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Rick Westhead

TSN Senior Correspondent

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NHL Alumni Association executive director Glenn Healy was scheduled to meet with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly Thursday in New York to discuss improving the physical and mental health care available to players after they retire, according to a source familiar with the matter.

The NHL Players’ Association was not scheduled to attend the meeting, the source said.

Healy, named head of the alumni association in June, said in a phone interview on Thursday morning that he wants to improve player retirement benefits.

The meeting, scheduled weeks ago, comes a day after TSN published a story about Matt Johnson, a 42-year-old former Minnesota Wild captain who is now believed to be homeless in Santa Monica, Calif.

“There are guys falling through the cracks, big guys,” Healy said. “Think about being on top of the food chain for all the years that guys play in the NHL. Whether it’s fame or fortune or all the stuff that goes along with being one of the top 700 players who do their craft, it’s a pretty damned good chapter of life. The next chapter, 30 to dead, is a long time.”

Healy said the average NHL career is 2.6 seasons and that 75 per cent of NHL players wind up divorced.

“We face the same real-life issues that everyone else faces,” Healy said. “There’s no pity party here.”

Healy would not confirm details of his meeting with the NHL and declined to give specifics about changes he wants to player benefits.

According to the NHL and NHLPA’s collective agreement, players who have played at least 160 games have the ability to buy health care coverage for life, coverage that’s especially important in countries like the U.S. that don’t offer universal health coverage. When that benefit was first offered in 1992, NHL players had 60 days to buy the coverage. In 2013, that time frame was extended to 120 days.

Three player agents and one former player told TSN that they’d like to see that window widened.

“If you don’t buy the coverage right away, you can never get it,” said former NHL player Cam Stewart, 46, who played in 202 NHL games with the Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers and Minnesota Wild.

“I skate with hockey camps now, helping out, and feel like I can barely make it around. I have no coverage. Then I see younger guys who are still in the NHL who are getting massage therapy and acupuncture. I’m happy for the younger guys but I wish I had coverage, too.”

During the four-month period when players have to decide to buy the coverage, some players are still trying to find another job playing in the NHL, Stewart said.

“Your mind isn’t really on that decision about coverage until it’s too late,” he said.

Another area Stewart and the player agents would like to see improved is the time frame players are covered under the NHL/NHLPA substance abuse program. Currently, for players who don’t buy extended health care coverage, costs related to that program are covered for two years after a player’s NHL career ends.

According to a source, the NHL and NHLPA, which jointly administer a $9 million (U.S.) emergency fund for former players in need, have both become more accommodating in recent years about agreeing to requests for money from former players.

“In the past, money was really earmarked for players who could not afford their rent or to buy food,” the source said. “We’re now at a point where if a guy needs money to go to rehab, the answer is yes. That's good to see.”