Joe Murphy was homeless this summer on the streets of Kenora, Ontario. Joe Murphy was the No. 1 pick in the 1986 NHL Draft, won a Stanley Cup in 1990 and spent 18 years as a full-time NHLer. Joe Murphy also ran through every cent he had and disappeared for years.
When Sportsnet’s Ryan Dixon heard whispers that a former hockey star had turned up sleeping on the streets, he went to Kenora. He found Murphy, sat down with him, and had a long talk. Then he started digging into the long and lonely trail that leads from the top of the hockey world to depending of the kindness of strangers.
Dixon joins The Big Story podcast to trace that story, and also to talk about how quick we are to judge and how little most of us understand about people who need our help.
You can read his full story at sportsnet.ca.
“Joe was one of the people who had head truma in his career,” said Dixon. “The hit he will talk about, if you talk to him about concussions, occurred about five or six years into his career. Back then, it was a rougher game and there just wasn’t as much awareness or attention paid to these things.”
Dixon said from that point on, Murphy fell into a “bad lifestyle.”
“It’s hard to pin down exactly when things may have gone off the rails. But five or six years into his career, he’d obtained a pretty good reputation as someone who was probably making bad choices off the ice, with respect to drugs and alcohol.
“As one of his former coaches told me… as someone who cared about Joe and tried to help him, when he spoke to Joe [and said], ‘You’ve got to clean up the lifestyle a little bit or you’re going to be in trouble,’ Joe would do alright for awhile, but he had trouble following through on best intentions. Once the season ended and you’re out of the structure — you’re on a bus, you’re on a plane, you’re at a team meal, you’ve got a game, you’ve got to practice — once left to his own devices, he thought maybe that’s when Joe had some struggles.”
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Murphy was then attacked when he was a member of the Washington Capitals. “Travelling with the team, he was out on the town of Manhatten. A guy came at him with either a bottle or a glass and ended up cutting Joe. That was it. He didn’t play again from that point on. That was the 2000/2001 season.”
Dixon said when you ask Murphy about some of these times in his life, he “bounces around a little bit.”
“He’ll speak quickly about that period of time, and then he’ll kind of be onto something else [and] you’re not 100 per cent on how the dots connect. But he basically said that time where his career ended, he really swirled. He used the word ‘debauchery.'”
Dixon believes Murphy got into gambling and made poor financial decisions. “As he says, it was a bit of a blur.”
Murphy was charged with assault in April, which is how he ended up in Kenora.
“There’s more services there. There’s shelters there. There’s reason for him to stay. He got his case transferred over there. After a couple of months, he was recommended to this lawyer who represents people in ‘mental health court,’ which is pretty much exactly what you would expect… ‘We don’t want to just grind you through the regular stream. We recognize you have more unique needs. Let’s try and work with you, here.’
“He has representation now that is concerned about what is best for him. Though it’s a preliminary step and he’s only in the beginning stages of something that could take up to a year, it seems like this could be a positive development for him.”
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Dixon said digging into this story made him very aware of the number of people who are in situations similar to Murphy’s.
“But by that point in Joe’s time, he’s had brain trauma and mental issues [that have] been going on for multiple years. And he’s been conditioned by his experiences. What seems like an open-and-shut case from our end, where it’s like, ‘You need help. You need this’ — that person, because of everything they’ve been through, just might not see things exactly the same way as we do.
“You kind of hear the exasperation a little bit in people’s voices, when they’re saying, ‘Well, we’ve kind of done all we can do.’ You understand it… but you have to understand from Joe’s point of view, it’s sometimes not that easy.”
So, how does Murphy reconcile the life he had with the life he has now?
“I didn’t get the sense from the time that I spent with him that he’s walking around, being like, ‘I can’t believe that I blew through $15 million.’ I don’t know, life has a funny way of whatever you’re doing just becomes your reality,” said Dixon.
Up until recently, Murphy’s realilty has been living on the street, depending on the generosity of strangers for food or money.
“When I went and saw him, it was the end of July. It wasn’t until the very last days of putting this story together that I did get word it’s sounds like he’s going to get into a room for October… That’s a monumental thing for someone in his situation.”