Back in the 1970s, when Kurt Walker was moving up the hockey ladder, the game was ruled by tough guys. The Philadelphia Flyers won consecutive Stanley Cups in 1974-75 with a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude epitomized by captain Bobby Clarke, who explained their game this way: “We take the shortest route to the puck and arrive in ill humor.’’
They were the Broad Street Bullies and proud of their approach. That is probably why Kurt Walker, a Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman in his second NHL game, accumulated a record 42 penalty minutes in one shift on the ice against the Flyers. The episode identified Walker as a tough guy in a tough game, which explains why he came away from seven seasons of hockey with 17 surgeries and 10 concussions.
A headshot when Walker played led to standard treatment – a seat on the bench for a shift or two, a trainer applying a bit of smelling salts and then back into the action.
The bottom line years later?
“I have good days,’’ Walker said, “ and I have other days when I walk into a room to get something and then I have no idea why I walked into the room.’’
It is the other days and the hundreds of hockey players who came away from the game beaten up and beaten down who concern Walker these days. That’s why he launched Dignity After Hockey, an organization dedicated to helping those players who still carry the scars of their game well after the playing days are over.
Hockey players are a proud community. It is sometimes tough for them to ask for help but without decent healthcare, they have been in need. Walker’s organization has helped a dozen or so in the last year but he knows there are so many more who should be helped.
“Hockey players are humble,’’ he said. “It’s hard to get them to ask for help. We made good money in the old days but not like what they make today with those million dollar contracts.’’
Pensions are paltry and the league has not been terribly helpful. “You needed to play 210 games to qualify for a pension,’’ Walker said. “I didn’t make it. The guys who did, the American players were paid in Canadian dollars. We asked for health benefits and we were told to go get Obamacare. The league has not stepped up.’’
Kurt Walker has, though.
“We were like family,’’ Walker said of the relationships established between players of his era. “Today’s players are not like we were. There is not that closeness. The players are bigger and the sticks are up more than they were when I played.’’
Walker talks fondly of his peers, especially those who need help. “There are thousands of former NHL players out there,’’ he said. “Many of them need help. It’s time to get a plan in place to help them. It’s a lot of work but we do it because our hearts are in it.’’
His work attracted the attention of others. Ben Galliway of the Society of Professional Athletes has helped players find healthcare options. In the last year, Kandace Stolz of the Premier Regenerative Stem Cell Institute arranged for the treatment of 10 players suffering the aftereffects of careers in hockey.
Now Walker would like to expand his program, to help the other ex-players he knows are out there, players who need help, players who need dignity after hockey.
There is one organization that Walker hopes might pitch in some day. “So far,’’ he said, “the NHL has not helped.’’