Why the NHL has a sleep problem and how it could change

Vegas Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner addresses the media to talk about speaking out on social media and clarifies some of his remarks.

Hockey has a sleep balance problem, and it’s one without an easy fix.

When I worked with the Toronto Marlies, the team travelled on two busses, one for just the players and one for the staff. This arrangement was created specifically so every player could have two seats they could more comfortably lay down on during the return from a road trip, in the hopes of fostering better post-game sleep. (With just one team bus rookies often have to double up, which makes for tough sleeping conditions.)

In 2016-17, the players were given a book (really a glorified pamphlet) they were assigned to read called “Sleep To Win”, which was at the core of how Rich Rotenberg believed teams should operate to give themselves a chance to reach their collective ceiling. Rich was with the Marlies at the time, but is now with the Leafs as “Director, High Performance,” and nothing has changed about his belief in the importance of a good REM cycle. He was behind subtle changes that the Marlies made those years in terms of pushing back morning meetings and skates (and cancelling others altogether), and in getting the team to stay where they played on the road, rather than trying to get to the next city that same night.

But not every player was keen on the task of reading the material, which was ironic because it was aimed at helping them perform better as players. Rich knew he could only lead the young guys to water, and he could only hope it would lead them to want to drink it.

Last weekend, Robin Lehner made headlines with a string of tweets that touched on a whole host of topics, namely alleging that NHL teams were handing out prescription meds a la carte to players who didn’t have proper prescriptions, specifically naming Ambien.

Former NHLer Tom Sestito chimed in and echoed the claim, mentioning Ambien as well.

Those outside the sport joke about the routine of “game day naps,” but when it comes to pro hockey players finding any sort of normal circadian rhythm, the struggle is real. You can count me among players who’ve at least seen a team medical staffer dole out Ambien based on a request, not a diagnosis that would require a script.

Further to this are the players -- probably at a larger scale than prescription meds -- who find a couple beers or a glass of wine help them slow down after a hockey game and find sleep earlier, which creates problems of its own. Dependency for one, and for another, alcohol itself can mess with REM cycles and produce an overall lower quality of sleep, even if it does help start the process sooner.

Everyone who’s played hockey at any level -- rec hockey, pond hockey, the lowest of beer league levels imaginable -- all know exactly what I’m talking about here. Going to sleep after a hockey game is almost impossible. Some of the things we love about hockey are the same that wind the human body and brain up in a way that’s not easy to unwind. It’s engrossing and fast, you have to be on high alert in every direction and be able to turn on a burst of speed in a flash. It gets your competitive juices going, your fight or flight response gets flipped by the physicality, and it’s just an adrenaline-soaked sport.

The best solution is to let the body wind down naturally and sleep until it tells you it’s time to get up, but of course, that’s not possible with the demands of the NHL. Without the baseball-style “series” on the schedule (as there was during the pandemic), the league is back to the nomadic lifestyle of old, where almost every road game (and many of the home games) inspire the question “Do we drive/fly to our next destination after the game, or the next day?” If you’re a performance coach a la Rich Rotenberg, it’s not a tough call. Stay and sleep, then go from there. But if you’re a coach, and you can get to the next city and set up earlier for your next game, you can better prepare players. Skates and meetings get everyone on the same page, and breakdowns in your systems and structure are where teams can fall apart.

The reason so many teams used to travel after games was the very one we’re discussing here. Since nobody can fall asleep for a while anyway, why not use that time to travel, then guys can fall asleep in their next hotel room at 2 a.m., instead of in their own bed at like 1:30 a.m. The logic is sound -- that’s not much sleep to lose to eliminate having to burn most of the next day on travel. But that’s never how it goes, the whole “just a half hour of sleep” thing. Planes are delayed and traffic snafus happen and hotels have issues with keycards and before you know it guys are asleep at 3:30 instead of 2:00. Now they’re two hours short of what they would’ve got at home.

This is a huge challenge for the league and teams to navigate, and I suspect somewhere great strides will be made in the years ahead. All this attention on it doesn’t hurt the cause. My suspicion is we see a boom in league-wide meditation. After every game we see players “cooling down,” with … more physical exercise. They ride the bike for 20 minutes in hopes of minimizing lactic acid build-up (which leads to “heavy legs” the next day). They stretch, they get medical treatments, and in some cases, players even lift more weights. That won’t change. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see future teams offer some sort of mental cool down for the players as well, maybe a guided meditation to alert the body that there’s no longer any reason to prepare to throw punches or flee.

Teams (and this includes Rotenberg’s Leafs) are reaching the conclusion that a roster of well-rested humans is going to be more effective than a tired group that's had an extra practice session to fine-tune their power play movements (or whatever). It’s not just the increase in physical energy, but the ability to quickly make the right decisions that are effected by sleep, and generally, players at that level know right from wrong. Practice is less important than their rest.

The battle for sleep around hockey will never go away entirely. The constant cycle of powering all the way up and all the way down isn’t natural for the human body, and finding aids to help them in each direction (shoutout to caffeine) is always going to be easier than putting in the work on an idea like meditation (and meditation isn’t sure to work for everyone anyway), or having teams greatly overhaul their practice and meeting plans. Some players will still need help with their sleep, and maybe that means medication, but obviously those individual cases need to be dealt with one by one, and Lehner and Sestito are right -- tossing a guy an Ambien upon request isn’t any kind of solution.

Battling how much teams should do for players in terms of cancelling morning skates, practices and meetings will always be an internal struggle, because there’s a belief that the players who care about sleep and take care of themselves will work to find sleep where they can. I mentioned napping. And the guys who don’t prioritize sleep will take cancelled practices and meetings as more leeway to stay up and go out rather than do the right things for themselves. There’s a not-entirely-naïve skepticism that having guys show up at the rink for a noon meeting rather than an 11 a.m. skate on the road won’t help many players with sleep, it’ll just keep the guys who want to skate off the rink.

Prioritizing proper rest is a major improvement from pro hockey organizations over the years, and I expect there to be innovative new ways to improve on the issue in the future. As it stands right now, teams are increasingly out here leading players to water, and leading players to water, and leading them there again, just hoping they’ll drink it.

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