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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 ...

“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.

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