In 1999, the NHL Alumni Association was formed to provide programs and assistance to retired players. Growing unhappiness with the Alumni, however, has led to a group of former NHLers coming together to help fellow players who’ve fallen on hard times.

Players Helping Players was formed over a year ago to address issues that some former players felt were inadequately addressed by the Alumni Association. The brainchild of former defenseman Jim Dorey, Players Helping Players counts former NHL player and coach Steve Ludzik and former NHL enforcer Kurt Walker among its supporters.

Ludzik currently works on finding benefits for players suffering from Parkinson’s disease and ALS. He’s also hoping to secure funding to build a retirement home for former players in need. Walker has pursued health care benefits for former players through Dignity after Hockey.

Ongoing health problems related to their NHL careers is the biggest issue for these former players.

Thanks in part to the efforts of Players Helping Players, these ex-NHLers finally have access to a health care plan through The Society of Professional Athletes.

Former Maple Leafs defenseman Kurt Walker.

Former Maple Leafs defenseman Kurt Walker.

“It’s the first time in 100 years the players have a health-care plan”, said Walker. “The coverage is 100 times better and the premiums much more affordable.” He’s contacted over 300 former players via e-mail to inform them of the program.

Among the beneficiaries is former NHLer Gene Carr, profiled last October in The Globe and Mail.  He was twice denied funding from the NHL’s Emergency Assistance Fund for stem cell treatment in Mexico. Thanks to Ludzik’s efforts, Walker said Carr is expected to soon receive the treatment free of charge at a US clinic.

Players Helping Players largely consists of former NHLers from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Walker counts former NHL stars like Phil Esposito, Dennis Hull, Tom Lysiak and Ron Greschner among their supporters.

Unfortunately, the organization hasn’t heard much from the recent generation of retired players. Walker said former New Jersey Devils enforcer Mike Peluso is trying to speak to those players in hopes of drawing them into the organization.

Walker remains disappointed over how the Alumni addresses the needs of former players. “They have programs that help players make the transition to life after hockey, but they’re not getting to the core of the issues retired players currently face.” There’s also a perception the Alumni puts more focus on former players living in and around Toronto.

For the past three years, Walker says he’s “gone toe-to-toe” with Alumni president Mark Napier over several issues, particularly health care. When American-based former players asked about their health care options, Walker claims Napier told them to apply for Obamacare.

In an e-mail, Napier dismisses the notion the Alumni is “Toronto-centric”, citing the organization’s many career/education programs, sponsorships and charity events around North America. He also notes there are 30 Alumni chapters throughout North America, 22 of them in the United States, to assist former players.

Napier maintains the Alumni’s mandate “a simple one – to help all members and their families in their post-hockey transition, grow the game and help charitable causes.” He also said he reached out to Walker several times without a response. Walker explains he was dismayed by Napier’s apparent lack of support and opted to go in a different direction.

Medical issues aren’t the only concern among former players. Walker claims many remain bitter over former NHL Players Association honcho Alan Eagleson pillaging their pension fund of $44 million during the 1970s and ’80s, with the league seeming to sweep the issue under the carpet following Eagleson’s downfall. It took the late Carl Brewer and Susan Foster taking Eagleson to court before the league finally made restitution.

Walker notes the league provides a supplemental gifting program for players over the age of 65. However, he claims some players won’t join the current class action concussion lawsuit against the NHL out of fear they might lose that funding.

Another concern is players pensions aren’t indexed to account for the rising cost of living. Unlike active NHL players who are paid in American dollars regardless of where they’re playing, retired players are paid only in Canadian dollars. For those living in the United States, the declining value of the Canadian dollar is hitting them hard.

“Most of players just take the check and nobody says anything,” said Walker. “However, recently, some of the guys want to address why they’re being paid in Canadian money.”

Napier claims the Alumni made several inquiries regarding this issue. The NHL Pension Society has attempted to address it with Manulife. Other than getting new annuity purchases in US funds, they’ve been unsuccessful thus far in their efforts to have the same done for existing pensioners.

Walker also claims there’s no transparency over how Napier has remained so long in his current role. Napier said he has an annual review by the Alumni Board of Directors, who determine his term and salary. “I don’t know how you can get more transparent than that.”

The lack of media coverage regarding the plight of former NHL players has disappointed Walker. He admits the efforts of Players Helping Players to attract public attention and attracting former players has been slow. He attributes that to the organization still being fairly new.

Still, Walker is optimistic about the future of Players Helping Players. “It is growing. It can be a lot better. As it continues to grow, it’s bringing awareness to the issues they’re facing.”