man he’s never met.

Hank Nowak played parts of five seasons in the NHL, mostly as a Boston Bruin. In 1973, he was a winger for the minor-league Hershey Bears when the wallet went missing in New Haven, Conn. Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

‘Every dollar meant a lot’

Losing the wallet didn’t bother Nowak much at first. It was an inconvenience, sure. Perhaps he should have been more upset. But in youth, anything lost seems inherently replaceable. There is always time.

The wallet held his driver’s licence, his birth certificate, and a few other personal effects. But as a Canadian hockey player living stateside in the 1970s, he travelled on a U.S. work visa, which the club looked after.

His road to professional hockey began years earlier in southern Ontario. Nowak was born in Oshawa, the son of a Polish father and a Russian mother who came to Canada after the Second World War. He inherited his father’s hands; they were oversized, strong, and made for hard work. Even now, when Nowak shakes hands, it’s the grip people notice.

His father, Stanislaw, grew up poor in Poland, particularly as the war took hold. While fleeing the Germans, he learned to dig for potatoes on abandoned land, using only his fingers, in order to find food. He later survived a Nazi concentration camp, which left him frail and thin. He arrived in Canada in 1945, settling first on Prince Edward Island, where he worked on a farm, packing eggs into cartons for a few dollars a day.

It was honest work, but not enough to support a family. So Stan headed west to Oshawa, taking a warehouse job before eventually landing at General Motors. He worked 30 years on the line at GM, seldom missing a shift.

Hank learned English at school and fell in love with hockey, a game his father struggled to grasp. By the time he was a teenager, Nowak dreamed of playing the game at higher levels. Bobby Orr, three years older, attended the same high school. Nowak remembers watching Orr, the local hero, walk the halls in his marvellous blue leather Oshawa Generals jacket, and wanted the same for himself. “I was always thinking, ‘If I could just play one game.’”

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Nowak dreamed of playing pro hockey, but his father rarely got to see him play.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Nowak’s hands soon became his ticket out of town. He could score and wasn’t afraid to fight. Those two things were currency in the pro ranks. After a few minor-league stops he landed in Hershey – one step closer to his ultimate goal. One day, his folks would see him in the NHL.

However, Stan rarely saw his son play, even when Nowak finally made it.

When his NHL teams went to Toronto, Nowak would arrange tickets at Maple Leaf Gardens. But aside from a game here or there, Stan stayed home in Oshawa, too scared to miss a shift on the line. Having known starvation, work was security. It meant never having to worry about putting food on the table.

“Even if I was playing on TV on a Saturday night and he had to work, he’d rather work,” Nowak says.

That always stayed with him.

“In a small way, maybe I resent him not being active in my career,” Nowak says. “But if you think about it, life was that rough for him. Every dollar meant a lot.”

His father worked his way through life with almost no formal education.

When Stan came to Canada he could barely read or write. Immigration officers processed him based on how he pronounced the name, and what little they could discern from his illegible scribbles. For years the family name on most documents was spelled ‘Novak’ in error.

But Stan knew cars. So when Nowak signed his first NHL contract, his father helped him pick one out – a 1971 Plymouth which he bought new for $3,100.

Nowak went on to play 180 games in the NHL, mostly as a Boston Bruin. He raised two children, divorced, remarried, and watched his kids grow up and have children of their own.

When his career came to an end, he answered a newspaper ad for the Toronto Transit Commission and began a new job as a subway-train driver. Then, about 10 years ago, Nowak retired for good, settling a few hours outside Toronto.

Every weekend he drives into the city to play pickup hockey with his son. He then watches his three granddaughters at rinks around town. He does his best to never miss a game.

Nowak’s stick leans against the wall next to his son’s at the arena in Toronto where they play hockey each week. At 73, his hands still bear the scars of pro hockey in the 1970s. ‘If I could skate from here to that door and not get in two fights, that was pretty good.’ Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

‘I have made many mistakes’

A few months ago, Nowak’s missing wallet mysteriously resurfaced.

An envelope arrived at The Globe and Mail’s offices in Toronto. Inside was a chocolate-brown leather trifold, accompanied by a one-page typed letter made out to Hank.

The parcel came from Joe Jones of 275 South Orange Street, New Haven, Conn.

Jones wrote that in the spring of 1973 he was 16 and working part-time as a janitor at the New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

On game nights, Jones’s job was to stay late and sweep up after the crowds had dispersed. It was the kind of menial work you give a teenager to keep them out of trouble. And Jones was, by his own admission, a troubled kid.

“I had gone through some very difficult times in my life and was confused about many things,” he wrote. “I was young, foolish, and not particularly a very good person.”

By the time Jones arrived at the Bears’ dressing room that night, everyone was gone.

Picking up bits of discarded hockey tape and other garbage, Jones noticed a wallet lying in the corner of the room. It was brown, leather, and filled with various personal items, including several pieces of identification. There was also some Canadian money.

He thought about turning it in to his boss. Instead, Jones held onto the wallet, got rid of the night’s trash, and left without saying a word to anyone.

At home, he emptied the wallet. There was about $50 inside – roughly $350 by today’s standards – which he kept. Unsure what to do with the wallet itself, he hid it in his cellar, inside a drawer, where it would stay for years.

Jones didn’t reveal much about his life between then and now, but we know two things: the guilt ate away at him, which is why he could never bring himself to throw the wallet away. And, more recently, his health started to fail.

Recently, while packing up his house, he found the wallet in a box.

“I have made many mistakes in my life and none bother me more than me not returning your wallet,” he wrote.

“You have every right to be angry or mad at me and I respect that,” the letter said. “I ask for your understanding of a young person trying to deal with their own problems in life and making a bad decision.”

Jones searched for Nowak online, but couldn’t find a way to contact him. In a separate letter addressed to The Globe, which was also included in the envelope, Jones asked for help locating Nowak. He’d read the former hockey player worked for the TTC – a detail he likely found on the Wikipedia page devoted to Nowak’s career. “Perhaps they have an address for him,” he wrote.

The wallet contained eight items: three faded colour pictures of a young woman, a black-and-white photo of a middle-aged man, a driver’s licence, an Ontario birth certificate, a social-insurance card, and the registration for a ‘71 Plymouth.

There was urgency in Jones’s letter. Taking the wallet tormented him and he wanted to atone for it, while he still could.

“I am now almost 68 years old, and with numerous health issues, I don’t know how much longer I have on this great green earth.”

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Joe Jones needed help finding Nowak. He’d read the former player worked for the Toronto Transit Commission after retiring from hockey.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The parking lot

The search for Nowak led directly to Oshawa.

After retiring from the game, Nowak operated a hockey school in his hometown and, in 2007, was inducted into the Oshawa Sports Hall of Fame. Jim Nesbitt, who helps run the museum, dug up contact information for his old friend.

Reached in his car while driving to Toronto, Nowak is shocked to hear his wallet had turned up 50 years later.

“Is there any money in it?” he asks. No such luck. Worth a shot, he figured.

Nowak arranged a time to meet the following week, curious to see what else was inside. He later admitted he thought the call was a prank.

Finding Jones would be much harder.

The man included no contact information in his letter. The return address – 275 South Orange Street – was a dead end.

Locals know it as the former address of the New Haven Coliseum, which no longer exists. Demolished in 2007, it took 2,000 pounds of explosives to bring the massive steel and concrete structure down. An estimated 20,000 people turned out to witness the destruction. Today, 275 South Orange Street is a large parking lot.

With a defunct return address, it’s likely that Joe Jones was also not his real name. But it’s impossible to know for sure.

Calls to listings for Joe, Joey, Joseph and J. Joneses in the state of Connecticut either went unanswered, involved numbers that were no longer in service, or reached people who knew nothing of the wallet, but were themselves intrigued by the mystery – eager but unable to help.

Facebook groups dedicated to the history of the Coliseum, which include former employees, shed no further light. Most of the people who worked there in 1973 are now in their 70s and 80s, or are no longer alive. The Coliseum’s former building superintendent might have remembered the teenager he employed, some suggested. But he died a few years ago.

A message written on Nowak’s Wikipedia page, where Jones evidently noticed the detail about him working for the TTC, also went unanswered.

Finally, an online ad – shown to anyone in the United States who Googled the name Hank Nowak – attempted to track Jones down.

“Hank Nowak’s wallet. Did you find it?” the advertisement read. “Please get in touch.” Those who clicked on the ad were given contact information for The Globe.

In the span of a month, 38 people in 12 states searched the name and were shown the ad, according to tracking data provided by the search engine.

Of those, four were men over 65. Two were from Connecticut, but neither were in New Haven. The closest hits came from the town of Clinton and the city of Norwalk, both less than an hour’s drive from where the Coliseum once stood.

None of them clicked on the ad.

There was no way of knowing where the sender of the wallet now lived. Among the people who searched that specific name, six people were in North Carolina, the most of any one state, followed by five in Virginia.

The wallet was sent without a tracking number and the parcel appears to have no postmark information. According to the U.S. Postal Service, the fact the sender used a New Haven return address, even for customs paperwork, meant nothing.

“The package could be sent from anywhere in the country,” USPS spokeswoman Sue Brennan said.

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The address Jones wrote on the packing slip wasn’t his. It was the former site of the New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where he worked at age 16. Demolished in 2007, it is now a parking lot.New Haven Museum

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The wallet, 50 years later.May Truong/The Globe and Mail

One story not told

Inside a downtown Toronto bar on a Friday afternoon, Nowak sips from a bottle of Corona and braces himself as he stares at the wallet in disbelief.

Even from across the table, the wallet reeks of mould. It clearly lived in a damp basement all these years. But it’s still in decent shape. As Nowak opened it, he pulled out the identification. It’s the first time he’s seen his original birth certificate since he was a young man. “Look,” he says. “Nowak with a V,” the product of his father’s indecipherable handwriting.

He shuffles through three pictures of his ex-wife. There’s one of her graduating from dental-assistant school, another at an outdoor barbecue, and a third of her standing in their old living room. There’s not much to say about the divorce, he says. He is now happily remarried. “It is what it is.”

He then pulls out a black-and-white picture of a middle-aged man standing near a garden with his shirt off. He is muscular, with massive hands, looking as though he could have been a bodybuilder. Or a hockey player.

“This is my father,” Nowak says in amazement.

“Look at him. He never lifted a weight in his life, he just worked. Hands like baseball mitts.”

Nowak smiles as he stares at the photo.

Usually, Nowak is a talkative guy. He tells stories of Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr and Ken Dryden on a loop, one leading into the other, pausing only for a swig of beer.

There was the time he accidentally flattened Orr in a game. (“In my mind I’m thinking what the hell did I just do?”) Or the time he managed to score on Dryden. (“I was so scared, I just shot it along the ice.”) And the time he was Esposito’s roommate when the Bruins legend was told he’d been traded to New York. (“A few chairs were thrown around the room.”)

But holding the picture of his father for the first time in 50 years, Nowak falls silent.

During those long hours riding the bus from one minor-league destination to another, the photos he carried in his wallet were his tether to home and family. They were no different than the pictures of his grandchildren that now take up megabytes on his phone.

But back then, photos were somehow more precious. A wallet could only hold so many. They couldn’t be shared, duplicated or altered. And sometimes there was only one copy. If a picture was lost, it was probably gone for good.

Except this one. Half a century later, it came back.

“I miss this guy,” he says. “I miss him.”

Nowak’s father died a few decades ago. Even though Stan never came to the rink much, Nowak is proud of the life his dad built, especially with the odds so stacked against him.

As evening approaches, Nowak heads home, taking the wallet with him.

But two days later, he calls and leaves a voice mail. Of all the stories he told that Friday afternoon, there was one he failed to mention. This one is personal, and he apologizes for leaving it out.

Four years ago, in December, his wife Mary was driving back to their home near Kincardine, Ont., when she spotted a cluster of fire trucks up ahead. She immediately thought of her neighbours. It was a few days before Christmas, a terrible time for something like that to happen.

But as she pulled closer to the house, reality set in.

Mary phoned Hank. “How bad is it?” he asked.

“It’s bad,” she told him.

Their home burned to the ground. They lost nearly everything, including countless personal items and memories. The pictures Nowak kept of his father burned with it.

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‘I miss this guy.’ Nowak holds the picture of his father that went missing in 1973.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail


In his letter, Jones said he will make every effort to return to Nowak the $50 he took in 1973. Even after sending the wallet back, Jones felt this was part of his atonement.

Back when Nowak played, he was as unforgiving as they come; he has the scars on his right hand to prove it – a legacy of hockey’s unwritten laws of retribution. But Nowak has little appetite for punishment now.

“I don’t blame the guy,” he says. “Life is life. If he was young, money is money. I wouldn’t blame him for taking it. But it’s not the end of the world.”

Having been gifted something from his past, Nowak is now looking forward. Fifty years later, he is determined to use the wallet again, mould or no mould. But preferably no mould.

A week after getting it back, he placed the wallet in the sun, hoping to burn the basement smell out of it. When that didn’t work, he slathered it with vinegar. Then, for good measure, he stuffed a few dryer sheets inside, hoping that might help freshen it up.

It’s a work in progress. But it’s a fine wallet, he says, still very much serviceable.

He plans to carry the picture of his dad tucked inside.

With failing health, and time running out, Jones wanted Nowak to know he regretted some of the choices he made in his youth, this one in particular. Not all of the mistakes we make in life can be fixed, but maybe this one could.

“I didn’t realize at the time what it could mean to lose a wallet,” Jones wrote.

Back then, neither did Nowak.

“I hope you find happiness,” the letter says.

He hopes the same for Jones.

“It’s never too late,” Nowak says.

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Nowak stands with his son Clinton outside a Toronto rink following their weekly game. He plans to carry the picture of his father with him.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Podcast: Background on this story from Grant Robertson

On this episode of The Decibel, reporter Grant Robertson shares the tale of a pro hockey player, a missing wallet and a mystery 50 years in the making, including some of the reporting techniques that went into this surprisingly complex story.

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