The tragic death of retired Maple Leafs and Rangers forward Walt Poddubny over the weekend underscores an unfortunate reality many former NHLers struggle with once their playing days are at an end.
Living at his sister’s house in his hometown of Thunder Bay, Ont., at the time of his death, Poddubny had few options as to how to earn a living once he stopped coaching the Alaska Aces of the now-defunct West Coast League in 2002.
At that time, at age 42, Poddubny had lived every NHL fan’s dream. He had played and excelled in Toronto, New York and Quebec City, three hockey hotbeds whose residents adored his goal-scoring ability and workmanlike demeanor.
What he didn’t have, once those talents abandoned him, was (a) enough money to live out the rest of his life, and (b) skills that translated outside of the industry. So he eked out a living behind the bench – first, as a player/coach in an inline hockey league, then in Daytona Beach, Fla., for a year in the Southern League, and finally, for six years as head coach in Anchorage, Alaska.
And then…nothing. A handful of alumni games here and there, but more often than not, nothing. That’s likely when the presence of alcohol, which served as a social lubricant for Poddubny (and so many others) when he played, turned into a crutch for him.
In one sense, Poddubny’s demise reminds me of the recent movie The Wrestler and its examination of what happens when the blinding, brilliant glare of the spotlight shuts down forever for an athlete and leaves him alone to deal with the demons he picked up along the way.
In The Wrestler, past-their-prime athletes scrimped and scratched out a meager living through sparsely-attended memorabilia shows. If you’ve ever been to a hockey card expo, you’ll know the equivalent for retired hockey players isn’t far from that truth.
To be fair, the NHL Alumni Association’s Emergency Assistance fund does an admirable job helping retired players find their footing. Still, the sense out there is that more than a few former players are in situations similar to Poddubny’s.
“Yes and no,” answered Rick Vaive, when asked if his former teammate’s passing surprised him. “I don’t know any of the details of what happened with Walt, but you hear that and at first you’re shocked, but then when you hear about tough times some players face after they’re done playing, it’s really not a shock.
“The stress every day of not having a job, not knowing what’s coming and how you’ll be able to support yourself and your family, it’s got to be tough on any former player.”
Vaive, who starred for the Leafs, Sabres and Blackhawks during his stellar 13-year NHL career, is now dealing with a professional circumstance that’s as tough as any opponent he ever faced on the ice.
“I’m only a year older than Walt – I’ll be 50 in May – and I’m sure like Walt may have felt, I don’t know what I’d do outside of hockey,” said Vaive, a former American League, Ontario League and East Coast League bench boss and TV analyst whose last hockey job was coaching a Toronto-area minor-midget AAA team in 2007-08. “I’ve been looking for a job for a year now, and it’s been a tough year. And on top of that, the economic situation in the world has made it that much worse.
“It’s not fun, and I can certainly empathize with someone who’s been struggling to find work. It’s the first time in my life I’ve never had a job and never worked. And it sucks.”
When he was a member of the NHL Players’ Association executive committee in the late 1980s, Vaive suggested that rather than paying players a lump sum pension amount of $250,000 when they turned 50 years old (and had played 400 games in the league), they should have an option that instead would allow them to be paid, say, $50,000 a year for the five years immediately after they retired.
Vaive’s suggestion fell on deaf ears. However, he still believes it might have made a difference.
“You never know – someone like Walt may have been able to use that money to help himself right away,” Vaive said. “It at least would’ve given him some time to consider the options he had in his life.”
Today’s well-compensated players may not ever find themselves in a situation such as Poddubny’s. But the bigger theme at play here – namely, what do you do after giving your youth and body to a sport that gives neither back to you in return – has many, including Vaive, feeling uneasy and less than satisfied.
“When you excel at this sport, it demands so much of you, so many sacrifices,” he said. “It would be great to see the people at the top of hockey find a way to do as much as they can to make sure that former players still have a place in the game.”
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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