Lead photo via Facebook user Riley Cote
When it comes to cannabis use in professional sports, the holistic medicine and recreational relaxation tool is still frowned upon across all of North America’s major leagues. But while NFL and NBA players are routinely suspended and fined after drug tests turn up THC, athletes in pro baseball and the National Hockey League (NHL) are given significantly more leniency, with minor fines generally being the only consequence for failed cannabis tests. Everything is relative though, and as football and basketball players continue to call for their leagues to stop punishing players for treating pain and stress with CBD and THC, one former NHL pro is using his platform to call for even more cannabis reform in professional hockey, encouraging the league to embrace the plant as part of a healthy training and recovery regimen.
In a new interview with Canadian outlet Sportsnet, former Philadelphia Flyers enforcer Riley Cote details how prevalent cannabis use is in the NHL, and yet how much work still needs to be done before the hyper-violent league actually acknowledges weed as a solution, instead of a minor problem to be swept under the rug.
“Good people break bad laws, I guess,” Cote told Sportsnet. “At least half of those guys [I competed with and against] consumed, and a fraction of those guys consumed regularly. Like, every day…. And that number is probably higher.”
Because it is not classified as a “performance enhancing substance,” cannabis is not banned in the NHL, but players are tested for THC, and given a stern phone call from league officials if they fail a cannabis screening. Still, cannabis use is generally not disclosed to press or the public, creating a public image of bearded brawlers on ice skates chugging beer after 0-0 ties, instead of relaxing with post-game pre-rolls while putting ice on their limbs.
Through Athletes for Care — a nonprofit that Cote co-funded to help current and retired athletes find relief outside of pharmaceuticals — the former Flyer hopes that he can introduce even more athletes, hockey players, and others to the medicinal benefits of cannabis, and ultimately influence the NHL to stop testing for cannabinoids altogether.
Like football, hockey relies almost exclusively on excessive and unnecessary physical violence to sell the sport, with entire careers (including Cote’s) predicated on the ability and willingness to throw hands or check an opponent into the boards at a split-second's notice.
Even without weed specifically listed on the banned substance list, team doctors respond to hockey’s violence in the same way NFL docs do, prescribing NHL players prescription painkillers and pharmaceutical crutches to mask their pain.
By incorporating cannabis as a part of those frequent treatments, Cote says that players can begin avoiding the long-term addiction and side effects frequently associated with conventional pharmaceutical painkillers.
“We’re not selling the silver-bullet, magical cure for all,” Cote told Sportsnet. “[Cannabis] is a tool and it needs to be treated with respect…. It’s all about increasing quality of life. It’s about helping these guys wake up the next morning, where they can feel functional enough, good enough, [that] they can enjoy their family and not worry about the pain and anxiety — that vicious cycle that generally leads to mental health issues.”
With a significant portion of NHL players calling Canada home, and recreational legalization coming to the Great White North in only a matter of months, Cote is hopeful that the league will start to sort out a more progressive approach to cannabis, possibly as soon as the current season.