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For Lee Johnson, the tipping point was the rattling of his bedroom door in the middle of the night.

A little more than a year earlier, in February 2005, the NHL cancelled an entire season thanks to a labour impasse for the first time. Lee’s son Matt, a well-known enforcer with the Minnesota Wild, returned to his parents’ apple farm in Pelham, Ont., a town on the outskirts of Welland near the north shore of Lake Erie.

But as the 6-foot-5, 230-pound NHL veteran re-adjusted to life in his childhood home, the friction within the Johnson family grew unbearable.

Matt started sleeping all day. Through the night, his parents heard him restlessly wandering the house, doing laundry, lifting weights, and fixing meals.

Lee and his wife, Brenda, were forced to intervene when Matt began screaming at the migrant labourers who worked on the farm.

“Matt would yell at them, ‘What are you doing in my backyard?’” Lee said. “I tried to keep separation but if we weren’t home, we always wondered what was going on.”

As Lee tried to unwind at night, flipping on the TV, he’d notice Matt standing behind him, staring at him.

“I’d look up and see Matt right behind me. I’d say, ‘Want to sit down and talk?’ Nope. He’d just stand there,” Lee said. “It leaves you uneasy. A few times I woke up in the middle of the night and he’s standing above me while I’m in bed. I’d say, ‘Matt, what’s up?’ and he’d say, ‘Nothing.’

“How do you sleep if someone does that? I found I was laying down to sleep and not really sleeping. I put a lock on the bedroom door so he couldn’t come in. Even then you could hear him working the lock all the time…”

The Johnsons had had enough.

In the spring of 2006, they called a doctor who worked with the National Hockey League Players’ Association and asked for help coaxing Matt back into rehab.

He hasn’t returned home since and his parents haven’t seen him in a decade.

His family relationships in tatters, a group of friends and former teammates that includes former Kings players Jamie Storr and Rob Blake, Matt's former agent Ron Salcer, and his former financial advisor Scott Bye, have tried to help Matt in recent months.

It's only through Bye that the Johnsons have learned their son, who made more than $6 million (U.S.) playing in the NHL, is now homeless, living on the streets of Santa Monica, Calif.

Over the past two months, TSN has interviewed 24 of Matt’s family members and friends, former teammates and on-ice rivals, coaches, general managers, and the father of another NHL player who died of substance abuse and who has counseled Matt in recent months. All struggle to understand what went wrong and whether anyone could have prevented what his mother calls her son’s “fall into such a dark place.”

Matt, who made his debut with the Los Angeles Kings in January 1995, wouldn’t play another NHL game following the cancellation of the 2004-05 season.

Without the reliable routine, camaraderie and adrenaline rush of life in the NHL, his parents say his mental health declined and his battles with alcohol and substance abuse – struggles he fought even during his early years in the NHL – grew more serious.

“He was lost and in limbo,” Lee said.

Brenda believes the reasons her oldest son is homeless today may be several fold. She said Matt – “Moose” to his friends and teammates – has struggled with mental-health issues since he was a teenager in major-junior hockey.

She wonders whether more than 100 fights in the NHL, and still more in junior, have left Matt with brain damage, or perhaps the brain-withering disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). And she questions whether the steady stream of addictive pain relievers Matt was given during a decade in the NHL fuelled his self-medicating, causing him to unravel slowly but steadily until he had pushed away even his closest friends.

Neither Lee nor Brenda discussed their son’s troubles publicly for years.

“I’ve been pretty guarded,” Lee said. “When people ask me where Matt is I tell them maybe he doesn’t like the weather here.

“The public doesn’t want to hear it, really, seriously. They have an idea that their sports heroes are their sports heroes and that’s it. They want to remember the high times, not the low times. Nobody wants to remember the low times. Only the people who live with it.”

Now, the Johnsons say they hope sharing their family’s story might help others who are facing similar struggles to understand that they aren’t alone.

“Why am I talking about this? It can’t get much worse than when you know your son is in such a desperate situation and you can’t do much about it,” Brenda said. “And I know we are not alone. There are other families out there like ours.”

Lee and Brenda met in high school in Pelham, Ont., a small farming community near the north shore of Lake Erie. They were married at 19 and within a year, Brenda gave birth to their first child, a daughter, Rene. Matt would follow a year later in 1975, followed by Spencer in 1980 and Nathaniel in 1987.

Theirs was a close family, Lee said. Save for summer vacations renting a cottage on Star Island in Kabenung Lake, about 200 km north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., the Johnsons spent most of their time tending to their 180-acre apple farm.

Matt was a sensitive youngster and a protective brother.

“As a kid he was a gentle giant,” Lee said. “At school, if someone was to pick on someone, he’d step in and stop it. He never liked bullies. He got in there and sorted it out. He was that kind of guy.”

Matt began playing hockey at nine. He fought for the first time in peewee when he was 12 after a player ran his team’s goalie.

“It was a weird scene for a couple of reasons,” Matt told author Stan Fischler in the book Ultimate Bad Boys: Hockey’s Greatest Fighters. “Number one: the fellow who dumped our goalie was a friend of mine even though he played for the other team. Number two: our fathers were sitting next to each other in the stands, watching the game. Anyway, we dropped the gloves and fought. The funny thing was that while we were fighting, our dads were just sitting there talking. To me, that was kind of strange.”

 

Lee and Brenda pledged they’d never stand in the way of their kids’ dreams – a lesson learned through personal experience.

When he had been a teenager, Lee was able to kick a football as far as a Canadian Football League punter and was offered a tryout by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. But his father, who ran the furnaces at a General Motors plant in St. Catharines, Ont., said no.

“My dad had other ideas for me besides sports,” Lee said. “He had me setting trap lines with him some days from just after school at 3:30 pm. Until it was after dark… I knew I would never do that with my son.”

It was a similar story for Brenda, an accomplished sprinter who was recruited by a track and field club in Toronto but denied the opportunity by her parents.

The family celebrated when the Peterborough Petes selected Matt with the 16th pick in the 1992 Ontario Hockey League draft.

The OHL playoffs earlier that year had not been kind to the Petes. After finishing the regular season with 41 wins, tied for the most in the OHL, the Petes, led by 5-foot-10 smooth-skating winger Jason Dawe, lost in five games in the OHL semi-finals to the North Bay Centennials, a bigger, more physical team.

“I thought we were intimidated [against the Centennials],” said Jeff Twohey, who was an assistant general manager and coach with Peterborough. “I can remember certain players on North Bay basically laughing at us.”

So at the OHL entry draft, Twohey eyed Matt, who at 15 was already 6-foot-5 and towering over most other players while skating with the Jr. B Welland Cougars.

In Matt, Twohey saw shades of Tie Domi, another Petes player who entered the OHL as a classic, if undersized, fighter and matured into a gritty role player with enough skill to last 16 seasons in the NHL.

“With Tie, toughness opened the door and he developed into a player and I thought the same thing was there with Matt,” Twohey said. “With Matt, we had a team that had no fear. We won an OHL championship and he was a big part of that.”

Dawe remembers Matt’s impact being immediate.

“He was pretty shy, not as vocal a guy as you would think because he was so big,” Dawe said. “I remember one fight he was in against [Detroit Junior Red Wings forward] Eric Cairns, another massive guy. They traded blows back and forth. They were just beating each other’s faces in. I was on the ice and I could hear the punches landing. It was a pretty bloody affair. Neither of them gave an inch.”

As quiet as he was in the locker room, Brenda says there were signs that Matt struggled with the pressure to perform.

“I remember once Matt called home from Peterborough at about 12:30 in the morning,” she said. “He had a really high-pressure game and he was the star of the game. But I could tell the pressure was there. He said, ‘I gotta do my best.’ He was crying... I told him, ‘You don’t have to do this, come home, go to school, play hockey for fun.’”

When the Los Angeles Kings picked Matt in the second round of the 1994 NHL entry draft, the 18-year-old walked to the Kings’ team table at the Hartford Civic Center to thank general manager Sam McMaster and coach Barry Melrose.

“Sam said, ‘This is your second-round pick. You’ll love him, ’” Melrose told The Los Angeles Times at the time. “I looked up and couldn’t see any light behind him. That’s when I knew he was our guy.”

Steps away at the Edmonton draft table, Oilers GM Glen Sather looked up.

“Who the f$#@ is that?” Sather asked an Oilers scout.

“That’s the guy we wanted you to take,” the scout responded.

Twohey hoped the Kings would allow Matt to remain with Peterborough for a full third season. Matt played 14 games with the Petes in 1994-95 during the 103-day NHL lockout. But when games resumed on Jan. 20, Matt was a member of the Kings.

“The fighting for Matt that year would have been sporadic,” Twohey said. “Look at Domi, he fought a bit but people mostly left him alone in his third season. Matt’s skills would have gone up a notch.”

Twohey said he was concerned about Matt moving to Los Angeles at such a young age.

“The NHL is one thing; the NHL in Los Angeles for a young kid is another thing. It was concerning to me. But it would have been concerning with any player of that age. At that time, a lot of these NHL teams used to shock me. We had kids go up at a young age and live on their own and they didn’t know what to do with themselves. They didn’t get a lot of direction in how to make the adjustment. You picture a young kid from outside Welland at 19 going into that lifestyle in Los Angeles and being asked to fight on top of that. That’s a heavy burden for a young kid.”

 

The Kings, however, were desperate to reverse their sinking fortunes.

During the 1993-94 season, Wayne Gretzky’s sixth in Los Angeles, the Kings finished 10th in the NHL’s Western Conference, missing the playoffs by 16 points.

McMaster believed Matt could make an immediate impact.

“L.A. needed everything,” McMaster said. “We needed a big physical guy like Matt. We needed grinders. We needed goaltending for the future. We needed all sorts of things.”

During his first preseason game in September 1994, Matt wanted to prove to the Kings that he was the physical presence they were seeking. He challenged and fought Anaheim Ducks enforcer Stu Grimson twice.

“The question was, ‘Is he an NHL heavyweight?’” Melrose said after the game. “I think tonight he proved that he is. Right now Matt is my favourite player. Stu Grimson is one of the toughest guys in the NHL, and Matt went right after him twice. He showed big-time NHL courage.”

Off the ice during his rookie season, Matt lived with the Gretzkys. Lee said Matt often told his family of Gretzky’s kindness.

“Wayne would ask him what his plans were for the night and Matt would say he was just going to stay in,” Lee said. “Wayne would give him $300 or $400 and tell him to go out and have a good time.”

Ira Stahlberger, a spokesman for Gretzky, said the NHL superstar declined to discuss Johnson.

“I spoke to Wayne about it…and he would prefer to leave it be,” Stahlberger said.

At the rink, Matt stayed after practices and worked with Rick Tocchet on positioning in front of the net. He’d fight anyone, no matter how battered or bruised he was.

The Los Angeles Times wrote on Oct. 21, 1996, of his fight against Chicago’s Bob Probert. “Johnson did this despite suffering from a sore and very swollen right hand, which he hurt when he hit the helmet of the Flyers’ Daniel Lacroix in a scrap last week.”

Game notes from his seasons with the Kings documented other injuries. He would miss games due to back spasms, a broken right hand, a concussion, a possible concussion, a right shoulder injury, lower back problems, a bruised foot, a hand problem, and an [unspecified] shoulder injury.

Mike Johnson, a former Toronto Maple Leafs forward who played against Matt and is no relation, said he was always aware when he and Matt were on the ice at the same time.

“Matt was huge and he was scary,” Mike Johnson said. “He was an intimidating guy to play, one of the tough guys that the non-tough guys had to worry about. He had the reputation that he was willing to go after guys who were not tough guys. You definitely had to be aware of him. I would effort to not interact with him when the play was going on. I did not want him to pay attention to me in any way, shape or form.”

Matt patrolled the ice for the Kings and built bonds off it.

In 1997, he traveled with teammate Sean O’Donnell to Nairobi, Kenya, to go on safari. “Just a getaway,” O’Donnell said. “Since we met we had talked about going.”

 

In 1998, after he was suspended 12 games for effectively ending the career of New York Rangers’ tough guy Jeff Beukeboom, punching Beukeboom in the head from behind, Matt’s teammates raised money to help him cover his $95,121 fine.

“Everyone to a man participated,” Kings captain Rob Blake told The Los Angeles Times at the time. “We think they were way too strict on him. I mean, the league’s policy is that there’s no way the Kings can cover him or reimburse him, so… What Matty was doing, he was doing for his team. He was doing it for Ray Ferraro and Glen Murray and anybody else Beukeboom was trying to hit.”

Ferraro, who played with the Kings from 1996 to 1999, said Johnson was a quiet leader in the dressing room.

“Matt was kind, shy and funny,” Ferraro said. “He sat two seats away from me in the Forum locker room and Vladimir Tsyplakov was between us. Matt used to needle Sippy all the time. Matt is an enormous person and he’d always crowd us over and take more space, sit with his legs wide open. Matt would spread out, take a little more room, and then a little more. And the reason he did it was because it made Sippy laugh.

“He was ridiculously strong and he was of that era when those guys faced off and punched, they hurt. They were giant men. I remember talking to him about fighting one day. I said, ‘I don’t know how you guys take a punch and keep going.’ He was like, ‘Sometimes you have to take a couple to get into position.’ Take a couple to get in position? It was a completely different world than I had any idea about.”

 

Following the 1997-98 season, Matt’s second full season with the Kings, the pain and anxieties of his job had already caught up to him. Lee and Brenda say that year marked the first of at least four trips Matt would make to rehab. The last that they know of was in 2006.

“Something I’m not happy with is all of the pain relief medication he was given by NHL teams,” Brenda said. “When we got him in a rehab facility in Guelph after his career ended, the facility was given a list of drugs that Matt had received in the NHL. The rehab people were like, ‘Wow.’ They felt he was getting too much and not the right prescription.”

“The fact is he played injured, and even when he was injured he went out there for five minutes just to fight. I don’t know if that’s right. But he was brainwashed. He was like, ‘That’s what I get paid for.’ To me, that’s questionable.”

The four years Matt spent with the Minnesota Wild were his best in the NHL, his family and former teammates say.

Matt joined Minnesota in September 2000 after playing 64 games with the Atlanta Thrashers in 1999-2000.

“When I got him, I sat with him and told him, “You’re not going to stay here just to fight,” Jacques Lemaire told The Minneapolis Star-Tribune on Dec. 2, 2002. “You’ll also have to play the game. He told me, ‘That’s the first time somebody told me that.’”

Lemaire now works with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was not available for comment, a team spokesman said.

In December 2002, Matt was named captain of the Wild.

“We had a tight group,” said Jim Dowd, who was Matt’s linemate. “We were a new team and it was us against the world and he just fit perfectly.”

Dowd said he isn’t surprised at Matt’s recent struggles.

“I could see this coming,” Dowd said. “It’s a sad story. L.A. at 18 years old definitely was not a good thing for him. He’s been in a dark space for a while.”

Away from the rink, Matt was hiding a secret.

After his first stint in rehab in 1998, he routinely self-medicated with pain relievers and used recreational drugs, his parents say.

Len Boogaard, whose son Derek was a former NHL enforcer who died in 2011, said Matt told him that he swapped out his own urine for someone else’s when he was drug tested at his Minnesota apartment.

“How does that happen?” Len said. “[It happens] When the NHL has some guy making near minimum wage doing the urine collection.”

One of Matt’s teammates with the Wild said that he was with Matt many times at Matt’s apartment when the officer arrived.

“Matty would go to the bathroom [and swap dirty urine for clean urine] and the agent and me would sit on the couch together and watch TV and wait for him,” said the former player, who refused to be identified because he still works in the NHL.

Derek Boogaard, a former enforcer with the Wild and New York Rangers, died in 2011 from a combination of painkillers and alcohol after failing 14 of 19 drug tests during the final six months of his life. A dozen doctors prescribed Derek with 1,021 pills during the 2008-09 season alone, according to court documents.

Len was introduced to Matt in late July 2016 by someone close to Matt who believed Len might be able to help.

“They advised that Johnson was exhibiting the same sort of behaviour as Derek had in the last couple years of his life,” Len said.

Matt told Len that Dr. Sheldon Burns, a doctor with the Wild, kept him medicated to play through back problems and after shoulder surgery.

Randy Gruber, Dr. Burns’ office manager in Edina, Minn., said “there’s a good chance that if Matt played for the North Stars or Wild that Dr. Burns was his doctor.”

Dr. Burns was not available to comment, Gruber said. Another colleague in Dr. Burns’ office named Becky, who refused to give her family name, provided an office fax number to send an interview request to Dr. Burns. TSN sent a fax on Dec. 1 detailing Boogaard's claims but has not received a response.

Len said Matt also told him how he had been prescribed antidepressants by Dr. David Lewis of Los Angeles, a California-based psychiatrist and co-founder of the NHL and NHL Players’ Association’s substance abuse program.

Kelley Martin, a colleague of Dr. Lewis at The Canyon, a rehab facility in Malibu, asked TSN to send an interview request for Dr. Lewis to her. TSN emailed Martin on Dec. 4 asking Dr. Lewis to respond to Boogaard's claims but has not received a response.

Matt described in emails to Len how he evaded detection.

“In short from 2001 through 2004 every test they gave me I gave them someone else’s urine,” Matt wrote in an Aug. 13, 2016, email.

(Len filed a complaint in 2014 with the California Dept. of Consumer Affairs against Dr. Lewis related to Derek’s death. The department has not responded to Len's complaint, he said.)

A source told TSN that the NHL/NHLPA doping control program is administered by California-based Comprehensive Drug Testing Inc. A company official was not available to comment, said a woman named Kim who answered the company’s phone. CDT’s website says the company was founded in 1985 and that it administers more than 160,000 drug tests per year, including urine tests that allow for the detection of up to 15 drugs.

Len said Matt shared that he had made four suicide attempts and blown through millions of dollars in savings, and was suffering from headaches, memory lapses and depression.

“It’s a carbon copy of what happened with Derek,” Len said.

Lee said he is aware of at least four suicide attempts by his son.

For a while after Matt left his family home in 2006, he would answer his cellphone when his mother called. She tracked his journey back to California where he lived for a period in a halfway house.

“I called him at Christmas three or four years ago and he had a different tone in his voice I hadn’t heard before, a violent tone,” Brenda said. “It was upsetting and it made me worried that if I was with him at that point I don’t think I would feel safe. I had never felt like that with him ever. It was a bad feeling.”

That was their last conversation.

Brenda tried to stay connected to Matt by sending cards at Christmas, at Easter and for Matt’s Nov. 23 birthday.

“He would write return to sender on the envelope and send them back,” Brenda said. “I know it was him because I know his handwriting and the little curved arrow he wrote on the envelope. A parent knows her kids through and through, right? Now, I just want to know he’s okay. I want him to come home.”

Brenda paused, smoothed her short brown hair, and turned to Lee.

“I don’t want for that to be our last conversation,” she said.

Brenda and Lee both said they have thought about trying to find Matt. If they did find him, then what?

“He’s done a lot of damage at our home, with our family,” Lee said. “You know?”

As Matt severed ties from his family, he had sporadic contact with his former teammates.

Jamie Storr, a goalie who came up as a rookie with the Kings at the same time as Matt, ran into Matt in the parking lot of a hockey arena a few years ago.

“He was staying in a little hotel near the rink and had been there a while,” Storr said. “He didn’t seem to be too with it. His response time was a little delayed.”

Storr, who runs a hockey school in the Los Angeles area, hired Matt to do odd jobs. Matt began spending time with Storr’s family.

Storr said Matt had trouble focusing and processing information. Matt could have received a sizable payout from a worker’s compensation claim, but he never showed up to sign the paperwork, Storr said, adding that the same thing happened with a real-estate transaction.

After four months working with Storr, Matt disappeared.

“It was too much for him being involved,” Storr said. “Then, after two or three years, he called me out of the blue, said he wanted to get back involved. He was able to do that for four or five months. And then around Christmas last year he started feeling like it was too much. And he was gone.”

Tucked between Malibu and Venice, Santa Monica is a beautiful beach town and favourite weekend getaway spot for Los Angeles residents, many of whom are drawn by Santa Monica’s five kilometres of coastline and streets peppered with farmers’ markets and art galleries, oyster shacks and high-end stores selling Louis Vuitton and Tiffany.

For more than a year, Santa Monica has been grappling with a homeless crisis. “The sheer numbers are overwhelming our system,” said Constance Farrell, a city spokeswoman.

In January 2017, there were 921 homeless people living in the city of 93,000, according to a citywide survey. That’s up from 728 homeless residents in 2016.

“This is our number one issue as a city,” Farrell said. “These numbers are shockingly high. It’s partly because of an affordability crisis and housing shortage in Southern California. The surge is happening at a pretty rapid rate and the beach and downtown core is where we’re finding the highest number of homeless.”

When Scott Bye went searching for Matt in the oceanside city one weekend in early November, he had a few leads to go on.

Bye, 58, is a Fargo, North Dakota-based financial advisor who has worked with about 60 NHL clients over the past 20 years. He was introduced to Matt during the mid-1990s by Blake, Matt’s teammate with the Kings.

In their last conversation about a month ago, Matt told Bye that he was living on the beach in Santa Monica.

Bye was aware that Matt had sent some faxes to his former agent, Ron Salcer, from a Wells Fargo branch in the coastal city. Bye has also heard from Storr that Valeri Bure, a onetime NHL player who owns a winery in California, stumbled on a disheveled Matt during a jog along the boardwalk.

Bye arrived in Santa Monica late on a Friday afternoon and headed for the beach.

“There were literally thousands of people there, living in their cars, on the beach, under bridges, I could not believe it,” Bye said.

Bye, who played collegiate hockey at the Miami of Ohio University, contacted police, talked to firefighters, combed the library and introduced himself to people cleaning the public bathrooms.

Armed with a photo of Matt in a white Kings jersey, Bye visited the Wells Fargo branch.

“I watched people set up tents, hunkering down for the night,” Bye said. “And they disappear during the day.”

Bye returned home without finding Matt.

Santa Monica has been grappling with a homeless crisis

“I know the business of hockey and I’ve watched this problem of opioids in hockey grow,” Bye said. “Tell this story. It needs to be told… I see a lot of the stuff that happens after guys are done playing. Nobody else does. Nobody else knows. Unless you’re Wayne Gretzky or one of the top players in the league, you get lost. Nobody follows these guys that closely anymore. But I’m still there. I hear all this stuff that’s going on. I see it.”

After returning to North Dakota, Bye phoned the Johnsons to tell them he had not found their son.

“I told Lee and Brenda it would be good if they went out and look for him,” Bye said. “He’s their family. I guess the big question is if you find him what happens next?”

Brenda is now considering a trip to the West Coast.

She’s afraid of what she might find.

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