June 10, 1954 – August 17, 2018
Kurt Walker, a former professional hockey player and tradeshow industry veteran, was born in Weymouth, Mass., and passed away on Aug. 17 in Atlanta after a brief illness.
His pro hockey career, which spanned 1974-75 through 1979-80, included 71 NHL games (and six playoff appearances) over three seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs where he amassed nine points to go with his 152 penalty minutes. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound career journeyman/defenseman, Walker was one of the relatively few American players to reach the NHL in the 1970s. He also played with the Sherbrooke Castors, Saginaw Gears, Oklahoma City Blazers, Dallas Black Hawks, Springfield Indians, Tulsa Oilers, Broome Dusters, Syracuse Firebirds and Adirondack Red Wings during his playing career.
At every level, Walker’s calling card was physical, fearless play that often resulted in fights. He collected 142 penalty minutes over just 36 games with Sherbrooke, and logged 49 over those first five NHL games with the Maple Leafs. Playing as an enforcer throughout his hockey career, Walker required 17 surgeries to repair injuries. He criticized the NHL Alumni organization, which he claimed did not support retired players enough financially. As a result, he created an organization called Dignity after Hockey to raise awareness and funds to provide health care to retired players. In 2017, he added his name to a class-action lawsuit against the NHL alleging neglect of support for players suffering injuries and financial strain once retired.
After his pro hockey career ended, Kurt started in the tradeshow industry with I&D in 1984 and started his own company, SOS (Service On Site) several years later, and eventually joined forces with Renaissance and then with Momentum Management. Kurt was well known and loved throughout the industry with his passion for service and his bigger than life personality.
Peter Stoddard remembers, “Kurt and I were fellow sales guys for the same corporate events company. The firm moved me to Chicago and Kurt to Boston to open their first regional sales offices. I never made it to Boston during those years, but I hosted Kurt often on his business trips to Chicago. In 1985 I knew Kurt only as a genuine, smart and immensely fun guy to be around—who happened to have played a few years in the NHL. I had no clue he was a legendary enforcer for his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs.
“In 1985 Kurt invited me to a Legends of Hockey fundraiser game he organized for a cause I cannot recall. It was indicative of charitable acts he would perform his entire life,” says Stoddard. “The venue was Chicago’s UIC Pavilion, and Kurt fulfilled his promise that big names would take the ice. Following a spirited contest I walked down to the rink. The first to skate off was Gordie Howe. Followed by Bobby Hull. Then came Stan Mikita. Then Keith Magnuson. And other Hall of Famers. Each slowed as they exited, likely expecting that I wanted their autograph. I felt I had to say something, probably, “Thanks, I’m waiting for Kurt Walker.” They grinned politely and continued on without comment. If I had to guess, they were probably thinking … ‘Then you must be waiting for a fight.’ “
Stoddard attended Kurt’s memorial service and life celebration in Atlanta in August and called it “amazing.” Tradeshow industry legend Johnny Merritt (pictured left with Peter Stoddard on right, photo by Peter Stoddard) attended and speakers included his daughter, Zoe, and former Atlanta & Calgary Flames players including Richard Mulhern, Tim Ecclestone, Willi Plett and Eric Vail who spoke of “Kurt’s courage, loyalty, drive, spontaneity and generosity. His former teammates confessed to having many stories
not appropriate for a family friendly audience,” Stoddard says.
But, Stoddard adds, “One constant prevailed throughout this day of celebration: Kurt Walker lived his life to help others. He relished in it. More often than not he helped those who had zero opportunity to return the favor. Kurt’s dedication to those in need is manifest in Dignity After Hockey. Kurt founded the non-profit group to assist former professional hockey players who have fallen on hard times. Dignity After Hockey lives on through the efforts of Kurt Walker’s friends and family. They ask that you honor the life of this great man by making a donation to continue Kurt’s mission.”
On his online tribute wall, a friend wrote, “Kurt was always thinking of others, not just people, but the animals too. He’s the only one that I’ve ever met who had not only a pet squirrel, but also a peacock. Kurt will be greatly missed and will live on through Dignity After Hockey.”
John Ramaglia, VP operations, Momentum Management, recalls, “I was fortunate enough to have worked with Kurt for 20 years and knew him even before he joined forces with Momentum. I do miss the big guy and his gentle spirit. The thing that I found the most endearing about Kurt was that he was connected with people in the tradeshow world at all levels. From CEOs to freight handlers and everything in between. He had an uncanny knack for meeting people, making them feel special and then of course he would throw in that he played professional hockey and without saying so he would give them the impression they were talking to a celebrity. All across the country teamsters, carpenters, electricians, truck drivers, exhibitors, show managers, shop supervisors and all who make up a tradeshow will miss Kurt and his bigger than life personality.”
Glen Ruggiero, senior account executive, Momentum Management, reminisces, “I had stumbled into the industry in 2002 after being laid off from a sales job when the internet bubble had busted. I was picking up work on the show floor whenever I could and met Kurt while installing one of his client’s booths at Hinman Dental in Atlanta. Since I was new he wanted to get to know me and I told him my story. He said that he could help me out and proceeded to hire me to drive up to Dalton, Ga., where his supplier of carpet was. The rolls of carpet were sold in 12’ wide rolls and they had to be cut down to 10’ rolls for the show floor. He also wanted to introduce his son, Cole, to the industry so, seven times a year, we would go up and cut 2’ strips off of thousands of feet of carpet! It was a perfect example of how Kurt would do anything to help anyone.”
His daughter, Zoe (pictured right with her father, mother, Joanne, and brother, Cole), spoke at this year’s Randy Smith Golf Tournament in tribute to her father and said, “I’m Zoe Walker. Proud daughter of Kurt Walker or you may remember me as the little girl who hustled tips in exchange for house tours at one of my dad’s many parties! When anyone needed a job, help getting back on their feet, or even temporary work while visiting Georgia, my dad was the first one you called. He helped everyone and expected nothing in return.
“Exhibit A, no pun intended, he entered the tradeshow industry that way. He was working at Carlos McGee’s, shutting down the bar late one night, and Steve Johnson walked in looking to eat something. Kitchen was closed, but my daddy with the biggest heart said, ‘What do you guys want and I’ll go back and make it.’ Steve thought to himself, ‘We need to hire that guy’ and gave him his business card. My dad, looking for work after the glory days of hockey, immediately called Steve and the rest was history.
“Over the last couple months, today included, when I introduce myself to many who knew my dad, I’m immediately greeted with the biggest grin and it’s usually followed by some hilarious, inappropriate or just plain awesome story of how my dad helped saved you, believed in you, or just made your day better by making you laugh. Because his presence was larger than life, he made sure everyone else felt it too. I think we’re all feeling it tonight. I recently acquired my father’s phone. One of the most recent pics he had was a short song verse that I believe truly sums him up, so I wanna leave you all with it today: If you need someone to count on, count me in; Someone you can rely on through thick and thin. When you start to count the ones that you might ever doubt; if you think of counting me, count me out.”
Walker’s ultimate legacy will undoubtedly be his efforts to open doors for former NHLers in need of medical care and coverage. Dignity After Hockey raised money through donations and sponsorships, and raised awareness of the struggles faced by many retired players. “I started Dignity After Hockey because I found out that a lot of players who played in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s didn’t have health insurance,” Walker said in a 2016 interview with Canadian broadcaster SportsNet. “There were a lot of guys who were getting older who had some serious injuries that needed to be addressed, who had started to really, really break down, physically. My health care was non-existent, and I knew I wasn’t alone. … So that was my mission—to find a way to help all these guys.”
“Not only did he protect his teammates on the ice, but Kurt was that kind of guy off the ice, too,” said Steve Baker, a former scout for the Lightning who is now general manager of Richman Media Group near Scottsdale, Ariz. “It was wonderful what he was able to do through creating Dignity After Hockey. I call him a warrior for mankind—that’s who Kurt Walker was. He’s not going to be forgotten, nor is Dignity After Hockey.”
Kurt is survived by his wife, Joanne, son, Cole and daughter, Zoe and thousands and thousands of hockey and tradeshow fans, colleagues and friends. To share condolences and memories in his online tribute wall, visit https://www.northsidechapel.com/obituaries/Kurt-Walker/#!/TributeWall, his online guest book at https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/name/kurt-walker-obituary?pid=190016913 or on his memorial Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/kurtleaf26. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations made in his name to Dignity After Hockey at www.dignityafterhockey.ca/.
This story will appear in the November/December issue of Exhibit City News, p. 70-71. For original layout, see our digital flipbook after November 1 at https://issuu.com/search?q=exhibit%20city%20news .