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The NHL, Concussions & Cannabis

byMichael Warford5 minutes

It’s a well-proven rule that any topic that concerns Canadians will inevitably involve hockey. So it’s no surprise that one of the more pressing topics raised by Canada’s recent legalization of cannabis is what impact legalization will have on “Our Game.”

In particular, given the highly publicized problem of concussions in professional sports—including in the NHL—it’s worth considering how a more open attitude towards marijuana in professional hockey could end up bettering the lives and performances of players in pain.

What’s the NHL’s Stance on Cannabis?

Currently, cannabis isn’t officially banned under the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association joint drug-testing policy, although players are still tested for the substance. The NHL’s policy towards marijuana is to discourage its use among players, while also not punishing those who use it. Unlike the NFL and NBA—where players who test positive for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can face suspensions—the NHL usually only gives players a warning if their tests come up positive for marijuana.

For the time being, this policy seems set to remain in place regardless of Canada’s recent legalization of marijuana. But pressure is on the NHL to consider changing its stance to better reflect how much more socially acceptable marijuana has become among its fans. Out of the NHL’s 31 franchises, 27 are now located in states or provinces that have legalized either recreational or medical marijuana.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said in regard to drug testing, “We will consider what changes, if any, in our program have to be made. But right now, we think based on the educational level and what we do test for and how we test, at least for the time being, we’re comfortable with where we are.”

Clearly, the NHL is taking a wait-and-see approach.

Cannabis Can Help With the Pain & Trauma of Hockey Injuries

For some, however, the NHL’s tactic of begrudgingly tolerating marijuana reflects an outdated mode of thinking—and a frustrating one given cannabis’s potential to treat pain. While the NHL has made gains in recent years in reducing the violence of the sport, injuries are still common. Fist fights may no longer be a guaranteed feature of every game, but they’ve hardly disappeared entirely. High-speed body checks are also a regular feature of the game, despite their potential to cause serious injury.

It should be no surprise then that concussions are distressingly common. On average, there are 64 concussions in the NHL per season, although likely many more go unreported. The NHL has taken steps to reduce the risk of head injury, including adding concussion spotters to each game.

But the attitude towards concussions from the NHL is worryingly backwards and dangerous. Bettman, for example, continues to insist that there’s no scientific evidence that repeat concussions cause long-term degenerative brain diseases. He is, of course, wrong on that claim, but then they don’t call him “the most hated man in hockey” for nothing.

The constant knocks that NHL players are expected to take extract an immense physical and mental toll. One way to treat that pain is with cannabis. While cannabis can’t be used to cure concussions or other hockey-related injuries, it can help players better cope with the pain caused by these injuries.

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One 2014 study, for example, found that people who suffered from traumatic brain injuries had a significantly lower mortality rate if they used marijuana compared to those who didn’t take marijuana.

Hockey Players Back Cannabis Use

Of course, given the NHL’s relatively tolerant approach to marijuana, many players already know firsthand how much cannabis can help manage their pain. Few, however, have been willing to talk about it openly—until recently.

One person who’s making changes in the NHL’s attitude towards concussions a personal mission is former Philadelphia Flyers enforcer Riley Cote. In his role as co-founder of Athletes for Care—an organization that advocates for holistic health solutions for athletes—Cote has used his personal experience to advocate for greater acceptance of cannabis as a pain-management tool in professional sports.

Cote recently revealed how he used marijuana during his own NHL career: “I’d quietly use it as an ally of mine. It helped me manage anxiety [and] pain. There was no physical addiction. It just made me feel better.” Based on personal observations, he estimates that half of the NHL’s players also habitually use marijuana, with a fraction of them being regular users.

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Only now with Canada and a number of U.S. states legalizing marijuana are some of these players finally stepping forward.

Changing the NHL’s Attitude Towards Marijuana

However, the NHL’s tolerance—rather than embrace—of marijuana still sends the incorrect message to its players that cannabis has little therapeutic value. Instead, in professional hockey, cannabis is treated as a topic that’s better swept under the rug.

Of course, critics will object that much of the current information about cannabis use in the NHL and its therapeutic effects are anecdotal rather than backed by scientific research. While this is certainly true, one of the barriers to actually doing that research is the fact that the NHL and other major league sports organizations refuse to even entertain the idea that marijuana has a place in professional sports.

As a result, NHL players—like other professional athletes—are regularly prescribed potentially dangerous painkillers when cannabis provides a safer alternative.

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Athletes for Care and other organizations are trying to get the NHL to catch up with the rest of North American society. Anecdotal accounts of cannabis’s therapeutic benefits—including for body injuries and concussions—are finally being backed up by science. That research, some of which shows that cannabis is a neuroprotectant, will likely grow now that cannabis is legal.

If the NHL wants to show its fans and its players that it’s serious about tackling the devastation often caused by concussions, then it needs to be more open to the potential for cannabis to help treat current and retired players who are otherwise left to suffer in pain.

Photo credit: Jerry Yu