Today, like most of us, he’s just another grain of sand in nature’s inventory.

Once upon a time, though, Joe Murphy was the whole beach.

Murph was every boy’s Canadian fantasy — a blossoming hockey savant as perceptive on the ice as Wayne Gretzky, rocketing into the NHL in 1986 as the No.1 draft pick and winning the Mount Everest of hockey, the Stanley Cup, with the Edmonton Oilers and Mark Messier and co. in 1990.

But slowly, Murphy’s golden years turned sour, and 30 years later the once-multi-millionaire hockey phenom was sleeping in the bush or by the side of the road in Kenora, surviving on handouts, friendly and coherent, later threatening and violent, and sometimes muttering aloud in conversation with himself. Joe Murphy, the miracle player, had not only become another poster boy for brain damage in pro hockey but also, in this reincarnation, a bizarre sideshow for summer tourists.

Author Rick Westhead is an investigative journalist of 25 years, now a senior correspondent with TSN. Previously he was with the Toronto Star, covering foreign affairs and the business of sports. For years he has watched hockey wound and cripple the human brain, and wanted to see for himself what life had done to Murph. So, in company with former NHL goaltender Trevor Kidd, in the summer of 2018 they drove from Winnipeg to find him. And they did, Murph sitting on a picnic table outside a convenience store, in shorts with a woman’s silk scarf as a belt, his arms and legs covered in blue ink "as if a pen had exploded." He was 51 but looked a decade older.

Westhead writes with authority and his research is impressive. His excellent book is a hard-hitting, eloquent and disturbing examination of pro hockey’s troubling relationship with concussions, and how the NHL brass continue to ignore and avoid the fact that repeated hits to the head can spark complications in the brain that are brutally life-changing later on and sometimes fatal. The fans in the stands may presume the helmeted heads of NHL players protect them infallibly, but as Westhead documents that is far from so. The league mandated helmets in 1979.

Murphy’s plunge into misery was born in part by the numerous brain impacts he experienced as a consequence of countless violent hits to the head and vicious body-checks during his 15 years a winger in the NHL with the Oilers, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks, Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals. He quit in 2001 and joined the walking wounded. But before he did he burned through a great deal of money as a high-stakes gambler. He also liked cocaine.

When the brain bounces around in the skull with all the fury of a wet dog shaking itself dry, years of such head trauma can cause permanent changes in the brain that affect both personality and conduct, and usually grow worse in retirement.

Westhead pulls no punches in his scathing analysis and angry rebuke of the National Hockey League (NHL) for continuing to behave like Big Tobacco — ignoring and denying a problem it has to know exists.

Many retired players are still waiting for the NHL to properly compensate them for the repetitive head trauma they suffered while playing, and the damage it did to their brains which sparked personality changes and destructive, anti-social behaviour they live with today. They say the league actually indirectly encouraged dangerous play in Murphy’s time by glorifying the idea that in hockey, being a man and a team player included playing hurt. The league, of course, doesn’t agree. Toronto’s eccentric owner, the late Harold Ballard, called players who didn’t agree "pansies and cream puffs."

There is contempt in Westhead’s writing in talking about both yesterday’s and today’s NHL. He reports that league executives seethed when it was suggested their attitude to this problem is like that of the cigarette companies and their years of denial in the face of what tobacco companies knew to be true about lung cancer.

Mike Ridewood / The Canadian Press files</p><p>In this 1996 photo, Chicago Blackhawks captain Chris Chelios congratulates teammate Joe Murphy (left) after Murphy scored the game and series winning goal for the Blackhawks against the Calgary Flames.</p>

Mike Ridewood / The Canadian Press files

In this 1996 photo, Chicago Blackhawks captain Chris Chelios congratulates teammate Joe Murphy (left) after Murphy scored the game and series winning goal for the Blackhawks against the Calgary Flames.

In 2019, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman appeared before a Canadian government subcommittee researching concussions in sport. Westhead says Bettman was asked by an MP whether he accepted that there is a link between repeated brain trauma and long-term neurocognitive problems. Bettman’s reply: "There has not been that conclusive link." Westhead finds it hard to believe that no NHL medical advisor had up to then not advised Bettman of the medical studies that have proven there is unquestionably a link.

"Bettman’s NHL has become an insular, self-validating echo chamber, a league whose culture mutes alternative voices and rewards conformity over critical thought," writes Westhead.

He’s suspicious of the trauma protocols today’s league employs and the spotters it allegedly now puts in the stands to help identify physical symptoms of brain trauma among players on the ice. He says the league refuses to identify these people and would do better to follow the NFL’s decision and hire neurologists to help them. And some of the NHL coaches and management he’s talked to, Westhead says, still sound more neanderthal than progressive on the need to protect the heads and health of players. One source calls the NHL so-called spotter program "a joke." Westhead reports several NHL executives think non-hockey people should mind their own business.

Westhead describes the results of a chilling study done by a neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina in 2008. He put metering devices in the helmets of hockey players aged 11 to 15 and found the impact of their youthful hits was "roughly equivalent to the energy created from crashing a car into a brick wall at nearly 50 kms an hour." So, says Westhead, imagine the velocity of the hits in the pros, and game after game.

Today the average NHL career is about two and a half seasons, and 75 per cent of modern-day NHL players end up divorced, according to retired NHL goaltender Glenn Healy of the NHL Alumni Association.

Murphy described how his downfall began — when in 1991, while playing for the Oilers, he was body checked and went flying through the air, slamming head first into the boards. Bleeding heavily, he was stitched up and went right back on the ice the next shift. He was on a breakaway and looked up to see he was facing 100 goalies.

Decades later, in a worker’s compensation claim alleging injuries Murph received playing for San Jose, he received a conclusive medical diagnosis that the repeated brain trauma he suffered in the NHL sparked serious, life-threatening damage to his brain.

One of the challenges Westhead faced in the several years he spent researching this book wasn’t being unable to find enough cases of NHL brain trauma, but rather finding so many of them he had to pick and choose which ones to document or even mention. He believes the NHL wants to be left alone to govern itself, and considers outside medical research and advice with suspicion and/or cynicism.

After all, what does medical science know about hockey?

Barry Craig, once an investigative reporter himself, thinks every parent with a youngster in hockey needs to read this book.