“I didn’t even know where I was going. … God forbid something were to happen, but there’s a quick second you think about that,” he said later. “It’s something that will be in history. I was the first labor secretary in the history of the United States to be designated.”
The entire day was another unexpected twist in the political career of Walsh, if not an unconventional transition to the world of hockey. That morning, word had trickled out that Walsh would depart the Biden administration to serve as the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association. The move stunned some in the sport, given Walsh’s status in Washington and his relatively few ties to the league.
But others argued Walsh was exactly what was needed — an outsider as well as a longtime labor leader who could leverage his political experience in future collective bargaining negotiations and bring fresh perspective to a wide variety of issues facing the league’s players. As a recovering alcoholic who had become a national voice in the fight against addiction, the 56-year-old also has vowed to listen and push for more support for players who might be struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues, just as he did for constituents during his years as mayor of Boston and in the Biden administration.
“It was a priority of mine as a mayor, it was a priority of mine when I was a rep, it was a priority of mine when I was secretary of labor, and it’s certainly a priority now,” Walsh said. “As somebody in recovery, I think it’s important that we have programs people need.”
Walsh’s first three months on the job have been a crash course in learning other hot-button issues facing NHL players; at his introductory news conference in Toronto in March, he was drilled on questions ranging from the salary cap and escrow payments to the league’s involvement in the next Winter Olympics to the controversy surrounding some players’ refusal to wear Pride-themed jerseys.
Walsh is known to freely give out his contact information, and not to just those in his hometown of Dorchester, Mass. “I think half the town of Boston has his personal cellphone number,” said his former chief of staff, Dan Koh, who over the years routinely watched his boss’s public appearances begin late because Walsh would be in the crowd, talking with someone struggling with addiction.
When he was Boston’s mayor, Walsh would leave city hall to drive friends who needed to go to rehab; when he was labor secretary, he would frequently disappear to a backroom adjacent to his Washington office to take calls from those looking for help or advice.
“If you looked at his call log, you would see a nun from Dorchester, followed by a little boy in the South End, to then the biggest business owner in Boston. He was able to traverse so many different rooms and so many different kinds of people,” Koh said. “Whether it’s a hockey player who’s gotten hurt and fallen on hard times, whether it’s substance abuse, whether it’s just the arc of one’s life when they’re young and then they get older, I think he sees people.”
Walsh was a late entry in the search to replace Donald Fehr as head of the NHLPA. The opportunity represented a hefty raise — Fehr’s salary was reported to be in the $3 million range — but after 26 years in politics, it was also a chance for Walsh to return to his labor roots. The son of Irish immigrants, Walsh followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Laborers Local 223 in Boston when he was 21, eventually rising to the presidency of the union.
But as a young man, Walsh struggled with alcoholism. He was functional, holding down a job and coaching youth sports, but he knew something inside of him didn’t feel right. “It took me down roads where I made bad decisions,” he said. “It’s really about how I felt inside. I just felt this sense of hopelessness. I kept up a good image on the outside, but inside I was broken.”
He hit rock bottom in April 1995, when he was asked to leave a Bruins game in Boston because he was too drunk. He eventually checked in to a detox program. “I didn’t realize that my life was just really beginning,” he said. As he climbed the political ranks, he chose to tell his story. When he took the stage for a speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, he introduced himself by saying, “My name is Marty Walsh, and I’m an alcoholic.”
“At the end of the day, strip it all down to his core — his core is paying it forward in recovery. It is incredibly important to him,” said Charlie Baker, the former governor of Massachusetts who, like Walsh, transitioned from politics to sports this year when he took over as NCAA president.
During his interview with the NHLPA search committee last winter, Walsh immediately opened up about his past, including his story of recovery.
“I think he wanted all the chips on the table,” said Kyle Okposo, the Buffalo Sabres captain who served as a key member of the search. Okposo has endured mental health issues during his career, which included a medical emergency after a routine hit during practice in 2017. His mood changed. He lost his appetite. The medications he was given caused a negative reaction in his body, which whittled to a weight he hadn’t been since he was a teenager. He ended up in an intensive care unit before recovering and returning to the ice. As he listened to Walsh share his own struggles, it resonated.
“I think that when you go through something like that, it forces you to be empathetic and to really feel different,” Okposo said.
Behind the scenes, Walsh has met with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, as well as with owners and other league officials. He has had at least one conversation about behavioral health programs with the league, he said, and those will be ongoing.
“People don’t really realize, when a player plays hockey for so long, they’re regimented, they have a schedule, and then their career ends,” Walsh said. “Then if they don’t have something to fill that time up, there’s a component there that we have to keep an eye on them to make sure that they’re prepared for that afterlife of hockey. And then there’s a lot of struggles that [players] have today. It’s definitely a priority of mine.”
In recent years, Okposo has witnessed more locker room discussion about mental health and substance abuse, he said, and he regularly receives calls and texts from players who are struggling. He takes pride in holding those conversations. But having a leader such as Walsh can embolden more players to speak up.
“We had set out not trying to find a unicorn — just trying to find somebody who best fit the job,” Okposo said. “But I think, in a lot of ways, Marty was our unicorn.”