Modern pharmaceuticals becoming part of the culture in the NHL

Vandelay’s Coffee Talk with ex-Penguin Jason Woolley
July 12, 2012


Modern pharmaceuticals becoming part of the culture in the NHL

You’re the average NHL player, which means you stand a shade over six feet tall, you weigh just over 204 pounds, and you’re about 27 years old.

Between October and April of any given year, you will drop your battered self into an airplane seat on 80 or so occasions and rack up between 50,000 and 90,000 air miles.

You play an average of three games a week, and most of the time you’re suffering from a sprain, a strain, a tear or a break of one type or another.

So what do you do to withstand the maelstrom? In many cases the answer lies in the miracle of modern pharmaceuticals.

“You’ve just played a game, you have to travel, you’re up early the next day for a practice, maybe you’ve slept badly, maybe you’ve got other things going on at home or wherever, so for sure, pills can become a popular option for some guys,” the Vancouver Canucks’ Alex Burrows, whose team has one of the most demanding travel schedules in the NHL, said earlier this season.

In speaking to more than a dozen current NHL players and to several agents and hockey executives over the past five months, it is apparent the nexus of scheduling, player safety and travel is forming a little-noticed backdrop to the coming collective bargaining between the league and its players.

The life of the modern NHL player is not all first-class charters and swank hotels, there is also an eye-glazing amount of drudgery and crippling late-night flights and early morning practices, all of it seasoned with a generous pinch of fear – of injury, of unemployment, of failing on the ice.

As grinds go it’s fun, and handsomely remunerated; players happily embark, but even the fittest risk becoming tenderized by the end.

One Western Conference star described the perilous cycle thusly: industrial quantities of caffeine or over-the-counter decongestants (or both) to get up for games, alcohol and/or sleeping pills to tamp down post-game adrenalin, get up early for video and practice, rinse, repeat.

Since the death of former New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard, who accidentally overdosed on a cocktail of pain medication and booze last year, and the subsequent deaths of NHL tough guys Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, the league and its teams have followed up on a public pledge by commissioner Gary Bettman to amend the NHL’s substance-abuse and behavioural policy, and have quietly tightened the rules concerning the way medication is dispensed in dressing rooms.

Sources also said the two physicians who oversee the NHL/NHLPA substance-abuse and behavioural-health program, Brian Shaw and David Lewis, made a point during their annual tour of the league’s dressing rooms of stressing the perils of sharing pills, whether they are for pain or sleep. According to multiple sources, the NHL Players’ Association and the NHL had discussions before this past season to find ways to control the availability of drugs – some teams apparently now keep a detailed log of their players’ prescriptions and refills.

“They’re trying to do it in order to make steps in the right direction so that what happened [last] summer doesn’t happen again in the near future,” the Boston Bruins’ Milan Lucic said in an interview in the early stages of the season.

But as with most other aspects of the league, policies vary from team to team, and no system is perfect.

Conversations with players and other officials throughout the league reveal that while the prevalence of opiates such as Oxycodone in NHL dressing rooms has been well-documented, the same is true of sleeping aids such as the prescription drug Ambien, which many players privately claim are popular among NHLers.

Generally speaking, there’s a ready supply of whatever a player needs to dull the pain or find sleep – all it takes is a teammate with an extra tablet or two in his shaving kit.

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