On Jan. 11 in San Jose, Calif., the meter on Shawn Thornton’s forfeited salary stopped running.
Thornton, suspended for 15 games because of his Dec. 7 assault of Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik, returned to the Bruins’ lineup. The fourth-line enforcer resumed earning his $1.1 million annual salary.
If there was any solace for Thornton regarding his suspension, it was that the $84,615.45 he forfeited will find a welcome home in the wallets of some of his more unfortunate predecessors.
Whenever the NHL’s Department of Player Safety suspends a player, his forfeited salary goes to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund. The fund has been in existence for approximately 70 years.
Its mission is to help former players and their families who are in financial distress. Reasons vary, from failing health to salary mismanagement. Approximately 75 to 100 receive assistance from the fund at any time.
In 2009, former Montreal tough guy Chris Nilan received help from the fund. Nilan was living in Oregon after undergoing treatment for alcohol and painkiller abuse. Nilan accepted approximately $1,000 per month for about eight months.
“It wasn’t a lot of dough,” Nilan said. “But it was much-needed at the time. It really helped me out a lot the first few months.”
This season, under the guidance of senior vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan, the NHL has identified 33 acts worthy of fines or suspensions. The amount of fines is $1,574,204.01.
The biggest wallop was the $269,230.80 forfeited by David Clarkson. The Maple Leafs forward said goodbye to that money when, in a preseason game, he left the bench to confront John Scott after the Buffalo strongman had tried to start a fight with Toronto’s Phil Kessel.
Clarkson could have the assistance fund renamed in his honor. He lost an additional $128,048.78 last month when he was suspended for two games for delivering an illegal check to the head of ex-Bruin Vladimir Sobotka. Clarkson has contributed $397,279.58 to the fund, or approximately 25 percent of its tally so far.
The Bruins have been involved in four other fund-padding incidents. James Neal, suspended for five games for kneeing Brad Marchand in the head, ceded $128,205.15 in salary. Dion Phaneuf was suspended for two games for boarding Kevan Miller, forfeiting $66,666.66. Jesse Winchester was suspended for three games and lost $9,230.76 for elbowing Chris Kelly in the head. Scott was suspended for seven games for delivering a blindside hit to Loui Eriksson’s head, causing a concussion. Scott parted with $26,923.05.
The latest was Buffalo’s Tyler Myers’s three-game suspension for an illegal check to the head of New Jersey’s Dainius Zubrus on Jan. 4. Myers forfeited $84.615.39 in salary.
“The feedback is very positive from its recipients,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, a member of the assistance fund’s board of directors. “It’s sometimes widows or family members of former players who are now in dire need of assistance. This is viewed as a helpful assist.”
Daly is one of three NHL-appointed members of the board. The players’ union fills the other three seats. The fund’s president is Brian O’Neill, who has overseen it for approximately 25 years. Coincidentally, O’Neill was formerly in charge of player discipline.
“Financial distress is probably the primary one,” Daly said of the factors frequently cited on applications. “Lack of insurance, poor health, a one-time medical procedure. We’ve certainly used money to assist rehabilitation efforts. Anything where a former member of the NHL community needs life assistance.”
The process starts following a suspension. A suspended player’s organization will withhold his forfeited money from his paycheck. The team will send the ceded money to the fund, which usually contains between $8 million and $10 million. Some of the fund is liquid, but part of the money is invested in a conservative holding. The board determines guidelines for investment.
To access its holdings, people seeking assistance are usually referred to the fund. O’Neill is the equivalent of Ken Feinberg, the administrator of The One Fund Boston. Like Feinberg, O’Neill manages each request.
A claimant submits an application detailing his or her situation. O’Neill reviews the application and judges whether the applicant is eligible for assistance. O’Neill will then determine the amount of money the applicant will receive. An advisory subcommittee of the fund’s board also participates in the decision-making process. Once an application is approved, money is prompt to go out the door.
“The board regularly considers where expansion of the scope of the fund and its uses is appropriate,” Daly said. “The dollars have grown in terms of what gets contributed every year. The scope of uses has increased. I expect that will continue.”
The challenge is seeking greater acceptance of the assistance fund. Hockey players are not quick to ask for help. If they’re hurt during a game, they want to leave the ice through their own power, not on a stretcher. The moment they’re ready, they return to the ice without complaint. That approach does not change upon retirement. Players and their families can be hesitant to seek assistance.
“It won’t surprise you to know that former players in dire assistance are reluctant to make an application to the fund if you view it as charity,” Daly said. “There are some players who just don’t want to rely on charity. We’ve been proactive. The last 10 years, there’s been an emphasis to make it more prominent in players’ minds. They know there’s a safety net out there if they need it.”
For Nilan, his initial call was to the NHL’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, which led to his referral to the assistance fund. It was not an easy call to make.
“Probably the most difficult thing was to pick up the phone and put yourself in that position where you’re asking for somebody to help you,” Nilan said. “If I didn’t do that, chances are I might not be here now. That’s how I desperate I was at that point. To ask for help was very humbling. Thank God I did. To just pick up that phone, that phone is pretty heavy at times.”
The NHL is trying to reduce illegal plays, especially those targeting the head, with its punishments. Given how busy Shanahan and his colleagues have been, the players are slow to receive the message. Their indiscretion is going to good use.
NHL suspensions, fines by the numbers
A look at the NHL player suspensions and fines for the 2013-14 season:
|Tyler Myers, Sabres||3||$84,615.39||Illegal check to the head|
|Derek MacKenzie, Blue Jackets||3||$15,384.63||Boarding|
|Joffrey Lupul, Maple Leafs||0||$10,000||Slashing|
|Shawn Thornton, Bruins||15||$84,615.45||Punching, injuring an unsuspecting player|
|Deryk Engelland, Penguins||5||$14,529.90||Illegal check to the head|
|Corey Potter, Oilers||2||$7,948.72||Boarding|
|Anthony Peluso, Jets||3||$8,653.86||Boarding|
|David Clarkson, Maple Leafs||2||$128,048.78||Illegal check to the head|
|Brayden Schenn, Flyers||0||$2,230.77||Cross-checking|
|Jared Cowen, Senators||2||$31,794.88||Illegal check to the head|
|Richard Panik, Lightning||2||$7,589.74||Boarding|
|Dion Phaneuf, Maple Leafs||2||$66,666.66||Boarding|
|James Neal, Penguins||5||$128,205.15||Kneeing|
|Kevin Westgarth, Hurricanes||2||$7,435.90||Boarding|
|Nazem Kadri, Maple Leafs||3||$44,615.37||Goaltender interference|
|Jesse Winchester, Panthers||3||$9,230.76||Elbowing|
|Ryan Murphy, Hurricanes||0||$2,213.68||Clipping|
|Carter Ashton, Maple Leafs||2||$8,615.38||Boarding|
|John Scott, Sabres||7||$26,923.05||Illegal check to the head|
|Martin Hanzal, Coyotes||2||$75,609.76||Charging|
|Kyle Clifford, Kings||0||$2,756.41||Kneeing|
|Patrick Kaleta, Sabres||10||$152,439||Illegal check to the head|
|Ryan Garbutt, Stars||5||$14,473.60||Charging|
|Michael Grabner, Islanders||2||$30,769.24||Illegal check to the head|
|Cody McLeod, Avalanche||5||$29,487.20||Boarding|
|Maxim Lapierre, Blues||5||$28,205.15||Boarding|
|Jason Chimera, Capitals||0||$4,487.18||Boarding|
|Alexander Edler, Canucks||3||$182,926.83||Illegal check to the head|
|Brad Stuart, Sharks||3||$55,384.62||Illegal check to the head|
|Frans Nielsen, Islanders||0||$5,000||Slashing|
|Paul Bissonnette, Coyotes||3||$11,346.15||Leaving the bench to join an altercation|
|David Clarkson, Maple Leafs||10||$269,230.80||Leaving the bench to join an altercation|
|Zack Kassian, Canucks||5||$22,500||High-sticking|