After only seven seasons of professional and junior hockey, former Toronto Maple Leafs enforcer Kurt Walker found himself beaten down – literally – and out of a career at age 26.
More than 35 years later he’s still feeling the effects of his nearly 900-combined penalty minutes. Only now he’s fighting a different fight on behalf of his former colleagues as he pursues the help they need in their transitions to life after hockey.
Like many former players, Walker has struggled with life after hockey. When it’s all over, there’s usually no education to fall back on. For many young athletes, the highs of living out your dream are matched by the lows of career-ending injuries. That’s why Walker started the Facebook page Dignity After Hockey to help players work together and share their stories.
For many American-born players, their injuries can’t be properly treated because they can’t afford healthcare. In today’s billion-dollar hockey industry, players earn millions. But those who played in the 1960s and 70s didn’t earn enough to support themselves long term, according to Walker.
"For the longest time I felt I needed to do something to find out why the NHL Alumni wasn’t really treating the American players well," Walker said. "I challenged the NHL Alumni Association on healthcare because it seems to be the biggest issue the guys have."
After dedicating years to becoming a voice for retired players, Walker was contacted by Benjamin Galliway, the director of an organization called the Society For Professional Athletes (SFPA).
The SFPA was trying to find healthcare for NHL players at a reasonable rate and Galliway told Walker to "hang in there."
Walker, who suffered multiple concussions over the course of his career, takes anti-depressants to curb ongoing depression concerns. He also suffers from ongoing chronic pain and short-term memory loss that he has struggled to treat without the necessary healthcare.
After years of struggling to find the fix, Walker, now 61, is thankful the SFPA has finally built a comprehensive healthcare package for former players.
"We felt we needed to do something different, to reach out and help players and everything sort of came together," he said. "It just all came together and you know what, it worked, and it worked very good."
Others have joined Walker and Galliway in their efforts too.
"It’s not just me trying to make change and help guys," Walker said. "There are a lot of guys that wanted positive change."
The SFPA has recently partnered with Players Helping Players, a foundation formed by some of Walker’s former NHL contemporaries and close friends.
"The combination of the two has started out as a great marriage," Walker said.
Thanks to the partnership, former players can now call Galliway to look at plans and get a quote for coverage in their state.
Players Helping Players is trying to "resurrect players from the dead, guys who had helped build the great game and then (were) forgotten," according to Walker.
When Players Helping Players launched in 2014, Walker told founder and former NHL enforcer Jim Dorey he’d be happy to help out.
Progress has since been made. Now the two organizations also have the support of NHL legends Phil Esposito and brothers Bobby and Dennis Hull.
There are certain things that really help players make the transition.
"There’s a lot of knowledge out there but there’s also been a lot of tragedy. We’re really trying to take a lot of the information we’ve accumulated over the years (about) the guys who were successful post career and really give that to the guys who are in transition," Galliway said.
And it doesn’t just end with healthcare. The SFPA works with players on suicide prevention, drug prevention, stress reduction, financial advice, consultation for marital issues, among other things. Recently, the organization has put a greater emphasis on building their mental health program.
It’s about working with professionals that can deal with athletes and ensuring that preparing for life after hockey start earlier, according to Galliway.
"For the athlete to transition, there’s so many pieces and really and truthfully it all starts really early on in a player’s career because the players can market themselves and brand themselves," he said. "Depending on how you brand yourself early on can dictate how well you do post career so we struggle to educate these guys on branding themselves properly."
For many of the players who retired 30-40 years ago, all they have left is name recognition, according to the SFPA director.
"Our goal, one of the things that we have done, we’ve really interviewed the players and the coaches and the ownership over the years to find out what are the guys missing from the different leagues to fill all of those holes," Galliway said. "It’s a struggle."
For Players Helping Players co-founder Chris MacKeigan, the journey to help former players is just getting started.
"Let’s try to help some human beings and do it in such a model that’s efficient and works," MacKeigan said. "It’s all just beginning, it’s really the tip of an iceberg but the issues and causes should be put out in the public eye."
Life after hockey isn’t what it’s made out to be, MacKeigan said. "Concussions are a big deal. Brain injuries are a big deal."
"The world’s got the big misconception that the hockey players have made millions of dollars," he said. "Well, the recent ones did but the guys back in the 60s didn’t, they’re just struggling through life."
The Canadian players are fortunate to be able to return home after their careers are over and not have to worry about excessive healthcare costs.
For the American players, the NHL and the Players’ Association offer a combined $6 million fund for retired senior players 65 and over who need coverage. But the application process to receive a portion of that fun is often fruitless, according to Walker.
When Walker made requests on several players’ behalves to the NHL Alumni Assocation, he was told they should seek Obamacare for their coverage.
With the help of Galliway and the SFPA, there are now better options though. According to the former enforcer, retirees can now get the healthcare coverage they deserve.
"The Society For Professional Athletes has all the resources we need," Walker said.
And after years of struggling, there’s less worrying to do today than there was before the Society For Professional Athletes and Players Helping Players entered the fold. Much of it comes down to luck and the right people working together at the right time.
As a hockey player, Walker fought for his teammates. Sometimes he won. Other times he lost. More than three decades later he’s trying to win more battles than he loses, but he’s still fighting for the same people.