While it didn’t occur to me in the moment, earlier this summer I wandered onto a dock with a mandate other than total relaxation for the first time I can recall. All the soothing elements were still there, mind you, from the Northern Ontario vistas to the low rumble of boat engines as bobbing watercraft entered and exited Laurenson Creek, the little strip of water that meanders through the town of Kenora, Ont. (As one local told me, it’s their version of Highway 401.) My focus, though, was on Joe Murphy, a 50-year-old man who’s gone down just about every road on offer.
An hour-long conversation with Murphy routed me through a wide range of topics — from grim to delicate to light. The journey continued when Murphy — standing with his arms crossed on an Aerosmith t-shirt right after our formal interview concluded — gazed out over Lake of the Woods and launched into a monologue apparently inspired by his surroundings. Initially, I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but the longer he spoke, the more certain I became: Murphy was having a little fun. For a minute or so, he sounded like the voiceover narration for a timeshare commercial, going on about how “proud we are” of the real estate development along the lakeshore. It’s pause-inducing when someone whose mental well-being is a point of discussion goes in a direction you aren’t prepared for, but eventually I became confident enough to join the skit: “What are we talking about here, Murphy Holdings?” I asked. The rich laugh my question triggered confirmed my instinct that a homeless man who’s lost millions was just having another moment, no matter how small, in the morning sun.
When Murphy was starring as a daring winger in the NHL, he was known by his last name or the slight variation, ‘Murph.’ Today, ‘Joe’ seems more fitting. The change has zero to do with lost respect, but rather a fading of formality in the face of a situation so difficult. It may also speak to the fact that people in Kenora have come to feel some familiarity with the man.
Murphy was once one of those almost-unknowable, kissed-by-God creatures whose abilities reinforce the limitations imposed on the rest of us. Joe is a guy who could use a hand, a person who’s been living the high-stakes version of day-to-day. His story first started making the rounds when, four or five months ago, hockey people in a very hockey place started whispering about whether what they were seeing could be true. Soon after, publications in the region began talking to the long-ago first-overall selection who’d fallen on extremely hard times. Joe’s struggle with post-concussion trauma took on a national profile in late August when TSN laid his tale out in a then-and-now video, and called to attention the fact some members of Murphy’s family are among a growing community — which includes former NHLers — trying to shine a light on the plight of those damaged by the game. On the last day of July, I spent the first of two mornings with Joe and tried to gain a window into his existence. That first glimpse eventually grew into an attempt to understand his entire arc and answer a simple question: How did a former No. 1 NHL pick end up living on the streets of Kenora?
There’s a funny dynamic that exists at the last level of amateur hockey before the pros. Major junior and NCAA teams are comprised of teens who, on balance, have ruled whatever sports scene they’ve sprung from. A good number of them max out their potential at this stage, while a gifted few are just getting started. The gulf between those two camps struck Chris Luongo the first time he was on the ice with Joe Murphy at Michigan State University in 1985. “We all feel pretty confident about the players we are,” Luongo says, “[but] I remember watching Joe skate and going, ‘Wow, that looks a little different than anything I’ve seen before.’”
Murphy landed at MSU on the strength of what he’d done with the British Columbia Junior Hockey League’s Penticton Knights. A few years before Joe’s Jr. A career started, the Murphy family had moved west when its patriarch, Pat, was transferred out of Newmarket, Ont. as part of his work with Chevron Canada. They settled in the affluent neighbourhood of North Vancouver and Murphy began shining at the North Shore Winter Club. One of the guys he clicked with on and off the ice was Scott Rawson and the pair headed to Penticton together as linemates for the 1984–85 campaign after being recruited by Rick Kozuback, who owned and coached the Knights. Murphy’s presence helped offset the loss of Brett Hull, who was bound for the NCAA after scoring 105 goals the year prior. “Oftentimes, skilled athletes aren’t the hardest-working guys, but I can’t say that about Joe,” Kozuback says. “He was a pretty committed athlete, a hard-working kid. Brett had equal skills, but probably didn’t want to work very hard.”
Others from that time attach a bit of a “when he put his mind to it” caveat to Murphy’s success, but there’s universal agreement that he wanted to go to The Show and had more than enough ability to get there. Rawson recalls a game where Murphy, who turned 17 early in that season, was determined to extend a points streak: “He wound up and willed a slap shot in from 10 feet outside the blue line with, like, 10 seconds left,” Rawson says. “It almost ate its way through the goalie’s stick.”
That Penticton squad, aided enormously by Murphy’s 68 goals in 51 contests, advanced all the way to the final game of the 1985 national Jr. A championship tournament (now called the RBC Cup), before losing to the host Orillia Travelways. It was an amazing ride, not just for the boys, but for families like the Murphys and Rawsons who travelled together around B.C., kicking back in hotel suites and watching their sons and brothers play for one of the best junior teams in Canada. “It was a close group of people and everyone got along well,” says Kozuback.
In addition to Murphy, three other future Spartans were participants at the 1985 Jr. A championship, Danton Cole being one of them. Cole, a veteran of 318 NHL games, is the head coach at MSU today and has plenty of insight into the modern style of hockey. “You could pull Murph out of ’85 and throw him into today’s environment … he was fast, he was powerful,” says Cole. “He had a really good intensity on the ice and competed in drills and obviously competed in games. I’ve coached for a while now; those are the guys you like, the guys who attack practice the same way they do games, especially with talented guys.”
Cole recalls the buzz building around the Spartans that season as it became clear Murphy was a contender to go first overall in the 1986 NHL Entry Draft. After assisting on the goal that won MSU the national title, Murphy did in fact have his named called before any other when the Detroit Red Wings made him the first U.S college player to go at the top of the draft in league history. Kozuback was in Montreal with the Murphy family to see it in person and surely felt things had unfolded just as they were meant for the young man he’d coached. Also a teacher at the time, Kozuback chuckled recalling the fact Murphy, though clearly intelligent, was nobody’s definition of an ‘A’ student. “School was school,” Kozuback says. “Hockey was what he really wanted to do.”
New beginnings are an oft-overlooked aspect of professional sports, buried in the background behind all that money and fame. Murphy played for seven clubs during his 779-game NHL career, experiencing some version of starting over every time he moved. Frequent change, on a much more challenging level, has remained part of his life, but despite that constant upheaval, new realities — no matter how stark — can still take a while to sink in. “I ran out of money a long time ago,” Joe says between sips of a coffee grabbed from my hotel lobby. “I went out the door and had nuthin’. [I ran into this guy and said], ‘I don’t have a dime, I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ I couldn’t get a job at that point. [The guy said], ‘Just ask for money.’ I said, ‘Really, I’ve never done that.’ He said, ‘Just ask.’ I said, ‘Is that not panhandling?’ He goes, ‘Yep.’ And that’s what I do, I’m a panhandler on the street.”
The latest chapter in Joe’s story finds him spending much of his day walking around Kenora, accepting food or money from kindhearted residents and looking for places he can lay down and rest. When I first met him, he was sitting on an outdoor chair in front of Luby’s Food Store, a spot he frequents. We relocated to our dock on the waterfront and, after settling in, he spoke about everything from the role concussions have played in his life to how exciting he found the Kawhi Leonard-to-the-Raptors trade that was still fresh news.
The banter wouldn’t have been surprising to anyone who knew him well; under the right circumstances, Joe has always been a conversationalist. Cole was his roommate at MSU and remembers the dry humour Joe would jab with, often in smaller crowds. Luongo was more expansive, even eloquent, when contemplating his friend’s personality both on and off the ice. “I think he has an aspect of an artiste to him and to his game,” says Luongo, an assistant coach at MSU who played 218 NHL games. “And that was another thing that made him special, made him different and made him a curious study for guys like me, who would have been more black-and-white guys. What makes [certain players] excel and makes them great is the light just shines at a different angle on things. That’s going to have them be a little bit different off the ice.”
There’s no dancing around the fact that in conversation Joe’s frenetic, unsettled manner comes off as at least a bit unorthodox. One of his sneakers consistently flicked at the wicker table in front of us while we talked and he never remained in the same position long, instead constantly shifting his weight and gesturing with his arms. He bounced from topic to topic and there wasn’t always a clear through line between consecutive thoughts. His shorts exposed a sizable scrape on his right thigh and his body holds other signs of wear that remind you this is a person forced to bed down under bridges or in the brush. That he was once a dark-haired kid armed with some Irish charm, though, is still easy to believe. He remains a person who can be endearingly curious — asking about your background, if you played hockey, if you’re married. He can also sound like he just absorbed the entire sports section, as his analysis of Danny Green’s not-to-be-overlooked value in the Kawhi deal indicated. “When I have the TV and the Internet, I’m on top of it,” he says.
For the past half-decade, amenities like that have been a luxury in Joe’s life. While his exact road map is tough to track, he spent significant time in multiple South and Central American countries before returning to Canada in the early summer of 2017. After that, a couple of arrests marked his path. He was charged with mischief for tossing a hotel room in Kingston, Ont., early last fall and, this past April, Joe was picked up for an assault charge in Sioux Lookout, Ont. that almost certainly led to him landing in Kenora, the hub for many things — including the legal system — in northwestern Ontario. Joe, who was already on probation from the mischief charge he pled guilty to, says he headed to Sioux in search of a buddy. He spent a few nights in a local shelter where he got into an altercation with a man he describes as drunk and belligerent that led to his arrest. Upon being released in Kenora, Joe opted to stay and have his charges moved there. A spiritual man, he calls landing in the town a “blessing” because the people there have treated him better than any other place he’s been since he began living on the streets.
In August, Joe’s case was referred to the desk of Greg Iwasiw, a lawyer who often works with clients in what’s called Mental Health Court. As the name suggests, it’s a court stream that factors into account the circumstances of people whose needs may not always be met in the regular courts. “We’re not interested in punishing him or just grinding him through the system,” says Iwasiw, noting Joe’s charge is a relatively minor one. “This court is designed so people who need assistance with whatever mental health issues they may have can get those issues identified and work within the system and hopefully not have difficulties in the future — at least with the criminal courts.”
Mental Health Court, and some of the services it can bring into play, could be a stabilizing development for a man who says he’s been through numerous cities and towns in Ontario and Quebec in the past 18 months, taking refuge in everything from ATM enclosures to dumpsters. “You wouldn’t believe the things people are doing to make money, just games and tricks and playing music,” says Joe, who lived every hockey-playing youngster’s dream by winning the Stanley Cup in 1990 and has had a view of both ends of life few of us could imagine.
He’s a mix of sheepish, sweet and giddy when he describes the things he’s done for a few bills, including pretending to be blind and bunching up some blankets to make it look like he’s caring for a baby. Through the chuckles, Joe is quick to point out he asked forgiveness — of a higher power, I assume — and was only doing what he had to do. “The truth of the matter was, I need money,” he says. “Well, I was telling a little lie [to get it].”
According to Joe, panhandling isn’t his sole source of income. He says he receives roughly $1,300 per month in the form of his National Hockey League Players’ Association pension. There may have also been windfalls at various times since his playing career. In April of 2017, he informed Kozuback that he’d received $200,000 (in an unspecified currency) as part of a workers’ compensation case in California. TSN reports that case, filed years ago against the San Jose Sharks and Chubb Group of Insurance Cos., resulted in Joe receiving — after lawyer’s fees — $106,250 USD and that he’s subsequently blown through the cash. Joe, who earned just shy of $14 million during his career, was also part of a group of players who tried to sue the NHL as a class action, claiming the league failed to protect them from head injuries and concealed information regarding the long-term ramifications of concussions. A couple weeks before I met Joe, a federal judge in Minnesota ruled the suit could not proceed as a class action, leaving it to the players to make their own individual cases.
In numerous interviews, Joe has spoken about the lingering effects of head trauma and the ways it has impacted and impaired his life. None of my attempts to reach members of the Murphy family were successful, but Joe’s older sister, Cathy, and his daughter, Krystal, have been strong advocates for him on Twitter and appear deeply invested on the issue of the treatment of players who’ve sustained head injuries. Listening to Joe describe what he went though, you can understand why. “I suffered a severe concussion in 1990,” he says. “I fractured my skull, it was gory. I went right into the boards and hit my head, like a head-on car crash. It affected me, I had a hard time moving forward in that season.”
The Red Wings would become a model franchise soon after Murphy was drafted, but when he first landed, the Motowners were just starting to emerge from the ‘Dead Things’ era — a stretch that had seen the team miss the playoffs in all but four years from 1967 to 1986. Jacques Demers’s arrival as coach dovetailed with Murphy’s rookie campaign, and the fast-talking Francophone was there to get Detroit moving in the right direction. That season, 1986–87, was also Mike O’Connell’s first full campaign with the Wings after coming over via trade from Boston the prior season. Already a veteran defenceman in those days, O’Connell reflects fondly on his time with Murphy. “He really loved the game,” O’Connell says. “He really did. He liked everything about it. He liked practice; he liked his teammates, he was a good teammate. He was just young, just green.”
Now a senior advisor with the Los Angeles Kings, O’Connell was also assistant GM with the Bruins when the B’s dealt for Murphy near the end of his career. Having seen countless can’t-miss kids come into the league only to discover the harsh realities of hockey at the highest level, O’Connell says Murphy simply fell into the category of overwhelmed youngsters who don’t realize what it takes to thrive in the NHL. Murphy also suffered a bit of bad luck. “I think it was the first road trip, he went to the wrong airport in Detroit, which [is an innocent mistake] that can happen to anyone,” O’Connell says. “So he was late, missed the plane and from there it was hard to repair [the relationship with the team].”
Finding his way was no problem for Murphy once he got to Edmonton after being traded in November 1989. As part of the celebrated ‘Kid Line’ alongside Adam Graves and Martin Gelinas, Murphy helped the Oilers to the 1990 Stanley Cup that proved the group could go all the way without No. 99. It was a trip for Rawson and the old Knights to watch their star become a national hero. “Ron MacLean is talking to Joe Murphy saying, ‘How great has this been, you come to Edmonton and win a Stanley Cup?’” Rawson says. “We would always joke that he would fall out of a barrel of shit and come out smelling like a rose.”
In an all-too-troubling sign of the times, the hit Joe still remembers taking with the Oilers in 1990 did not cause him to miss a single game during the 1990–91 or 1991–92 campaigns. Murphy was absent for the majority of the 1992–93 season, but that was due to a contract holdout — he could not come to terms with a cash-strapped team still helmed by owner Peter Pocklington, the man who’d sold Wayne Gretzky to the Kings.
In February, 1993, Murphy was flipped to Chicago, where he spent time on a line with Bernie Nicholls and Murray Craven, and managed to etch his name in the history books by scoring the first goal in United Center history after the Blackhawks moved from the old Chicago Stadium. Murphy, Craven and Nicholls were also linemates later on as members of the San Jose Sharks, reunited by Darryl Sutter, who coached them in Chicago and was part of the reason Murphy was traded to California in the first place.
Talk to most people about Murphy’s game and his speed comes up within the first couple sentences. Sutter, however, puts the focus somewhere else. “He wasn’t any faster than anyone else, but when he had the puck and he could drive the net, he had a lot of courage,” Sutter says. “He’d be a great player in today’s game because a lot of them don’t have much courage, because you don’t have to. But he had a lot of courage to score. He was a big-time player, that’s why he was a really good playoff player. He was a popular player with his teammates because he showed up in big games.”
From the outside, “Sutter” can seem like an Albertan synonym for “hardass.” When I fumbled through a question about Joe marching to his own beat, I barely got the sentence out before the coach replied: “Well, if that’s not something you already know, then you haven’t talked to many people.”
Those who know him well, say Sutter’s bluntness belies the fact that if he believes you’re worth a damn, there’s not much he won’t do for you — and Murphy was firmly on his radar as someone who both needed and deserved help. “I worried about him when I was coaching him,” Sutter says. “I tried to help him off the ice as a person. That’s why I coached him [multiple times], because I kept saying I could help him and he could help our team.”
Sutter says that, in the moment, Murphy would be receptive to conversations about getting out of the party lifestyle that was far more pervasive 20 years ago than it is in today’s Protein Shake Era. The issue, he thinks, is that once the season ended and Murphy was out of the structure of practice-bus-hotel-game-airplane, he had trouble following through on his good intentions. None of this was news to O’Connell when, in November, 1999, he was part of the Bruins management team that signed Murphy in hopes a guy who still popped 25 goals as a 31-year-old in 1998–99 could chip in some secondary offence. When it came to what could be driving Murphy to the questionable choices he was rumoured to be making away from the rink, O’Connell says there was never any discussion with or around Murphy about the physical ailments he could be fighting. “It’s just the way it was,” he says. “We were unaware, as was most everyone. We all took big hits while we were playing — sometimes we were concussed and sometimes we weren’t.”
Boston was Murphy’s second-last stop in an NHL career that concluded with 43 games spread over two seasons with the Washington Capitals. In December 2000, Murphy was attacked with a broken bottle outside a Manhattan nightclub following a game versus the Rangers he did not play in due to injury. According to the Washington Post, a man named Amin Kallimni was charged in the early-morning incident. Joe — who had been represented by a couple player agents at different points, but was handling his own affairs by the end of his career — was eventually released by the Capitals. He cleared waivers and declined to report to the American Hockey League. Just like that, he’d played his last pro game. Washington City Paper reported that Joe filed for workers’ compensation benefits related to the incident in Manhattan, but the District of Columbia courts denied his claim more than a decade ago.
You cannot miss the scar on the left side of Joe’s face and neck, a frightful reminder of that night in New York, as he talks about the difficulty of adapting to life after hockey, especially after it ended in such brutal fashion. “It was just a debauchery of not doing what you should be doing, too much partying,” he says, citing too much time spent at blackjack tables and on dance floors. “I had a head problem. I had concussions and stuff, it was just a blur. Who in their right mind is going to party [like I did] for two or three years after? It was outrageous.”
As far as Iwasiw knows, Murphy has not been a source of trouble in Kenora. When I asked Joe about using drugs, he was evasive but made no secret of the fact he’d done so in the past and held nothing against anybody turning to drugs for temporary refuge from the grinding strain of life on the street. As we were leaving a park that wraps around Golf Course Bay where we’d taken some photos, an Ontario Provincial Police SUV helmed by Constable Colin Gingerich pulled right up to Joe and there was a friendly familiarity to the passing encounter.
Later that day, I accompanied Joe on one of his two weekly check-ins with his bail supervisor. I wasn’t allowed to sit in on their meeting, but when they emerged from his office, Joe’s commentary created smiles all around the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre’s waiting area. “I never miss,” Joe said of his scheduled appointments. Iwasiw confirms Joe’s reliability on that score. “This may sound odd, but for a person who, for all intents, really just lives out in the streets, he is quite capable of getting around,” the lawyer says. “His memory, though it is challenged at times, he seems to make all the important events [or, if he’s not coming,] he makes it the next day.”
When Iwasiw needs to get in touch, he usually just heads for one of Joe’s hangouts and counts on seeing him, and during my late-September conversation with Iwasiw, the small Kenora world got even cozier. “Oh, I see him walking past me right now!” Iwasiw said over the phone as he looked out his second-story window. “He’s looking pretty good.”
Unfortunately for those who care about him, Joe was much more difficult to keep tabs on when his life first began to spiral in earnest. He says he didn’t really give his number to too many people, preferring the privacy he also seemed to favour while playing. Joe explains that he enjoyed the camaraderie of pro sports, but only within fixed parameters. Though there may be an element of omission involved, he states he didn’t really get close to many teammates. “We go to battle together and we’re going to try and win together, we’re a team, we’re doing this together,” he says. “Outside the dressing room, it’s your personal space and personal time and I like to have that.”
In what is surely a rare example of bonds lasting throughout the decades, a significant number of Penticton Knights stayed in touch long after they transitioned from hockey-playing boys to responsibility-laden men. Even more rare, the connections apparently transcended “do you remember?” and “let’s get another.” When one former Knight, James Burnett, needed some dental work and wasn’t in a position to cover it, Kozuback spearheaded an effort to raise the money. And on the day Burnett reached out to tell Kozuback the Murphys had been in touch and were seriously concerned about Joe’s wellbeing, Kozuback quickly moved to action. The last time Joe held down steady work appears to be in 2013–14, when he coached a Jr. A team in Alliston, Ont. about 50 kilometres from Newmarket. That ended when, according to the Alliston Herald, police were called to the town’s rink after an altercation involving Murphy. No charges were laid, but Murphy opted to leave the club and, sometime after, the country.
Joe’s precise motivation for heading south isn’t known. By the time Kozuback was in regular touch with the Murphy family, though, it was obvious to everyone that something had to change. Soon, Kozuback was on the phone with the Canadian consulate in San Jose, Costa Rica, trying to get a handle on the situation. Through Cole, he also reached out to the NHLPA to see what could be done for a member who was painting a much rosier picture of his existence than the one Kozuback was getting from government officials. “He was basically living off the street in Costa Rica,” Kozuback says. “He would go into the consulate occasionally to use their computer and stay updated on sending or receiving emails. They often told me they would give him meal vouchers or an opportunity to stay in a homeless shelter. I don’t think there was any real legal issues at the time.”
That changed when Joe’s passport expired and deportation became a pressing concern. By this point, Kozuback was also having conversations with the Canadian government in Ottawa, trying to figure out how to get Joe home. Eventually, money Kozuback put up to get Joe’s passport processed went toward a one-way ticket to Toronto early in the summer of 2017.
Exactly how much help the NHLPA has offered Joe isn’t crystal clear, especially because the organization believes confidentiality is paramount in these situations and, for that reason, refuses to comment on specific cases. Sources outside the NHLPA told me Dan Cronin, who provides counselling services for the Association, was on the ground at Pearson Airport to meet Joe when he returned from Costa Rica. They also indicated the airport meeting was far from Cronin’s first attempt to reach out and that, on balance, the NHLPA had taken appropriate action to do what it could. That said, Joe told TSN a conversation he had with Cronin closer to his retirement resulted in the former hanging up the phone on him — the implication being he was left high and dry in a moment of need.
This is nuanced territory, because Joe’s experiences can’t be overlooked when contemplating his seeming inability to grab hold of olive branches. If there’s one thing I came to appreciate after speaking with a couple of health-care providers, it’s that what appears clear as day to those extending a hand can be a complicated-as-hell proposition for the person who needs it. When I saw Joe while waiting for him at an agreed-upon meeting spot the day after our extended dock hangout, he waved me off, told me he was doing something different and tore away. It solidified the notion that our realities wouldn’t always align. “I’ve spent a lot of time by myself,” Joe told me the first time we spoke. “It’s not always fun.”
In the weeks that followed my second encounter with Joe in the heart of downtown Kenora, I learned he may have been agitated that day by upsetting circumstances. He’d hoped to secure a room of his own in August, only to see the opportunity fall through. However, just as the temperature was starting to really cool in late September, I received word that Joe had lined up a place for Oct. 1 with an assist from the NHL Alumni Association. Two things that are also on tap for Joe in the month ahead are his 51st birthday, on Oct. 16, and a court appearance slated for the following day — a check-in to make sure he’s meeting the terms of the program laid out for him as part of Mental Health Court. Another critical step will occur a little while after that court date, when a forensic psychiatrist performs a diagnostic assessment of Joe that should help pin down the exact nature of his struggles and the best way to combat them. “I don’t know what he has,” Iwasiw says. “I know there’s something there, you can just tell by talking to him and by watching how he acts. But I need to figure out — is it trauma from head injury or is it a combination of trauma from head injury and some sort of undiagnosed mental health illness? I just don’t know at this point. It’s very early on in the procedure for him.”
Because of that, and all that’s gone into forming Joe’s current reality, nobody is naïve about the battle ahead. Iwasiw made it clear to Joe from the start that, if he sticks with it, the entire court process could take some time to play out and may not come to a resolution until spring or early summer of next year. Thus far he’s found Joe engaged and interested in moving forward, supported by his own resiliency and a community populated with residents who — regardless of whether or not they knew Murphy — have come to care about Joe.
“Some guy was beeping the horn, it was five o’clock,” says Joe, outlining an early morning he’d experienced after a night sleeping in a Kenora bus stop. “‘Would you want to go for breakfast?’ I said, ‘Of course, I’d love to.’”
Nikki Huffman's path to the top of the Blue Jays training staff
Blue Jays head athletic trainer Nikki Huffman understands the minds of injured athletes and has stopped at nothing in the fight to achieve her dreams.