“At first, it seems like he’s living the life of Riley. Joe Murphy works as a laborer, when he needs money, and he sleeps in a tent in a farmer’s field, when he needs shelter.”
When I read the first paragraph of a July 7 story written by Mike Aiken on Sunday, I blinked in disbelief. Not because I had any reason to doubt Aiken was writing about the same Joe Murphy who played 779 NHL regular season games, 222 of those with the Edmonton Oilers, but because I didn’t. Still, no matter how long I stared at the photo at the top of the story and read through the item again, I couldn’t reconcile what I was reading with the Joe Murphy I knew during his time with the Oilers.
Now 50, Murphy, who earned millions of dollars during NHL stops with Detroit, who selected him first overall in the 1986 Entry Draft, Edmonton, where he won the 1990 Stanley Cup, Chicago, St. Louis, San Jose, Boston and Washington before he retired in 2001, is essentially destitute and homeless, living in Kenora, Ont. The first question that popped into my head was, “What the hell happened, Joe?” I haven’t talked to or even seen Murphy in years, so I don’t know.
What I do know — what I’ve learned over the last seven months working with The Mustard Seed, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to helping the homeless here in Edmonton — is the most important questions are, “What happens next and what can we do to reach out and help?” I don’t have those answers either. To hear Aiken tell it, Murphy can be difficult to find — he doesn’t have a permanent address, doesn’t own a phone and he hasn’t been online in years.
“He’s hanging around the coffee shops or whatever, you know the guy is in town,” Aiken, who is the news director at Q104 radio in Kenora, told me today. “He’s just out on the street.”
LONG WAY DOWN
What we do know is that Murphy has struggled physically and mentally in the aftermath of multiple head traumas, including a fractured skull, suffered during his playing career. Murphy was part of a filing by former NHL players who were seeking a class-action lawsuit against the NHL. Murphy’s filing is here. A judge ruled against allowing the players to proceed via class action this month, meaning they’ll have to take complaints to court individually.
“It’s a very serious matter, concussions,” Murphy told Aiken. “I’ve suffered a horrific, serious concussion that debilitated me for a long time. It was tough.” And later in his career: “I was getting hit, fireflies around me all the time. Just everywhere. Even at the end of my career, I’d hit a guy and then ‘boom.’ There’d be those sparkly things all over. Very difficult.”
We also know Murphy, one of the more eccentric characters you’d meet in an NHL dressing room, had issues with teammates and coach Pat Burns during his time in Boston. The Bruins suspended him without pay in 1999-2000. Murphy, former teammates will tell you, wasn’t always the easiest guy to get along with. He played parts of two seasons with Washington after the Bruins let him go, then retired after the 2000-01 season.
In September of 2017, Murphy pleaded guilty to a charge of mischief after he trashed a room in a low-budget motel in the Toronto area. He was sentenced to time served, given two years’ probation and ordered to pay $500 in restitution to the motel’s owner. To say the least, it’s been a bumpy road for Murphy, who made more than $15 million as a player, in the years since he retired. “He said he lost everything,” Aiken said.
HERE AND NOW
I don’t know where all the money went. Is Murphy receiving the NHL pension he’s entitled to without an address or even a telephone? Has Murphy sought or received help dealing with his post-concussion issues? What I do know is this is the second story in less than a year about a former NHL player being down on his luck and homeless — the story of former enforcer Matt Johnson came to light in January of this year. Many others have struggled when their playing days are over as well.
Barrie Stafford of the Oilers’ Alumni, which was so instrumental in making Hockey Helps the Homeless in Edmonton last May a big success with its participation, learned of Murphy’s fate earlier this month. He has contacted the NHL Alumni Association. HHTH holds events right across the country, including three in the greater Toronto area in support of charitable organizations. That’s a long way from Kenora, but I’m hoping we can reach out and see if something can be done, assuming we can find Joe.
I don’t know what the hell happened to Joe Murphy, but I do know that he shouldn’t be sleeping in a tent in a farmer’s field. As is the case with every single person trying to survive on the streets in Edmonton — and every city across this country — it doesn’t matter how they got where they are. No two stories are exactly the same. What really matters is what happens next, and that we reach out and try to make a difference.
Listen to Mike Aiken’s full interview with Joe Murphy, courtesy of Kenora Online and Q104 Radio.