Right up to the final days of his life, former NHL tough guy Kurt Walker was more concerned with others than he was with himself. In fact, one of the last things he did on his way to the hospital with a broken neck last week was call former NHL player Jeff Brubaker to have him check on a player in distress.
According to former NHLer and good friend Ron Andruff, Walker was building a fence near his home in Atlanta last week when he snapped his C2 and C3 vertebrae while installing the fence posts. Not wanting to disturb his partner who was having a nap, Walker took an Uber to the hospital. And on his way there, he called Brubaker. “He called ‘Bru’ and he said, ‘I just want to talk to you about this guy who’s really in some trouble and I’m wondering if you can reach out to him,’ ” Andruff said. “ ‘I’m on my way to the hospital and I think I’ve broken my neck, but don’t worry about me. I’ll…”
At that point, Andruff’s voice trails off.
Most casual hockey fans would not have even heard of Kurt Walker, who died last Friday in Atlanta of sepsis. After all, his NHL career was rather undistinguished – four goals and nine points with 152 penalty minutes in parts of three seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. According to hockeyfights.com, Walker had 12 NHL fights, but there were hundreds more in the minors. But Walker’s biggest fight came after his career when he took up the cause of former NHL players who didn’t have a voice and couldn’t take care of themselves. Aside from his post-playing career in sales, Walker was the driving force behind Dignity After Hockey, an organization whose aim is to lend a helping hand to former players who have fallen upon hard times, whether they were NHL stars or role players in the minors. Walker fought to try to get insurance for players who didn’t have it. He’d advocate for better care for former players. He would try to arrange for stem cell and cannabis treatments for those in severe pain. For a guy who didn’t have much of a career in the NHL, Walker gave back in ways that could not be measured.
And while the players he tried to help often were not stars, they helped build the game during an era when players were not financially rewarded the way they are now. But it certainly wasn’t limited to lesser-known players. In fact, Walker and his group were most recently trying to help 1986 first overall pick Joe Murphy, who is effectively homeless, living in a tent in Kenora, Ont.
And the giving hasn’t stopped with Walker’s death, with his family confirming that it will be donating his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation at Boston University. “He was considering it, but he hadn’t made a full decision,” said Walker’s daughter Zoe. “But my brother and I are both in agreement with it. I do think he would definitely want progress to be made. So I think we will.”
Andruff said Walker once told him a story about a game early in his career when he missed a scoring chance, but had a couple of big hits and got into a fight. After the game, Walker apologized to Leafs owner Harold Ballard for missing the goal, but was told by Ballard that the owner was happy he missed because then he didn’t want Walker to have the wrong impression about why he was on the team. Walker was a fighter for much of his career, then took to caring for his brethren off the ice after that career ended in 1980.
“He was suffering from watching other players in such dire distress, whether they had ALS or they were living under a bridge or some other issue,” Andruff said. “And it just weighed heavily on his heart, so he decided of his own accord to create Dignity After Hockey. It was more or less on Kurt’s shoulders and he wanted to build this thing up.”
One of the players Walker helped was Rob Frid, who didn’t play a single game in the NHL, but was ravaged with brain injuries after a fight-filled career in the minors. Walker reached out to Frid after reading about his struggles in recent years. “I was working with early-onset Parkinson’s and chronic pain,” said Frid, who has become an active advocate for medical cannabis. “I think the big thing was he tried to help guys build a purpose and I was a good example of it. I couldn’t work anymore and I was pensioned off (from London Transit) and moved to Toronto and started connecting with the NHL alumni with Kurt. We built a lot of relationships.”
Both Frid and Andruff said one of the big problems for players, particularly those in the United States, is a lack of medical insurance. Many of those who played briefly or in an era when there was not big money in the game don’t have the financial wherewithal to be able to afford it. And Walker fought for those players, often without much help from the NHL or NHL Players’ Association.
“If you’re in Canada, it’s all well and good, but if you’re living down here it’s, ‘Good luck and God bless,’ ” Andruff said. “For a lot of guys, with their very limited financial resources, they just can’t do it, so they’ll go without health insurance.”
Dignity After Hockey has grown to about 5,000 members, but finds itself somewhat rudderless at the moment without Walker at the helm. Andruff said it will be up to him and others to continue the work Walker did. “We need to have a team of guys from every NHL city there for support,” Andruff said. “So when a guy is sleeping under a bridge in Vancouver, the Canucks would have a team of a couple of guys, some first responders and maybe a psychologist, who could get that guy and take him out of his situation and get him cleaned up and get him into a halfway house or something,” Andruff said. “Kurt’s kids very much want to see that legacy stand, and I do, too.”