As Riley Cote took and delivered countless punches over more than a decade of junior and pro hockey, he was eager to avoid painkillers.
Early on, marijuana was touted to the enforcer as a healing option.
"I started noticing some therapeutic benefits," Cote said. "It helped me sleep, helped with my anxiety and general well-being."
Now a handful of years into retirement, Cote is a proponent of cannabis and its oils as an alternative to more addictive drugs commonly used by athletes to play through pain. Marijuana can be detected in a person’s system for more than 30 days, is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency without a specific therapeutic use exemption and is illegal in much of the United States.
Canada on Wednesday will become the largest country in the world to legalize recreational marijuana. That means it will be available under the law in seven more NHL cities (it’s been legal to adults in Denver since 2012). The move is a step forward for those who, like Cote, believe marijuana has been stigmatized and should be accepted as a form of treatment.
"It was so tainted for a long time," Ottawa Senators forward Matt Duchene said. "And now people are starting to learn a little bit more about it and there is definitely some positive uses to different elements of it."
The NHL and NHL Players’ Association plan no changes to their joint drug-testing policy, under which players are not punished for positive marijuana tests. It is the most lenient approach to cannabis by any major North American professional sports league.
"The Substance Abuse & Behavioral Health Program for decades has been educating players on using drugs, legal or illegal," Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "That process will continue and 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."
While the NFL and NBA can suspend and MLB can fine players for multiple marijuana infractions, only a significantly high amount of the drug found in NHL/NHLPA testing triggers a referral to behavioural health program doctors. Cote estimated about half of players during his NHL career from 2007-2010 used some sort of cannabis for medicinal purposes, though players suggest use in hockey currently is lower than the population at large.
More than two dozen U.S. states allow marijuana use for a variety of ailments, but the federal government has not approved it for any medical use. Some players have already done research into the benefits of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) oils. There’s a curiosity about whether marijuana could one day replace or limit painkillers like oxycodone, even if players aren’t yet ready to make that leap.
"There’s not a lot of science out there yet in terms of long-term effects," said Winnipeg Jets centre Mark Scheifele, who is still on the fence about cannabis use for medical reasons. "I think it’s something that still needs to be thought really clearly about in terms of understanding the long-term effects."
Through his Hemp Heals Foundation and work with Lehigh Valley University in Pennsylvania, Cote is doing his part to increase the information available. He’s quick to point to studies on cannabis that suggest it can help people after PTSD or head trauma. And yet he acknowledges there’s a long way to go.
"There’s a lot of different things that point to the fact that the science is now backing it up," Cote said. "There’s probably billions of anecdotal stories, but those don’t mean anything unless it’s backed by science, unless it follows the order of the way it’s supposed to be."
Bettman contends the mainstream medical community has not concluded that cannabis prevents or heals injuries, and said an argument could be made to the contrary. NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr said it’s a subject that is "at best in its infancy and is going to develop over time."
Given the looming Wednesday legalization in Canada, the league and union opted for education over policy changes.
"What we feel was an important element is at least educating the players better on the current marijuana landscape both from a legal and illegal perspective and what’s permitted and not permitted," Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. "But also ‘What are the products out there?’ because there’s probably publicly a great misconception of what marijuana is, how it’s used, what it’s used for to what the reality is."
Players who aren’t yet educated about marijuana are willing to ask around about potential benefits as more studies are done.
"I say this more talking about the CBD side of it, obviously: You’d be stupid not to at least look into it," Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid said. "When your body’s sore like it is sometimes, you don’t want to be taking pain stuff and taking Advil all the time. There’s obviously better ways to do it. … You’re seeing a lot of smart guys look into it. You’re seeing a lot of really smart doctors look into it. If all the boxes are checked there and it’s safe and everything like that, then I think you would maybe hear them out."
The possibility of experimenting with cannabis extracts is more possible in the NHL than for players with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors or MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays because of the regulations in those sports.
In the NBA, a second positive test carries a $25,000 fine and each subsequent test a suspension of five games, then 10 and so on. In baseball, a player on a 40-man roster could be fined up to $35,000, while a player not on a 40-man roster is subject to a 50-game suspension for a second positive test and 100 for a third.
A Raptors spokeswoman said it’s business as usual for the team because the new laws in Canada don’t change NBA drug policy. Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins also largely deferred to the league office.
"Major League Baseball does a good job on educating players across the game on risk in and around that," Atkins said. "It’s a complex situation that is very personal. I’d need more information to say if we’d just tolerate it or not."
For now, marijuana is technically a banned substance as a drug of abuse in the NHL. Cote would love to see marijuana removed from NHL/NHLPA testing to open the doors to widely accepting it, though players say it would take years for hockey culture to welcome such a change — if it ever would.
"I played in Colorado where it was legal for a while and I thought it was going to change society a little bit, and it didn’t, really," Duchene said. "I don’t think it’s going to be as big a thing as people might think."