A former junior hockey player in Alberta says he feels “used” by a sport that demands physical sacrifice, but fails to provide adequate medical insurance.
Tim Nolte, 22, spent more than $20,000 on dental surgery after getting a stick in the face.
Nolte says that throughout his four-year career, even immediately after his injury, he understood he would be “100 per cent covered” for accidental injuries.
“I was even told by my coach to get the best (treatment), make it look good. It’s all covered,” Nolte said.
However, all was not covered.
Nolte was reimbursed only $2,500, the maximum payable per accident under Hockey Canada’s dental insurance program.
In an email, Hockey Canada’s Todd Jackson told Nolte that he understood his “frustration” but that “we are working within the policy limits with respect to your accident. I am sorry but we are tied to this amount.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Nolte said. “You go for a few dentist appointments it’s $2,500.
“I feel like I’ve been used.”
High-stick led to a year of dental surgery
In September 2013, Nolte was captain of the Spruce Grove Saints of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
The Saints were playing the Whitecourt Wolverines during the AJHL’s annual Showcase, a weekend series attended by college and Major Junior scouts.
Late in the game, with the Saints winning, Nolte was hit with a high stick, smashing loose three of his front teeth.
“You definitely don’t forget the taste of teeth in your mouth. Then, just the shock of blood pouring out of your mouth.”
Nolte left the ice and went to hospital, first in Stony Plain for stitches, then to University of Alberta Hospital for further assessment.
He said for the next year he visited three different dentists, often two or three times a week. He required multiple procedures including root canals, bone grafting and post and core surgery.
Throughout it all Nolte continued playing for the Saints, going to the rink six or seven times a week, while at the same time working as a welder to support himself and pay his dental bills.
“I’d get up at five, go to work, start at 6, then get off in time for hockey,” he said.
Nolte said he missed a lot of work because of dental appointments.
“My first year of welding I wasn’t making the best wage. I saved every penny I could. I had hopes of maybe buying some land for farming, starting up a welding truck, and then to see it all go to teeth,” he said, his voice trailing away.
‘We tried our best,’ team owner says
Saints’ owner Darren Myshak told Go Public he can understand how Nolte would have thought he was fully-covered.
“I know when my boys grew up I thought the same thing.”
Myshak said he was aware of the $2,500 limit but was still surprised the Saints’ policy didn’t cover Nolte’s expenses.
“We pay our insurance through Hockey Canada, and for him not to be covered was very disappointing for us,” Myshak said.
He said the club tried to get Hockey Canada to reimburse Nolte but was unsuccessful.
“Tim was a fantastic leader for us and we tried every avenue we could to gain some funds for Tim.”
Myshak said the Saints make no profit and weren’t in a position to pay Nolte’s bills.
“We tried our best to do what we could for Tim,” Mychak said.
Insurance coverage 'outrageous,' union head says
“This is happening right across the country,“ said Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor.
The union is calling for a national task force to examine junior hockey players’ working conditions.
“For (Hockey Canada) to have $2,500 insurance for junior hockey players is outrageous,” Dias said.
“I mean $2,500 may be applicable if you’re working for the National Ballet but this is a violent sport, this is an aggressive sport. So somehow to leave this young man hanging out to dry is completely irresponsible.”
Dias said players’ accident expenses should be 100 per cent covered.
“A young man that is working for an employer, a for-profit company, ought to be taken care of. I mean this is just absolutely ridiculous.”
Hockey Canada lips sealed on dental plan limits
Go Public made three requests to Hockey Canada for comment. The organization declined the request and referred us to its website.
On the website it describes its insurance as “an exceptional insurance program that has been built with the needs of its members in mind.”
It also shows that only eight per cent of the premiums paid into its insurance program go towards accident and dental coverage.
More than half of the premiums pay for commercial general liability coverage, including for sexual misconduct.
A dentist, contacted by Go Public for background, said $20,000 for the procedures Nolte got is not extraordinary and that those procedures were the best option for hygiene, permanence, comfort and for least disruption to other teeth and bone.
The dentist said $2,500 would have been adequate to cover the necessary repairs to Nolte’s mouth and a partial plate of dentures, an option chosen by many people. He said the $2,500 coverage was in the mid-range of accident coverage.
'Wrong decision' to not quit hockey earlier, player says
Nolte says he decided to quit hockey after his first year at the junior level but then changed his mind.
“Wrong decision, that’s for sure.”
Nolte said he had been cast as an enforcer, despite being only five feet 10 inches tall and weighing 180 pounds.
“I was 17. I was fighting guys who were 20 years old. That was pretty much my only role,” he said.
He decided to go on playing after all and was rewarded with more ice-time and eventually the captaincy, though not the scholarship or semi-pro career he was hoping for.
Nolte says he did everything his team asked of him and feels he was let down.
“You’re getting told to do whatever you can to win a hockey game,” he said
“If you have to fight you have to fight. If you have to block shots, you block shots.
“And then when you do get a stick in the face because you are doing your job to stay in that league, you’re not even covered.”