British Columbia

Former NHL enforcer now lives in truck, faces an uncertain future

Stephen Peat, a once celebrated NHL hockey fighter, is in debilitating pain, estranged from his family, living out of his vehicle and wondering what's next.

Stephen Peat struggles to find housing and pay medical bills as fallout from his injuries continues

Stephen Peat is currently facing mounting legal and health challenges as the fallout from brain injuries continues. (Stephen Peat Facebook)

Former NHL enforcer Stephen Peat inflicted a lot of pain throughout his career. He was good at it, and it was how he made a living.

Peat went blow for blow with some of the most fearsome fighters to ever play the game.

But now, with his playing days far behind him, the pain that he once handed out so abundantly to opponents, is his only to bear.

Peat had three stints with the National Hockey League's Washington Capitals between 2001 and 2006. In 130 NHL games, he earned a reputation as a fighter with 234 penalty minutes, and just 10 points.

No fixed address

Peat now has no fixed address. He sleeps either in his vehicle in Langley, B.C., or couch surfs at the homes of friends.

He's mostly estranged from his family, and said he's spent three recent nights in hospital because he hasn't been able to afford antibiotics for an infection on a wound on the back of his head — an injury he said he can't remember receiving.

Peat continues to deal with the fallout from his injuries, most of which were suffered during his days in the National Hockey League and the Western Hockey League.

He said he suffers from extreme headaches, memory loss and an inability to focus for long periods of time, all symptoms associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.

Peat hasn't been diagnosed with the degenerative brain disease, because up until this past November, a postmortem autopsy was required to detect CTE.

But a study in the journal Neurosurgery by Dr. Bennet Omalu (who was depicted by Will Smith in the movie Concussion), shows that CTE diagnoses in the living may soon be the norm. 

Peat in pain

Calling from his truck, where he sleeps most nights, the pain in Peat's voice is visceral, and apparently, so overwhelming that the conversation often grinds to a halt.

"I can't even describe [the pain] right now. My head feels like it's gonna fall off," Peat said.

"But I'm doing all right. I mean what can I do? Hopefully not die."

His father Walter said he believes his son has "self-medicated" with illicit drugs in the past. The younger Peat spent time at a rehabilitation centre on Vancouver Island in 2015, but said he isn't currently using drugs. 

Living in his truck

Based on his current circumstances, Peat said it's next to impossible to secure housing. With his brain injuries, it's hard enough to make his regular probation check-ins, let alone hold down a job and pay rent.

Washington Capitals' Stephen Peat, facing camera, punches Pittsburgh Penguins Krzysztof Oliwa during a game in Pittsburgh in 2001. (Gary Tramontina/Associated Press)

"The fact is that I can't rent a place, because I'm a convicted arsonist with no job and a disability and no way of guaranteeing that I've got rental money," he said.

Peat's legal troubles go back to a March 2015 fire at his family house in Langley. He pleaded guilty to arson by negligence and was sentenced to one year of probation.

He now faces three counts of breach of probation and one of uttering threats to property. One of the charges relates to contacting his father, which was forbidden in the terms of his November 2017 release.

He is scheduled to appear in provincial court on those charges later this month.

Getting help

Peat's father has blamed the NHL for not stepping up to support his son, but the former player said the league is trying to help. He said an NHL representative has been in touch — even referring him to a neurologist in Vancouver — but keeping appointments has been challenging because of his living conditions and health challenges. 

Glenn Healy, a former NHL goaltender and current executive director of the NHL Alumni Association, said there are programs available for ex-players like Peat, whether they be substance rehabilitation or financial support.

"It is a matter of a phone call and it is a matter of that phone call being answered within minutes. If it's a crisis situation, help is launched immediately," Healy said. "The player has to want it and we will give it."

What's next?

While Healy wouldn't comment specifically on Peat's situation, he acknowledged that the lives of some former players — many of them former enforcers — can be complicated by brain injuries and substance use.

"It's the elephant in the room. No one wants to talk about this stuff. It's painful," he said.

"I've got some of my friends and teammates that have been through this. It's tough ... but I can tell you, the programs are there."

Peat said he's not interested in going to rehab.

Despite the challenges that are haunting him, Peat said he was eventually able to purchase his prescription medicine and has an appointment set up with an employment counsellor.

But temporary relief aside, the man who made nearly $2 million and won legions of fans during a career taking on some of the toughest fighters in hockey history faces an uncertain future with no clear path to secure housing, financial security and a clean bill of health.