Joe Murphy, Former No. 1 NHL Pick, Now Homeless and Suffering from Mental Health Issues

Sitting down outside of Luby’s Food Store in Kenora, Ontario, Canada, Murphy stares out into the distance. (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)

Joe Murphy hunches over, unable to speak, unable to respond.

His eyes float to the back of his head. His forehead creases with wrinkles. Frozen in place.

Still strong and athletic, the muscles in his arms tense. His hands contort, his fingers curl and lock in place, becoming rigid as a brick.

Down the right side of his neck, there is an old scar, near the jugular, where he says he was knifed.

Murphy, who was the No. 1 overall pick by the Detroit Red Wings in 1986, starts mumbling under his breath and rocks back and forth.

His head is nearly bald, his face weathered, like an old piece of wood that was forgotten and left outside.

He springs up, pulls out a bungee cord and whips it over his head, the metal hook whizzing through the air, around and around, like a helicopter blade. He uses this bungee cord like a pair of suspenders to hold up his pants, but he also can turn that metal hook into a weapon.

He is barefoot, his jeans rolled up over his knees.

He wears a black winter coat. It has a hole in the side and every time he moves, puffs of feathers float in the air, out on their own.

Like lost souls.

He sprawls across the ground, at a gas station, on the small patch of grass where he has been sleeping for most of the summer. He leans against a cement block, building tiny animals out of aluminum foil. “I’ve been designing them on and off for years,” he says. “See his two eyes?”

Murphy lets his head drop to the ground and he slips into gibberish, his head rocking back and forth.

Clearly, he needs help.

Murphy, 50, earned more than $13 million while playing 15 seasons in the NHL — he was on Michigan State’s 1986 NCAA Championship team and played for the Wings for parts of three seasons — but he has been homeless for more than a year in this small tourist town in Canada.

Nobody is exactly sure how he got to this point, how he ended up homeless. But there is a nip in the air, winter is on the way and he is in a dangerous situation.

You can’t force him to get treatment or counseling, or sleep in a shelter. Instead, he sleeps on a durable blue blanket under a gas station sign.

You can’t force him to reconnect with his family — they have been estranged for years.

You can’t force him to accept all the help that his family and former teammates have tried to give him.

You can’t force him to do anything.

“It’s crazy,” he says, in a moment of sudden lucidity. “But I love my life and this place.”

Murphy admits to having mental health problems.  “I’m in and out at times,” he says. “I’m feeling a little better.”

He admits to past drug use. “I’ve done crystal meth,” he says.

After suffering a series of concussions in the NHL, his personality changed. The end of his NHL career was filled with odd and erratic behavior.

Does he have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head?

Over the years, Murphy has displayed several symptoms associated with CTE — difficulty thinking, depression, short-term memory loss, emotional instability, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.

Murphy stands at the heart of several issues, at the epicenter of sports and mental health. No matter the cause of his mental illness, if he is not a danger to himself or others, he is free to live on the fringe of society.

He can float along, refusing help, choosing to live on the edge of the Canadian wilderness, out on his own, like a single feather popping out of an old down coat.

Even if he can sense something is wrong.

“I’ve had some depression and I’ve had some anxiety,” he says. “I think it’s a combination of things that have happened to me. Maybe, a brain injury from concussion, for sure, and from some other things that have happened to me in my life, and I think it’s affected me emotionally with anger. I’ve gotten very good. … The anger is a sin, and in the temple, Christ displayed how he got rid of the anger and how you cannot sustain the anger.”

At times, he is completely coherent and fully engaged, able to remember details of playing at MSU, or in the NHL, or living in Michigan.

At other times, he slips away from the present day — it’s like he is living in the past and an old movie is playing on a loop in his brain.

And now, he is standing on a street, looking over his shoulder in this small tourist town. He looks worried.

“Who are you looking for?” he is asked.

Murphy glances down the street again. It’s a long block with restaurants. Groups of tourists and fishermen amble down the sidewalk.

“I like to keep my head on a swivel,” he says. “Just in case, if there is a late back checker or somebody coming through, I pick them up for the defense. That’s what the coach said. Head on a swivel.”

And for that fleeting moment, he is back playing hockey.

A golden child on skates

Joe Murphy sits on a set of bleachers, next to a baseball field in Kenora, a short walk from the gas station where he has slept for most of the summer.

“What are your memories of playing for the Red Wings?”  I ask.

“Just a minute,” he says.

Murphy stands up and walks to the end of the bleachers. He hunches over and cries, taking several deep breaths for about 25 seconds. He is overcome with emotion, thinking about going to the Montreal Forum in Quebec with his family as he was taken by the Wings with the first pick in the 1986 draft.

The wind is blowing.

Birds squawk in the distance.

Then, he snaps out of it.

“My grandfather came to the draft,” he says, softly. “It was just a big deal for me. They watched a lot of games, my grandpa and grandma.”

“Does it make you sad or happy?” he is asked.

“Oh, it makes me happy,” he says. “It brings back memories of things going on, and how fast it goes. … Went to world juniors and got a silver medal. Back to Michigan State and we won the NCAA championship that year, too.”

Murphy was a golden child on skates — fast, skilled and talented — effortless on the ice and a natural scorer. His teammates at MSU would sit and just listen to him skate. It just sounded different, how his blades cut into the ice. Murphy seemed destined for stardom in the NHL. He dominated at every level from youth hockey to college hockey and at the world junior tournament, against the world’s best 18- to 20-year-olds. He was a clear No.1 in the eyes of the Red Wings scouts, even though many fans wanted them to pick Jimmy Carson, a local star from Grosse Pointe Woods, who was taken No.2 overall by the Los Angeles Kings.

But the Wings took Murphy.

He laughs, then begins to rattle off memories, as if they’re flashing in front of his eyes.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “The whole thing. The stadium and Munn Ice and the fans. And then, the draft. But just before that, I was in Montreal. … They gave me a ticket and flew in to Montreal. … I thought, oh, jeez. I couldn’t believe it, sitting there. So I had a chance to go there. They offered me a car. They had this thing. Trans Am. With a falcon, eagle, on the hood. I said, ‘Can I have a black one with gold?’ And they said, ‘Yep, you can have that.’ ”

He laughs some more.

“And I couldn’t believe it.”

He has a rich memory. But those memories flow out like waves hitting a shoreline, and everything gets churned together — his college career and memories of his grandparents and the start of his NHL career in Joe Louis Arena and all the different emotions.

“It was incredible,” Murphy says. “You could feel the energy coming in, holding up the tradition of the Red Wings. Gordie Howe. Ted Lindsay. Alex Delvecchio. I did the research.”

Murphy was given a sweater with No. 10, the same number worn by Delvecchio, a Hall of Famer. Murphy found it intimidating.

“I was like, ‘Oh, no, I haven’t done anything,’ ” he says.

Murphy tells his story the same way he has lived his life — all over the place. He bounces around from topic to topic, as he has bounced from city to city across Canada, and suddenly, he is talking about the Adirondack Red Wings, which at the time was the Wings’ minor league affiliate in the American Hockey League.

“I was with the Adirondack in the AHL, a phenomenal league,” he says. “We got the whole mother lode. I’m getting excited about this. Man, we had great team.”

Suddenly, without being prompted, he starts talking about playing in a series against the Hershey (Pa.) Bears.

“We were down 3-0 to the Bears, Hershey,” he says. “I was 19 or 20, whatever the number was. And these guys had beards, gnarly bastards. I’m coming with whips and chains and knives. We ended up rolling them back four games and ended up winning it all.”

I look it up.

Sure enough, Adirondack beat Hershey, 4-3, in the semifinals on the way to winning the 1989 Calder Cup.

Murphy’s long-term memory is incredible. He can remember specific details about games and trades and players and goals.

Then, he turns to me.

“What is your name?” he asks.

His short-term memory fades in and out.

The winding road to Kenora

“How did you end up here in Kenora?” I ask Murphy

“It’s not gonna sound good, guys,” he says, full of embarrassment and contrition.

Murphy was involved in a fight in Sioux Lookout, a town of about 5,600 in northwestern Ontario, in April. He was charged with assault, according to court records obtained by the Free Press.

Murphy was transported by police to Kenora for a court appearance.

“This is how I got here,” Murphy says. “This is the reason I’m here. I was arrested there, got sent to prison here, spent a little time, got out and I didn’t know where I was.”

After he was released, he fell in love with this fishing town located on the northern shoreline of Lake of the Woods — a massive body of water nestled between Ontario, Manitoba and Minnesota. Peppered with islands, it is the sixth largest freshwater lake located, at least partially, in the United States.

Everything in Kenora revolves around the lake.

It is a tourist town with a blue-collar vibe where nature, homeless people and tourists have found a way to coexist. It is common to see deer come out of the woods, meander down the street and stand on lawns, eating grass. They aren’t spooked by cars or people. 

“You won’t believe this one,” Murphy says. “It’s unbelievable. No humidity.”

His eyes beam, charged up.

It’s like there is electricity running through his body, through his brain.

“There’s no mosquitoes up here,” he says, full of energy. “Even down by the water. None.”

Kenora is a town of about 15,000 with a single McDonald’s but several churches, shelters and centers that offer free meals or places to stay for homeless people.

You can find homeless people almost everywhere you turn in Kenora, sitting on street corners or huddled in doorways. It is a historic problem that dates back 50 years. The root of the issue is the lack of affordable housing. But it is far more complex than that, ranging from substance abuse to mental health issues. The town has built a strong system that provides shelter and food. There is no exact count, but about 100 people go to a center next to the courthouse to get free coffee, meals, showers and clothing every day.

Most of the homeless people are familiar faces to the authorities.

When Murphy showed up in Kenora, he immediately attracted the attention of the Ontario Provincial Police.

“They were drawn to him because they didn’t know who he was,” says Jeffrey Duggan, the OPP detachment commander in Kenora — in essence, the chief of police. “Joe was new to town.”

Duggan says his officers have had no problems with Murphy.

“He’s always been really respectful to the police,” Duggan says, “whether it’s just coming up and having a conversation or asking for $2 for a cup of coffee.”

When the officers found out who he was, they were stunned. Others Googled him to watch his highlights on YouTube. “There are a lot of officers who grew up in that era of hockey and remembered who he was,” Duggan says.

Kenora is a hockey-obsessed town, and hockey players are treated like heroes.

About a 10-minute walk from where Murphy has been sleeping at the gas station, there is an indoor hockey rink with a huge banner on the outside proclaiming Kenora as the birthplace of Mike Richards, an NHL player and 2010 Olympian.

“I hunkered in here,” Murphy says. “It’s a great location, man, because people have been dropping things off. They help me. I have received the blessing. I’m grateful and I’m thankful. … The lights dim at 10:30. I looked around. This ain’t a bad spot. I’ve been here for over a month now.”

The small, matted patch of grass is basically his bedroom and he keeps the area clean and tidy, cleaning up after himself, throwing away his trash and folding his blanket when it’s not in use.

Murphy is good at being homeless, just as he was good at playing hockey. It took a certain amount of practice, but he has mastered it. He has learned how to bounce between different shelters and churches, always finding a way to get a meal and clean set of clothes.

He has learned to be industrious, ripping apart a plastic lid at McDonald’s, forming it into a sharp triangle and turning it into a toothpick. He has learned how ATM machines give off heat in the winter, and how to burrow inside industrial-sized garbage containers.

“Those things are like condos,” he says, with a certain amount of yearning. “I’m not kidding you. But you have to deck it out. You just flatten cardboard boxes on the floor. Put stuff on the walls. Throw down some blankets. Lay down. Put on some candles. Get your stuff going. I was, ‘Moving on up, to the east side.’ I was George Jefferson in this. Man, I had everything. You remember that one? It was everything to me. I’m living the high life and I was. The only thing missing was that white butler. It was unbelievable. I had a great time.”

Murphy prefers living on his own.

He doesn’t like to deal with large groups in the shelters.

“You are right side by side,” he says. “Now, they are snoring and all kinds of stuff going on and some guys sleep walking and I get uncomfortable.”

But summer is slipping away. Kenora is more than 400 miles north of Minneapolis, and the winter in this area is blistery cold, snowy and overcast.

“I’ve got to get into a place,” Murphy says. “I have to get into a shelter or I’ll freeze to death.”

The concussions

Joe Murphy closes his eyes in pain. He makes a fist and rubs his knuckle over his forehead. Something is not right.

He has frequent headaches, wild mood swings and personality changes — all symptoms associated with CTE, which typically is diagnosed in death.

“Do you remember your first serious concussion?” I ask him.

“Horrific,” he says.

Murphy was playing for Edmonton against the Red Wings on Jan.9, 1991 — one season after he helped the Oilers win the Stanley Cup.

He had the puck and came around the back of the net in Joe Louis Arena.

Shawn Burr, the Red Wings’ left winger, hit Murphy with a body check. Murphy lifted into the air and his head hit the railing.

“Immediately, I hit the dash on direct impact, and I’m going 35K — kilometers, going full tilt man,” Murphy says. “That’s like going full tilt, your head into the wall — pft, pft. Gone. And I got up, too. It was just natural instinct. I was all over the place.”

Murphy was helped off the ice.

“It was debilitating,” Murphy said. “I fractured my skull, everything. I couldn’t believe I made it off the ice.”

He went to the dressing room and was disoriented.

“I was spewing blood everywhere,” he says. “I thought I was in a war zone, one of those movies. You smoke a bong, ‘Where am I, man?’ One of those.”

He returned to the bench after the injury.

“I sat down,” he says. “I was just gone. They called my number.”

Murphy re-entered the game in the second period and remembers going on a breakaway. His vision was messed up.

“I saw like 25 goalies,” he said. “I fired it into the glass. Everybody is waving the flags, get the (expletive) off. They got me off the ice and rolled me into the dressing room. Done. I was in bad shape, man. I was in bad shape the whole season. I felt lazy, lethargic, I got a little sick. I just didn’t feel good. My energy was gone.

“I didn’t know what was wrong.”

Murphy is unsure how many concussions he suffered during his career.

But he is certain of one thing: After suffering that first concussion, they became more frequent.

“I was in the thing, took the puck directly in the head — pft!” he says. “Other time, I was out cold in the ice. We were in the middle of nowhere and the guy laid me out. Full blown! In practice! The thing might be going 100 mph. This thing is vulcanized rubber, and this is like taking a rock right into a chunk of your head and I was gone.”

“How many concussions did you have?” I ask.

“I’m gonna say, severe, Grade A, life-threatening? One. Now, there may be three or four more. Maybe, total, five.”

He is guessing.

“When I got hit man — pfft! — the lights showed up and they fired,” Murphy says. “It was serious man. … They are going everywhere. The fire lights… I didn’t feel well. It would go one-thousand one, two, three, and there would be tons of them. Then, I knew it was done. I’d be out of it. … I think it was a problem my entire career. I think, if I had a light bump, I had another one. It was bad news for me.”

He loses his train of thought.

Suddenly, he says he has two brain tumors. He is convinced of this because he went for medical tests and overheard a worker talking.

“I heard him say there were two in there,” Murphy says.

In this moment, Murphy is convinced that he doesn’t have long to live, even though he has never been diagnosed with brain tumors.

Without warning, he changes the subject again and dips back into a hockey memory, about a leg injury.

“So they tape me up,” he says. “I go back out there. And it hurt for about a week.”

He laughs.

“He was not like this when I knew him,“ his ex-wife, Julie Murphy, said in a TSN interview. ”There was no unusual eccentric behavior.”

The Free Press contacted Murphy’s family multiple times, but his sister, daughter and ex-wife declined requests for interviews.

Odd, erratic behavior … and CTE

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SOURCE: Jeff Seidel, Detroit Free Press