The National Hockey League hit the ice for another season this week. And many of its players are hitting more that that.
The next few weeks are going to be very big in Canada, as the nation welcomes the return of its national pastime: regular-season NHL hockey. Lest you think this is a lazy cliché or that hockey is somehow not actually a very big deal in Canada, consider: 1.2 million Canadians over the age of 15 play hockey. (The percentage of living humans not of school age who play gridiron football, the most popular spectator sport in America, is so small as to be statistically insignificant.)
Pro sports are spectator sports. And oh, do Canadians watch. As per a 2010 survey, eighty percent of the country — more than 28 million people — take in at least one NHL game a week. Put in context, hockey is three times more popular than organized religion in Canada; hockey probably qualifies as the nation’s official organized religion. Yes, it’s a stereotype, but it is most certainly a thing.
Exactly two weeks after pucks drop, at the stroke of midnight on October 17, recreational marijuana becomes officially legal in Canada. While cannabis is not quite as popular as ice hockey in Canada — according to a 2017 poll, 18 percent of Canadians copped to using cannabis, though since people are still reticent to tell a pollster about their drug habits, the real figure is likely higher — there is some excitement. Marijuana stores are weighing whether to open up at midnight, though it appears the first sales will occur online.
These two events aren’t directly related, but there is significant overlap. As there should be: The NHL is easily the most marijuana-friendly pro sports league in North America.
The Most Lenient League
If you want to play professional sports while bent on recreational drugs — or merely get a little toasted after games or before practice — you should learn how to skate. Among the major organizations for top-level corporate-sponsored athletic competition in North America, the National Hockey League has possibly the most lenient attitude toward drug use.
NHL players are drug-tested for steroids and other “banned substances,” a long list of unrelated chemicals that includes cannabis. But unlike other leagues, and unlike steroids, there are no consequences for a positive test for cannabis.
In rare cases, a player found to have excessive levels of something in his body is referred to treatment. (Since every drug aside from cannabis is water soluble, and thus expelled from the body within hours of last use, you can see why the players might prefer the current arrangement.) Thus, the NHL’s testing is purely informative data used to assess whether this drug-testing system should be changed. (And thus far, it has not.)
Though there are a few notable outliers, hockey players have thus far reacted to this unparalleled freedom by smoking weed — and lots of it. In a 2017 interview he gave with MacLeans, one of Canada’s most prominent public-affairs magazines, former NHL enforcer Riley Cote estimated that about half the league’s players are regular users of cannabis. Some of them use once a week, some of them smoke every day.
“At least half of those guys consumed, and a fraction of those guys consumed regularly. Like, every day,” he told the magazine. “And that number is probably higher.”
A High Level of Performance
Cote isn’t necessarily the most reliable narrator. He is the founder of Athletes for Care, a non-profit that’s advocating for even more permissive drug policies in sports including hockey. And he isn’t presenting data, merely an educated anecdote. To that, we’ll add our own — one that tracks with Cote’s claim. This author attended a college with a Division I hockey program. (In fact, he attended two such institutions, which is useful for plausible deniability.) At one of them, members of the hockey team, some of whom went on to play professionally, were frequent visitors to my dorm room — where they would buy weed from my roommate.
I remember being annoyed by this at the time. A lifetime of drug-war propaganda had taken its toll — and prevented me from asking the obvious question: “If top-level athletes are using cannabis and still performing at a high level… maybe there’s something good about cannabis?”
The answer is that yes, there is. While it’s not yet clear if cannabis’ anti-inflammatory properties work quickly enough to help athletes recover, cannabis absolutely soothes muscles otherwise afflicted with delayed-onset muscle soreness, according to researchers. Much more important than that, possibly, is marijuana’s ability to aid sleep. Both the brain and the body require sleep in order to function and to repair themselves. And NHL players are religious nappers. The official pregame nap routine involves a plateful of pasta and one to two hours of snoozing. What sleep aids players choose is their business, but one can assume.
There is no quantifying taste. Not everyone enjoys marijuana, not everyone wants to watch hockey. But whether spectator or participant, cannabis and hockey complement each other quite nicely. And now in at least one corner of the globe, the two are now officially sanctioned activities. It will be a few more years yet before major marijuana companies sponsor NHL teams — something for which the U.S. and its insane cannabis policies can be blamed. In freer corners of the continent, however, cannabis and hockey can continue to peacefully coexist, and enjoy a new era of freedom.