Joe Murphy's fall from NHL champion to homelessness — and brain trauma's role
This is a story about much more than just Murphy, says journalist and author
Former National Hockey League player Joe Murphy should've been enjoying a comfortable retirement. He was a former first overall pick — the first U.S. college hockey player to ever be drafted first overall — won the Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers in 1990, and enjoyed a 15-season professional career in which he made millions of dollars.
But when Rick Westhead went looking for Murphy in 2018, he didn't find him in a house or apartment complex. He found him living homeless and destitute in Kenora, Ont.
"Joe's story is obviously tragic," the author and journalist told The Current's Matt Galloway. "[He's] a player who was on top of the hockey world as a teenager, who … won a Stanley Cup, made millions of dollars for more than a decade in the best hockey league in the world. And so to trace his sharp, sharp fall from those heights was compelling."
Murphy's story initially aired on TSN in the 15-minute 2018 mini-documentary, Finding Murph. Westhead produced the feature, and he's since detailed the investigation and Murphy's struggles in a book by the same name.
Though Murphy's life is the focus, Westhead says the book is about much more than the former player's personal experience.
"The other reason that I was so motivated to do this was the bigger picture, pointing out that Joe is hardly an isolated case and that the NHL, through the years, has been put on notice about the risks to players' long-term health from repeated brain trauma, and time and again the league has put its head in the sand," he said.
If those familiar with Murphy's story could point to one moment where his life might've been changed for the worse, it would be an incident that occurred on Jan. 9, 1991.
At the time, Murphy's Edmonton Oilers were playing against the Detroit Red Wings — the team that drafted Murphy in 1986. Murphy picked up the puck and was skating around his own goal when former Red Wings teammate Shawn Burr hit him into the boards.
"Joe's head was down, he wasn't braced, he wasn't ready for it. And the video that we were able to obtain of this hit shows Joe flying back through the air several feet and hitting his head right on that 90-degree angle where the Plexiglass of the rink meets the boards," Westhead said.
"We were not able to get the medical records from that incident, but Joe says that broke his skull."
Despite the severity of the hit, Murphy didn't leave the rink and go to the hospital. Instead, he remained on the bench, awaiting his next shift.
Though he saw out the rest of the game, Westhead says it was clear from his shifts following the hit that Murphy needed medical attention.
"Joe wound up getting a breakaway later in that same game, and instead of shooting the puck at the goalie or on the net, he fired the puck 30, 40 feet wide into the corner," he said. "And then, as he came back the other way, one of his teammates actually leaned over and grabbed him and pulled him off the ice."
Though Murphy wasn't diagnosed with brain trauma at the time, Westhead said Murphy was examined in 2014 by a neuropsychologist in California. There, she diagnosed him as suffering from depression and anxiety, and said that the problems he had were as a direct result of the numerous head injuries he suffered playing in the NHL.
You get your bell rung, and [turn to] self-medicating both with alcohol and with painkillers, and the toll that takes on players after doing that year after year after year,"- Rick Westhead
In the documentary, Murphy's older sister, Cathy Pugliese, tells Westhead that the brain damage her brother took from this hit negatively impacted how he handled himself afterwards.
"I definitely noticed changes. You could just see he was starting to do erratic things. He was starting to do drugs, and he was starting to drink," she said. "If he didn't have a brain injury he wouldn't be doing these drugs."
Westhead said Murphy was far from the only player to turn to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate.
"You get your bell rung, and [turn to] self-medicating both with alcohol and with painkillers, and the toll that takes on players after doing that year after year after year," he said.
A polarizing discussion
In recent years, many former NHL players have been posthumously discovered to have suffered from brain injuries such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease born as a result of repeated injuries.
Among the list of names of those who suffered from CTE are Steve Montador, a former defenceman with more than 600 NHL games; Rick Martin, who was a part of the Buffalo Sabres famous "French Connection" line; Derek Boogaard, who had 589 penalty minutes in 277 career NHL games; and Bob Probert, who earned over 3,500 penalty minutes in more than 1,000 NHL games.
Yet Westhead says the league doesn't acknowledge a connection between repeated brain trauma and CTE exists.
"This is one of the biggest, polarizing discussions in hockey," he said. "You have the National Football League, whose executives have admitted a link and have talked about how they acknowledge that pro football players tend to have a higher rate of issues like personality disorder and depression because of the repeated brain trauma they have suffered."
"The NHL is not willing to do that. This is still a league that denies any kind of link between those injuries that players receive and long-term consequences."
Westhead said that Dr. Charles Tator, a former team doctor with the Toronto Maple Leafs, told him his tenure with the Leafs was short because "he urged the team to let players recover fully before they were put back on the ice."
Westhead also cites a situation involving the head of the Canadian Medical Association, who wrote an open letter to the NHL asking the league to do better when it comes to treating injured players.
"NHL employees emailed one another about how to respond to this publicly, and one of the emails, which we were able to obtain from the courts, [was from] the head of the NHL PR department, Frank Brown," he said.
"He writes: 'There's 13 hours of Hockey Day in Canada to watch tomorrow — perfect white sound for the creation of deep thoughts about imbecilic rants by dumbass doctors who have no idea what they're talking about.'"
Westhead said league executives and management — some of whom are former players themselves — are willing to ignore, not just doctors, but even some of their biggest stars, such as Hall of Famer Eric Lindros.
"In 2017, Eric Lindros went to Los Angeles to the NHL All-Star Game, along with David Mulder, who has been the Montreal Canadiens' top doctor since the 1960s. And Dr. Mulder and Eric Lindros sat down and asked the NHL to commit $1 million dollars [per team] into brain injury research," he said.
"It's three years ago. Eric Lindros and Dr. Mulder are still waiting for an answer."
The NHL has not responded to a request for comment from The Current.
According to Westhead, the league's approach to CTE and brain trauma have left players and their families feeling abandoned and resulted in situations like Murphy's.
But this feeling of abandonment is why Murphy was ready to share his story with him, Westhead says.
"I asked him time and again, 'Why would you want to be back in the spotlight?" he said. "And Joe said that it made him feel relevant for the first time in many years, and that he really hoped that, by telling his story, it might also serve as something of a cautionary tale for other players who are thinking about playing through injury and self-medicating just to stay in the game."
Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.