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Marty Walsh Goes to Bat for NHL Retirees

By: David Ostrowsky

The National Hockey League’s collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) is not set to expire until September of 2026, but it was still a hot topic during NHLPA Executive Director Marty Walsh’s introductory media conference last month in Toronto. In particular, there were several questions directed to the erstwhile Boston mayor and US Secretary of Labor about the union’s plans for managing the health benefits of retired players. Judging by his response, he didn’t appear to be blindsided.

“I had lunch the other day with Glenn Healey [former NHL goaltender and current Executive Director/President of the NHL Alumni Association] and I’ve talked to Kelly Chase [NHL Alumni Association Chairman] and certainly that was pretty much—you must have been at the next table—because the topic of conversation was about the mental health of older hockey players and their physical health,” said Walsh in response to a question from The Phia Group about his plans for potentially altering the physical and mental health benefits offered to former skaters.

“I’m looking forward to continuing that dialogue and moving that dialogue forward because that’s an important issue.”

It’s a timely one, too.  

It was merely a little over a half-decade ago, in 2017, that the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry published the sobering results from a comprehensive neuropsychological study of former hockey players that made it abundantly clear that years of sustained head trauma equated to a heightened rate of psychiatric disorders. Consider that of the 33 retired NHL players examined over a four-year period, an alarming 59 percent showed signs of experiencing mental health disorders, including depression, uncontrollable anxiety, and substance use disorder issues. Although many former NHL players return home to Canada where there is universal healthcare coverage available to them, those who retire in the United States are often saddled with exorbitant healthcare costs in attempting to manage a litany of mental health issues, not to mention physical ailments from years of jarring forechecks and on-ice collisions.

While Walsh, the first of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet secretaries to depart and the latest politician to shift into sports, following the path of former Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (who was recently named NCAA President), would not go into specifics about healthcare costs for retirees, which are partially subsidized by the NHL (“I can’t comment on that now. I don’t know enough about it. It’s still too early for me to comment on that”), he was quick to note that safeguarding the welfare of retired NHL players, including their access to affordable healthcare benefits, remains of the utmost importance to him and the players association. After all, as Walsh explained, he first became such an ardent supporter of union rights when, in the nascent days of his political career, he saw firsthand the struggles of those employees who did not have enough hours in to qualify for healthcare benefits. 

“I represent the National Hockey League players in the current league today and someday they’re going to be alums, so we want to make sure that the transition from being a player into being an alum is a smooth transition,” added Walsh, who had a long history of championing labor rights before ascending the ranks of both regional and national politics.

Even when the last question was asked about how players can capitalize on future business opportunities, Walsh made it a point to circle back to the many former NHL players struggling with their mental health by mentioning that he had been in talks with the league’s Health and Safety Committee regarding enhanced programs for those suffering from emotional issues, and in many cases relying on substances as a means to cope. (He also ended his conference by reminding everyone that nearly one in three people—whether they are hockey players, ink-stained reporters, or avid hockey fans—are struggling with mental health issues in the post-pandemic world.)

Although it’s far too early to predict whether there will be a sea change in the health benefits offered to former NHL players, Walsh’s background suggests he can relate to the plight of such individuals, many of whom did not play long enough (or in the right era) to make serious money. Citing his decades-long background in union representation as a badge of honor, he knows the league is projecting nearly $6 billion in revenue this season and that there’s plenty to go around for former league employees who find themselves in dire straits when their playing days are over.

“There’s a lot we can do between now and the CBA.”