It’s unclear how life went upside down for Joe Murphy, the onetime Bruins forward who now, at least for the remainder of this month, is finally off the street and living in a hotel room in southwest Ontario. He’ll turn 51 on Oct. 16, and according to detailed reporting in recent weeks by TSN’s intrepid Rick Westhead, Murphy has a long history of mental health issues, leaving him homeless on the streets of Kenora, Ontario.
Perhaps they are tangential, but Murphy’s heartbreaking story has connections to what happened this past week in the NHL when Capitals forward Tom Wilson was tagged with a 20-game for suspension for his menacing hit on Oskar Sundqvist.
The NHL Department of Player Safety, after its misguided wrist slap of Max Domi late last month, acted appropriately with its Wilson ruling, which nicked him for a quarter-season and $1.26 million in lost earnings. Those dollars will funnel directly to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund (EAF), which for decades has been earmarked to prop up down-on-their luck players and their families.
Over the summer, Wilson signed a six-year, $31 million guaranteed contract with the Capitals. He’ll have no trouble covering his EAF contribution, which amounts to a 4 percent tax on his earnings, provided he doesn’t win some relief in his sentence via the appeal he filed by week’s end.
Players in dire straits such as Murphy, though no doubt disconnected from the collection, administration, and management of EAF funds, can offer up a silent prayer for that ongoing reserve of financial good will. There’s nothing positive to say about what Wilson did. His ongoing moronic actions on the ice have no place in the game. But at least his wallet will help fill the pot.
Murphy, who suited up for Pat Burns and the Bruins for 26 games in 1999-2000, lasted only 48 more games in the NHL after being waived out of Boston in February of that season. An acclaimed No. 1 overall draft pick out of Michigan State in 1986, his heyday came on the Oilers’ prized Kid Line — with Martin Gelinas and Adam Graves — from 1989-92. His crowning achievement on the ice: the night on Causeway Street in 1990 when the Oil rubbed out the Bruins to clinch the Stanley Cup.
“I’m going to cherish this moment forever,” an earnest and mature Murphy, then only 22, said that night.
It appears — and tracing the root cause of mental health issues can be a fool’s errand — Murphy’s struggles began the following season. The TSN report details a riveting hit by Detroit’s Shawn Burr, one of Murphy’s ex-Red Wing teammates, that caught a puckhandling Murphy with his head down along the goal line.
The check was a classic head-as-point-of-contact body slam that the league has tried to clean up in recent years — similar in many ways to the hit that Wilson delivered to the Blues’ Sundqvist that came with the $1.26 million price tag. Both the Sundqvist and Murphy hits conjur up the memory of Matt Cooke’s horrific blindside hit to Bruin Marc Savard’s head midway through the 2009-10 season, which essentially destroyed Savard’s career. It was that hit, though, that finally made the Lords of the Boards OK rulebook amendments and mete out serious penalties (see: Wilson) for such predatory action.
If it was that hit by Burr that triggered his problems, Murphy has paid a staggering price. By his own estimate, he earned some $20 million over his playing career, money he contends is long gone. The superb TSN video report, “Finding Murph,” notes that he receives approximately $1,100 per month from his playing pension.
Prior to his recent move into a hotel — the tab likely footed by EAF — Murphy had been bedding down in dumpsters, sheds, sidewalks, and whatever patch of dirt he could fashion as a mattress in Kenora, a city of some 15,000 near the Manitoba border.
“The money that’s been lost doesn’t make you a bad person . . . your life goes on,” said Murphy.
The TSN reporting included on-camera comments from two of Murphy’s sisters, his ex-wife, and his daughter. One sister spoke of his drug use, which she believes began after the hit by Burr.
“He’s thought of ways of killing himself, you know . . . ” said one sister, “just to relieve the pain of this.”
A consistent theme in the reporting is that it has been difficult to help Murphy, in part, according to family members, because he has been unwilling or unable to accept it. Word this past week that he finally moved off the street and into a hotel could be an indication that perhaps that has changed.
Along the streets of Kenora, where Murphy sometimes sits for hours in front of a convenience store, cars zip by, with drivers and passengers unaware the crumpled-up man, gaunt and all but bald, has his name engraved on the Stanley Cup. That he played 779 games and collected 528 points. That he once had a glimmer in his eye and a telltale glide in his skating stride.
For those who engage the man with the sunken cheeks on the simple bistro chair in front of the convenience store, he politely introduces himself as Joseph and makes no mention of the things he’s done, the game he once played, the seemingly magnificent life he led.
“I’ve made that a point, since I . . . ” Murphy told Westhead, stuttering slightly and struggling for his words. “I just want them to take care of me as a person . . . or what I’m doing . . . or whatever I’ve done. And if I say I’m a player, is that going to change their view of me as a man or a person?”
THE PUCK STOPS HERE
Cassidy, Bruins put trust in Halak
No knowing, if Anton Khudobin were still the Bruins’ backup, whether coach Bruce Cassidy would have called on “Doby” to take the cage Thursday after Wednesday’s embarrassing 7-0 blowout in D.C. Khudobin was solid last season and increasingly earned Cassidy’s trust, yet management allowed him to walk as a free agent, feeling that Jaroslav Halak offered more of a comfort level, at roughly the same money, if Tuukka Rask either struggled or was hurt.
Little did anyone surmise that game No. 2 would have Cassidy figuring whether he wanted Rask, who gave up a five-spot in D.C., or Halak to right the ship. He opted for Halak, who delivered perhaps better than projected, becoming the first Bruin to post a shutout in his debut in a starting role since Jeff Hackett rubbed out the Flyers, 1-0, in 2003 when he blanked the Sabres, 4-0, Thursday.
Rask took over the No. 1 job in Boston in 2012-13 and has never partnered with anyone the equal of Halak, a former No. 1 who held the lead role as recently as last season on Long Island (54 games, 20-26-6). Khudobin, who served separate tours in Boston and signed with Dallas in July, was the backup in 2012-13, and again the past two seasons. Otherwise, Rask’s understudies and where they are today:
■ Chad Johnson (2013-14) – A solid 17-4-3 in Boston, but still yet to land a gig as a bona fide No. 1, following stops in Long Island, Buffalo (twice), and Calgary. Now 32, he signed a one-year deal ($1.75 million) with St. Louis to back up a younger Jake Allen.
■ Niklas Svedberg (2014-15) – Yet to play again in NHL after his 7-5-1 performance that season as Rask’s second. Played the following two seasons in Russia, then hoped for another NHL gig last season when he signed with the Wild. But after a year at AHL Iowa (18-8-3), opted this season for Sweden. Headed into the weekend, he was 3-1-0/.949 with Timra.
■ Jonas Gustafsson (2015-16) — Had a seven-game backup tour with the Oilers the year following his 11-9-1 in Boston, and then also bid adieu to the NHL for Sweden (Linkoping). He was No. 1 there last season and opened 6-0-0 this season.
Such is their trust with Halak, 33, that the Bruins already have his starts penciled in for at least the first half of the season, with the overall blueprint having him pegged for some 27-30 starts. Keep in mind that Rask, 31, turned in his Vezina-winning performance with Johnson in Boston, which allowed coach Claude Julien to limit him to 58 games. Rask posted his career-best .930 save percentage and a 36-15-5 mark. With Khudobin’s help last season, Rask’s workload was kept to 54 games, his lowest in a full season since taking over for Tim Thomas.
The biggest difference this time around, though, is that Rask actually has a partner able, and willing, to push him for the No. 1 gig. Not true with Khudobin, Johnson, Svedberg, or Gustafsson. All were cast as the other guy. Halak, though the initial plan has him in that role, can handle the heavier load and potentially put the heat on Rask. Beginning next season, by the way, the Bruins have far more latitude in finding a partner if they choose to deal Rask. His contract now allows him to name up to eight teams he would accept in a swap. Entering 2019-20, the list expands to 15.
Youth is served in season openers
The top three picks in this past June’s draft, all of them 18 years old, were in their respective clubs’ opening-night lineups. Need any more proof that the NHL is trending to the teenyboppers?
Also, the No. 4 pick, ex-Boston University forward Brady Tkachuk, was pegged to make his pro debut for the Senators Saturday night in Toronto or in Boston on Monday afternoon. Tkachuk, son of Keith Tkachuk, watched from the sidelines Thursday when the Senators opened the season at home with an OT loss to the Blackhawks.
Otherwise, June picks 1-2-3 made their initial bows, including No. 1 Rasmus Dahlin with Buffalo; No. 2 Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina, and No. 3 Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal.
Intriguing now to see if one of those four top picks ends up nabbing Rookie of the Year (Calder) honors in June. Islanders magician Mathew Barzal grabbed top honors this past June, but that came two seasons after the Fish Sticks selected him with the 16th pick in 2015, immediately following Boston’s Jakub Zboril-Jake DeBrusk-Zach Senyshyn mixed-veg triumvirate. Prior to Barzal, three of the four No. 1 picks, 2013-16, all were chosen ROY in the season immediately dovetailing their draft year. The exception: the Blackhawks’ Artemi Panarin, who was never drafted and entered the league as a grizzled 24-year-old (surprising he didn’t land a big AARP sponsorship deal).
Otherwise, Auston Matthews (Toronto), Aaron Ekblad (Florida), and Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado) all were No. 1s in one June and then ROY winners the next.
All of which could point to Dahlin, who made his debut Thursday night vs. the Bruins, the favorite as the 2019 Calder. The silky-smooth Swedish defenseman logged a beefy 22:37 against Boston but was held without a shot on net and finished minus-1.
Tough to project off any of that, particularly on a night when the Sabres, booed soundly between periods by a frustrated fan base, looked way too much like the same club that has delivered nothing or next to nothing for the last seven seasons. They are now working on an eighth straight playoff DNQ.
Svechnikov and Kotkaniemi (one assist in his debut) are quick and skilled forwards, both with eye candy in their tool kit to make them bona fide Calder entries. Tkachuk’s game is not as dazzling but he has a soundness to his game that could help him win some votes as the season progresses.
In Vegas, where hockey is now the tree growing in Brooklyn, the odds favor 6-foot-2-inch center Elias Pettersson, chosen No. 5 overall by the Canucks in the 2017 draft. Rather than rush things, Pettersson remained in Sweden last season and posted an impressive 56 points in 44 games with Vaxjo. With help from ex-Bruin Loui Eriksson, Pettersson opened the Canucks’ scoring Wednesday in a 5-2 win over Calgary and finished 1-1—2 in a meager 9:46 of ice time.
Jumbo Joe Thornton, with an assist from Brent Burns, finally trimmed that Rumpelstiltskin-like beard that some nights must have hidden the puck even from himself. Not only should he fly a little faster now, but he also won’t run the risk of getting in a tussle, as happened last year vs. Nazem Kadri, and having a fistful of follicles torn out in the exchange. Thornton, 39, and with two knee surgeries in recent years, is entering his 21st NHL season. If he’s still on the watch as of January 2020, his career will have touched four decades. First ballot Hall of Famer . . . As noted, Tom Wilson lost $1.26 million for his head shot on Oskar Sundqvist. In the spring of 1993, new-on-the-job Gary Bettman made the ruling on Washington’s Dale Hunter for the smack that put then-Islander Pierre Turgeon out of the playoffs. Hunter had to sit out 21 games, and lost $150,000 in wages, basically one-eighth of Wilson’s charge. Both Hunter and Turgeon finished with more than 1,000 career points . . . Entering the weekend, the Maple Leafs still didn’t have William Nylander’s name on a contract. Word around Toronto is that he could be seeking upward of $8 million a year on a long-term deal, after collecting 135 points in his first 185 games. Given the comps, including David Pastrnak from the same 2014 draft class, he’s in the strike zone with that dollar request . . . Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy last season gave Sean Kuraly some extra faceoff work, slipping him into defensive-zone draws in order to save No. 1 draw man Patrice Bergeron some wear and tear. “And increase Bergy’s offensive role,” noted Cassidy. For all the deserved recognition Bergeron receives (including four Selkes) for his defensive work, Bergeron also in recent years has ranked surprisingly high in the Frequent Shooters Club. In fact, over the last six seasons, Patrice the Thief has landed 1,410 shots on net, ranking him No. 8 overall league-wide in that time. The top three for shots over those seasons: Alexander Ovechkin (2,067), Tyler Seguin (1,649), and Brent Burns (1,576) . . . Jakub Lauko, signed by the Bruins and assigned to the Quebec League, picked up an assist in his debut with Rouyn-Noranda. He’s there with Justin Bergeron, the 17-year-old defenseman (Le Petit Bergeron) who was an invitee to Bruins rookie camp last month. Little Bergy is eligible for the 2019 draft, to be held in Vancouver . . . Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, chairman of the NHL’s Board of Governors, last week was reluctant to characterize Seattle as a “fait accompli” as an expansion city. But signs have Seattle being ratified as an Original 32 franchise when the Governors meet the first week of December. The franchise will open for play in October 2020 or 2021, finally giving the Canucks an immediate connection to the Lower 48.
Per gambling.com, legalized betting throughout the US should mean an added revenue stream of $216M to NHL coffers, enough for a club like the Bruins to cover Pastrnak’s annual pay of $6.7M. Your faithful puck chronicler, now beginning my 34th year on the Globe’s writing staff, keeps thinking the Athletic will find a way to incorporate a gambling component to its ever-expanding platform. Hard, if not impossible, for mainstream media to develop that niche, but the Athletic, with its stated goal to exterminate daily sports sections across North America, is free to work anything and everything into its journalism model.