Joe Murphy: A Year Goes By

It’s been over a year since we first found out former Edmonton Oiler Joe Murphy was destitute and homeless, living rough on the streets of Kenora, Ont. It’s a revelation that was as stunning as it was sad. Former NHL players, Stanley Cup winners, men who’ve earned millions of dollars, just don’t end up this way.

Once word of Murphy’s plight got out, I assumed it was simply a matter of time until his story changed. I knew a lot of people — former players, teammates, the NHLPA — would reach out to help Joe. They did. Having first met Murphy as a reporter who’d covered Edmonton’s 1990 Stanley Cup team, I was one of them.

I’d been working with The Mustard Seed, where our purpose is to help those struggling with poverty and homelessness in Edmonton, and Hockey Helps the Homeless, which holds fund-raising events for charities who do the same things we do across the country, for about six months back then. I was certain, with our resources and contacts, we could find a way to help.

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Having spoken to Michael Strecker, who owned the land Murphy often camped out on in Kenora, and having left Strecker my contact information to pass along to Joe, which he did, I was surprised when weeks passed and I didn’t hear from him. How naïve I was. Here we are a year later and Murphy is still living on the streets of Kenora and in no apparent hurry to get off them. His story is documented in this gritty, chilling update written by Jeff Seidel of the Detroit Free Press. It’s a long read, but well worth the time.



Like I said off the top, I knew that when Murphy’s story broke people would reach out to him. They did. I assumed that’s all it would take. Joe would certainly want to get off the streets and get help. Any person would, right? Well, when mental illness or addiction, sometimes both, is involved, it’s not that simple. It’s not that easy, as excerpts from Seidel’s piece make abundantly clear.

Dozens of people have tried to get Murphy off the streets of this small tourist town the past two years, including the NHL Alumni Association, members of the local police department, former teammates, his lawyer and an entire team of mental health experts and social workers. He refuses almost all of it.

Glenn Healy, the executive director of the NHL Alumni Association, and Adam Graves, who played with Murphy for parts of two seasons in Detroit, went to Kenora in mid-September and found him a place to live for the winter.

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“I didn’t ask them to help,” Murphy says. “They put me in a room and I said this room won’t work. It’s going to end in failure.”

He stayed in the apartment for several months. “It was a setup to make me look bad,” he says. “It’s almost a setup. Somebody is trying to control the town and control some things. You gotta get rid of that thing. They are trying to control everybody in it, so they put me in here, and have some fun.”

As Healy says in the piece, help — beyond getting a meal or a place to sleep for the night — is a phone call away. That holds true with the NHLPA and with agencies right across the country dealing with poverty, addiction and homelessness. The fact is, that while you or I would jump at the chance to get off the street, many people living that reality do not. We don’t understand it, but that doesn’t make it any less true, whether it’s Edmonton or Kenora or anywhere else.


Front-line workers at organizations like TMS in Edmonton and those Murphy frequents in Kenora work with people struggling with mental illness and addictions in addition to poverty and homelessness on a daily basis. With some community members, a hot meal, a place to sleep for the night, a pair of shoes or a game of cards is all they want. They come. They go. They come back again. That’s Joe.

There is longer-term help available — counselling, work programs and housing options — and there are many success stories that come from these programs and initiatives, but you cannot drag somebody in off the street and make them take help they do not want. That much I’ve learned since Murphy’s story broke.

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Dean Kurpjuweit, our executive director at TMS Edmonton, told me it might go this way a year ago. “We’ve been in contact with people over the years and we’re always surprised that when it comes to being housed, they don’t want our help, he said. “For whatever reason, and it’s obviously reasons we have trouble comprehending, some people are just comfortable in that lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle that they are choosing for now.

“That can change. There can often be an occasion where something makes them change their mind, but part of respecting the dignity of people who aren’t housed is respecting the fact that sometimes they choose to live without housing. We have to wait for them to choose something different for their life.”

So it is with Joe Murphy. At the bottom line, it doesn’t matter how Joe or anybody else finds themselves living on the street, only that they are there. All we can do is hope and pray that they are safe and offer them whatever help they are willing to accept. We leave that door open, but they must walk through it. Bless you, Joe.

Previously by Robin Brownlee

  • Dallas Eakins Hair

    It is sad but true, addiction is tough to over come, you can put everything out there to help someone and give them the advantages to help them try to deal with it, but they have to be willing to do that and that is the struggle, some people honestly want to try and they go thru the programs and thru help sessions and what not but that pull to the addiction is strong and very very tempting to grab hold of them once again. and some the pull is too much and they are right back where they started

    It a sad thing for anyone to watch someone they know or love and care about be consumed by addiction because no matter what you do or say or try or offer it is really up to the person to want to try and change their life and get out of addictions viscous grip on a person and it isnt easy, but unless they want to do it, it wont happen.

    • Schmidt Head

      It doesn’t even need to involve addiction of any kind. I once knew of a man from my hometown who lived much of his adult life on the streets and no one can ever remember seeing him take a drink or a drug even once. Know of at least one similar case here in Edmonton.

      Sometimes it’s mental health or something spiritual (?) that’s lacking or something we’ll never understand.

    • Serious Gord

      I suspect this is a situation at bottom that is being caused by mental illness – not addiction. If so the laws in North America long ago were changed regarding getting someone committed to an institution making it far more difficult to do. Since then the homeless rates have ballooned (as was predicted). Now billions are spent on assisting them in place rather than institutionalizing. That, naturally has made the numbers grow even further.

      • Finnaggled

        What an idiotic statement. “Getting someone committed”, is basically locking a person up and throwing away the key, without that person having committed a crime. You’d like to ‘clean up the streets’ by incarcerating all homeless people… give your head a shake man

        • Serious Gord

          Many on the streets should be committed for their and others safety. Many do not require that. There are people still committed. The debate has raged for decades where to draw the line. Maybe you could read up on it sometime.

          • rnj

            Clinical director of a private practice psychology clinic here. Gord, the debate hasn’t raged for some time. The answer is very clear, it’s not ethical to hold someone against their will, even if it may mean they make choices harmful to their own well being.

            Many people who live on the streets enjoy the freedom they feel. Sometimes this is freedom from people trying to “control” them, which is often how help is perceived. Other times it’s freedom from the pressures of life, which cause very different emotional experiences for some people than others.

            Sad situation.

          • Serious Gord

            rnj: hasn’t raged? Really. Have you heard about what’s happening in San Francisco and the LA basin and elsewhere.

            And you know lots of mentally ill are held “against their will”.

        • Rob...

          Your statement is naive. Gord is many things, but an idiot is not one of them. Many on the streets have committed crimes that would get you or I arrested and a permanent record.

        • Deported to Ottawa

          Back in 80’s Governments closed most mental health hospitals forcing many ill people to the streets. A number of these people function great while following their medicine schedule. Unfortunately they forget and once that happens a spiral begins.

          It’s unfortunate. I’ve been concerned about homelessness for many years. As a child growing up in Jasper Place, later Edmonton, I don’t recall seeing anyone homeless. That doesn’t mean there weren’t homeless just that I was either to young to realize or there were far fewer.

          I feel badly for Joe and suspect it’s much more than addiction. I enjoyed watching him play during his time in Edmonton. Murphy, Graves and Klima were exciting.

          Those suffering from addiction usually find a bottom that motivates them to attempt rehab. Those suffering from certain mental health issues don’t. Many don’t realize their sick.

          I hope Joe reaches a point where he’s motivated to accept the help that’s been offered. It would be great for this story to have a good ending.

    • If you followed the links to previous items I’ve written provided in the story, you’d know nobody — except possibly Gary Bettman — is oblivious to the likelihood of a connection between CTE and Joe’s mental health issues.

      • Serious Gord

        Nice drive-by on Mr. Bettman. CTE is a possible cause. A cause that is still poorly understood as the genetic factors have barely begun to be examined.

        And did you do any research on mr Murphy’s family history?

        • Redbird62

          Robin’s reference to Bettman and the NHL is covered extensively in the articles Robin refers to on Murphy so your swipe at him has far less foundation than Robin’s on Bettman. Your right that CTE can’t currently be proven while Murphy is alive. However, the NHL settled the CTE/concussion lawsuit with several players including Murphy (not that they all agreed to it it was kind of forced on them). Murphy like all the rest was awarded $20,000 plus the right to medical expenses up to $75,000 largely due to him apparently fracturing his skull in an Oilers game in 1991 (one in which he actually went back out on the ice for at least another period before being pulled). Murphy’s family is discussed in these articles with no mention of anyone else having these problems. They do however make reference to fairly dramatic changes in Murphy’s behavior and personality starting in the mid 90s. Any player who now wilfully takes the risk related to concussions now that the risk is better understood by all – fair game. But the NHL and the NFL owners and management both knowingly withheld information from the players regarding this potential risk to their health so the players in the past were not given the opportunity to make an informed decision. Of course many of your posts often display your trouble grasping the term informed.

          • Serious Gord

            Bergman has a massive potential for legal liability if he admits to something that isn’t proven.

            I think it reasonable to expect a journalist to understand that.

  • Ken McTippett

    What an incredibly sad story, but I have a feeling it’s more sad for his family and fans like me who remember him fondly as part of the kid line in the 1990 Stanley Cup run than it is for him. Stay safe out there, Joe.

  • Spaceman Spiff

    Ah, geez. I was wondering about Joe Murphy the other day and I was hoping he was doing better. This is too bad. I hope he seeks help when he’s ready to receive it … and I hope he’s ready soon.

    Thanks for this update, Robin. Also appreciate the tie-in to local programming and resources. Kudos.

  • BobbyCanuck

    A common thread I have found from the homeless, about social housing

    1) I do not want someone telling me when I have to be home by
    2) Don’t tell where I can or cannot smoke or drink
    3) Don’t tell me when I can or cannot smoke or drink
    4) Don’t tell me I have to be sober to get a bed

    Joe touches on this subject directly:
    They are trying to control everybody in it, so they put me in here, and have some fun.”

    Basically even though the person is homeless they still have control over their lives. Sleep where I want. Drink and smoke what I want, when I want

    It is hard for most individuals that have conformed to society’s mores to understand this train of thought. It is a question of control vs. freedom

      • Bond 0097

        It seems to me that with Joe’s head injury history in his playing career there has to be a connection to his current plight. The league should actually have to monitor former players that had issues with head injuries, and players should have to agree as part of playing in the league to allowing for that, and treatment or assistance if needed later in life like in Joe’s case.

        • Serious Gord

          Providing addicts safe injection sites. Allowing the homeless to occupy parks and other public spaces. Etc that’s enablement.

          You wouldn’t give an alcoholic liquor would you?

          Addicts need to hit bottom – whatever that is – if differs for everyone – ASAP so they can be able to begin the recovery process. Making them more comfortable in their addiction and accepting of it is the wrong approach. That which gets rewarded gets repeated.

          • Safe injection sites aren’t enabling. Providing them is a recognition people are using and an attempt to make that use as safe as possible and to minimize the damage until, hopefully, the addict can get treatment. Making counselling available is part of any safe injection site program. Safe injection sites save lives by helping prevent overdoses and providing help should one occur. The numbers tell us that. Same thing with providing first responders and others with naloxone kits. It saves lives. Is that “enabling?” Is it better that these people die?

            Putting your own moral judgment about drug use ahead of practices and procedures we know save lives is your preference? Would death be one of the outcomes that qualifies as hitting bottom for you? There was a time, before I began working with people who are trying to help people with addictions, when I let my own instincts about drug use cloud my judgment. No more. The reality is not what I thought it was. Providing safe injections sites for people who are going to use drugs that they already possess is not enabling. It’s not the same as providing liquor to an alcoholic.

            As for “allowing the homeless to occupy parks and other spaces,” what is your solution to that? What are your options? Round them up and throw them in jail or run them out of town until they decide to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become productive members of society? Is that your take? Maybe we could create work camps and put these layabouts and slackers there. Sure. By feeding the homeless and providing people on the street with clothing and temporary shelter, are organizations like The Mustard Seed enabling the homeless?

            You don’t have the first clue about the dynamics involved in what’s happening with the homeless, many of whom are battling addictions or mental illness or both, at street-level. I’m no expert either and would never presume to be one or offer the glib, blanket statements you do, but I’m a lot closer to the subject now than I ever was. A lot closer than you are, despite the insight you suggest you have in another comment.

            Helping people survive until they can get clean and off the street has nothing to do with enabling. It’s about providing hope and a path to a better life. Some will take that path. Others will not.

    • Gravis82

      if you owned your own home, you could do all those things whenever you wanted. If we want to end homelessness, then some people we just have to give them a home. And then, they will do all those things. You have to decide if you want to get people off the street or are you trying to be a savior and fix them.

      Not everyone you give a home to, will change. Some will, most wont, but they wont be on the street. Thats the point right?

  • ed from edmonton

    My daughter works in the mental health field and she frequently corrects me about being judgemental and/or stigmatizing people who have different outlooks than mainstream society. This becomes very difficult when a person appears to be making self-destructive choices, for whatever reason. Our society is based, by and large, on the premise that individuals have the right to make their own decisions, even if the decisions may not be in their own best interest. For people like Joe, their choices appear to be so far from their best interest that it seems obvious that “there must be something wrong” and need to be helped.

    As RB knows from his work with the MS there are many Joe Murphy’s out there, each with their own story.

  • Rama Lama

    Robin, your first article on Joe was a mind bender……….it took a long time for me to digest his state of affairs, ………..but this follow-up article helps to understand him a little better. What ever demons he is fighting will never be understood by people like me.

    I just wanted to thank you for bringing this to light and to hear that many people have stepped up to try and help him………I still think you should write a book on him, how fascinating would that read be?

    • Thanks, but I don’t know Joe well enough and wasn’t around him long enough to provide the kind of insight into his particular circumstances that would do his story justice. He is a very different man now than the person I met here.

  • thenoble1

    Just so some of you can understand, mental illness is something you probably will never understand unless you live through it yourself. People do not choose to live on the street. It is mental illness that prevents them from making the right decision in getting the help they need. Please don’t make it look like they choose to live on the street. It’s never that simple!

  • McDarryl

    This is a terrific article Robin. So true on every count. My son was there and yes it’s there decision and we need to accept and respect that. All we can do is hope Joe gets to be where he wants and needs to be.

  • BringtheFire 2.0

    Let’s everyone ignore Gord. Seriously. Other than this comment, we say nothing. Eventually, like a child, he’ll keep saying worse and worse things to get attention until he says something that gets himself banned. Then we can all have a brief reprieve until he makes another account so he can come in here and treat this place like his playpen again.

    There’s only one way to deal with children.

    • McDarryl

      I don’t think anyone should say or judge anyone unless they’ve personally lived it or been involved with someone who is or has. Because people you just don’t know.

    • Serious Gord

      This isn’t about attention-getting. It’s about the myths and consequences of making the wrong decisions regarding the mentally ill and addicts. The left has made a complete hash of both of these issues.

      Working and dealing people with mental health issues has been something both my mother and myself have been invoked in for decades. My mother worked in the field for almost forty years. I’ve been working on policy issues as well as with clients in my line or business for 25.

      No question how the mentally ill have been handled back in the middle 1900s and before were retrograde and worse. (The left was behind a lot of that BTW) The progressives have over-compensated in terms of legislation etc. And now we are seeing the results – particularly in our urban centres.

      I expect things to swing back within the decade.

  • treblecharger

    I was in Kenora a few days ago & spoke with some informed locals…Joe is around and sleeping outside. They have a very very bad meth problem there and it seems like that may be driving this situation. Regardless, I hope Joe can find a way to be safe and happy and I wish with all my heart he will overcome his demons.

  • Bond 0097

    I don’tknow Joe or the issues he’s dealing with, I don’t know if it’s an addiction problem or mental health or combination of both. I do know that if it’s a mental health issue the people that know and love him should step in. I lost a dear friend at far too young of an age because of mental health issues and I hope Joe is able to avoid that fate. Hopefully someone can get thru to him and offer unconditional help that will allow Joe to get it together.

  • Dex Dexter

    A gentleman I met in an Edmonton park only wanted smokes and books. He didn’t drink or do any drugs. He was an excellent flooring person and helped out with a few home improvement projects. My family didn’t understand me and maybe I was taking a chance. He expressed his feelings about having a steady job as a problem because he had an anger issue he said an got kicked out of shelters for the same thing. His story as he put it was he was nearly killed in a pedestrian hit and run but his buddy didn’t make it. He felt that the system never provided what he needed and was a rebel that wouldn’t fit in to their requirements. Go with great luck and good weather Murphy as he liked to be called.