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A man who lived for the game that left him behind

The last call came less than two weeks ago. It was from former NHL player Walt Poddubny and he left a message saying he was eager to get started on the story.

"Let's do this," he said. "I think it's important because I know there are guys out there like me who could use some help. Okay? So let's talk soon. Bye."

The plan had always been to sit down with Poddubny in his hometown of Thunder Bay and write about his life and the hardships that had befallen him since he left the NHL.

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It would be a cautionary tale, he had said over a handful of conversations. He would talk at length about the highs - being a Toronto Maple Leaf and a 40-goal scorer with the New York Rangers - to the lows: being out of the game, too hobbled to hold a regular job, too broke to undergo surgery; a guy who was living in the basement of his sister's home.

And then the news came crashing Saturday that Walt Poddubny had passed away suddenly. Cause of death: unknown. He was 49.

He was never the most gifted skater or the most dazzling offensive guy on the ice but there was always something about Poddubny that people liked. He wore a trademark mustache, played an honest game and could score. Always, he could score goals.

In his first full year with the Maple Leafs (1982-83) Poddubny became a fan favourite by scoring 28 times, the third-highest total on the team.

In a three-year span that saw him play for both the Rangers and the Quebec Nordiques, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound winger netted 116 goals.

You'd think a guy with that kind of touch would have been paid pretty well. But Poddubny said the most he ever earned was $350,000 (U.S.), good money, but not enough to ensure a well-heeled transition into the rest of his life.

By the time he reached the New Jersey Devils, his knees were mush and ached all the time. He managed just 54 games over three seasons and, by the spring of 1995, at age 35, the professional playing career of Walter Michael Poddubny was done.

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So he tried coaching, and for six years he was the hired, fired, rehired bench boss of the Anchorage Aces of the West Coast Hockey League. When he was let go after the 2001-2002 WCHL playoffs, he eventually returned home looking for something, anything, to centre his existence.

Different people had mentioned they were worried about him. He had tried to play shinny a few times but had stopped because of the pain. He was divorced from his wife, wasn't working. He was also, by his own admission, drinking. How much, only he knew.

"People think if you played in the NHL, you're set for life," he once said. "It's not like that for everyone."

It wasn't for Poddubny. He struggled. The game had been his everything and now it had moved on without him. It was a hard lot to accept and we talked about that several times before he realized his situation could serve as a learning experience for others, even today's multimillion-dollar athletes.

Not long after, Poddubny was told about the NHL Alumni Association and how it assists former players. Mark Napier, the association's executive director, knew Poddubny and had played against him. Unable to discuss any specifics, Napier spoke in general terms yesterday about how the alumni association exists for those who need it, whatever the reason.

"We do find help for anyone who has drug or alcohol or financial problems," Napier explained. "There are always local alumni chapters and we started Hockey's Greatest Family fund. The biggest issue is guys have to realize they need help."

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Poddubny had begun reaching out and was in touch with the Maple Leafs alumni. He'd taken in a game at the Air Canada Centre and said he'd enjoyed being around the action again.

The plan was to sit down with him this summer and talk about those days when he was younger and stronger and completely unaware of what could happen once the calliope stopped and the fans went home. But Saturday night, he went to sleep in the basement of his sister Irene's home and never woke up. Since then, Irene's phone hasn't stopped ringing.

"It's unbelievable," she said. "The calls have come from across the country. He was well-loved. He had a great public persona."

They mentioned his passing on Hockey Night in Canada. There was so much more to tell.

amaki@globeandmail.com

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About the Author
Sports writer

Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. He joined the Globe and Mail in 1997 with an extensive sports background having covered Stanley Cup finals, the Grey Cup, Summer and Winter Olympics, the 1980 Miracle on Ice, the 1989 Super Bowl riot and the 1989 earthquake World Series. More

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