The ballet starts before each NHL game, once the last anthem notes trail off and the house lights turn on. Watch next time. The choreography is easy to learn.
On the bench, trainers and equipment managers pass out packets no bigger than Tootsie Rolls, tossing others to players out of reach. The players then squeeze the packet, which is sheathed in cotton for protection, and crack the glass vial inside. In case they need help, two arrows on the label point to a dot in the middle. “CRUSH ONCE, USE AND DISCARD,” it says, then below that, “CRUSH HERE.”
Waving the broken capsule under their noses, back and forth to spread the smell, they begin to wiggle and shake, like dogs after a bath. Their noses wrinkle and their nostrils flare. Some hop in place. Others merely wince and squeeze their eyes shut. “There’s probably some pretty good photography that goes along with that,” says Devils forward Kyle Palmieri. He is surely not wrong.
The scientific explanation for this strange ritual that has spread across hockey, from juniors up to the NHL, goes like this: The vial is filled with 0.3 milliliters of red liquid—35% alcohol, 15% ammonia and 50% ingredients that are not listed on the label. When the glass breaks, ammonia gas spews into the packaging, creating a pungent smell. The unofficial explanation is simpler: The players are inhaling smelling salts, which, as Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon puts it, “absolutely reek.”
Describing the sensation doesn’t get more nuanced than this. Wild forward Ryan Carter: “All I know, if needles had a smell, that’s what they’d smell like.”
Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk: “You’re like … cringing.”
Says Palmieri: “They smell like s---.”
Again, Palmieri is not wrong. Take it from first-hand experience, courtesy of an extra capsule provided by an NHL trainer after a recent game: Those little things burn, singe, shock, irritate and generally wallop the nostrils. It would not be unreasonable to question the sanity of someone who huffs them every few nights.
And yet they are everywhere, integral parts to the pregame routine right alongside wiping off visors and spraying down mouth guards. Consider smelling salts—which contain no salt or sodium—an aromatic alarm clock before the puck drops. “I love them,” Palmieri says. “It doesn’t give you any kind of energy, it just wakes you up. It’s almost like a cerebral way of saying, ‘Hey, it’s game time now. It’s time to get going.’”
Long before trainers were ordering packages in bulk by the hundreds and former Bruins assistant Geoff Ward was chucking Tyler Seguin’s used sniffer into a fan’s beer, early references date to the works of Pliny, the Roman author, according to a 2006 article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Among the sprawling list of chemicals that Chaucer's alchemizing master Yeoman purports to use is sal armonyak—ammonium chloride, the active ingredient in smelling salts. In Hard Times, Dickens sends Mr. Bounderby to the chemist, where he buys smelling salts as precaution before breaking the news that he’s engaged to be married. (The news wasn’t that big of a deal; no one fainted and the vial stayed corked.)
Years later, as they became standard for medical kits at hockey rinks and boxing rings, smelling salts were still associated with reviving the unconscious. In the current class-action lawsuit against the NHL, sections for at least nine individual ex-players invoke them to indicate improper treatment for head injuries. After an elbow once struck Craig Muni’s jaw in Vancouver, the defenseman started seeing stars, feeling off-balance and experiencing “a queasy stomach.” A few minutes later, after whiffing some sniffers, Muni returned to the ice. When Dennis Maruk blacked out from crashing headfirst into the boards with Washington, he “was given smelling salts, asked by a trainer how many fingers the trainer was holding up, and what his name was.”
“We only used it when we were knocked out,” says Florida GM Dale Tallon, a former defenseman. “That was our protocol.”
In today's world, of course, handling potential concussions with smelling salts would constitute gross malpractice. “If they have a head injury, the last thing you want is to be jerking their heads back,” said one Western Conference trainer. “That’s archaic.” But these are habits born long ago, hard to shake for more benign purposes. Wayne Gretzky used them for boosts during his playing days, then later while helming the Arizona Coyotes. Faulk estimated he started around age 16. Calgary forward Josh Jooris tried them once, had a good shift and made them part of his routine.
“Just gets me in that fired-up mode like I was playing,” explains Wild coach John Torchetti, who spent three seasons in the ECHL.
In mid-February, when Torchetti debuted behind Minnesota's bench, up from the minors after Mike Yeo was fired, cameras caught him catching a few whiffs while his players did the same in front of him. “For me, it’s like an awareness wakeup,” he said days later before his second game. “It’s almost like I build a rep into it, meaning I do it because it fires me up before the game, reminds me let’s be sharp and let’s be going. I don't know if it’s good for me to be doing it. I guess I’ll have to change and do it before the game so I’m not on TV.”
Even before Torchetti called his first line change, though, the burning had subsided. In fact, any initial energy can wear off by the time starters skate from the bench to the center dot. “It’s just sniff it, get up and you want to get out there and hit somebody,” Wild defenseman Nate Prosser says. “Then it’s gone within a few seconds, probably.”
So, at most, it provides a temporary boost and perhaps a slightly longer placebo effect, depending on the individual. Coyotes veteran Shane Doan, who says he hasn’t used them in three years, compared the experience to a quick window wipe at the gas pump, flushing out eyes weary from the road or the rink’s fluorescent lights.
For fourth-liners like Capitals center Michael Latta, this sometimes means sniffing the salts, feeling the rush and then waiting several minutes for his first shift. “Could be just mental,” he says. “Who knows. I think a lot of guys use it. Hockey’s very superstitious in their ways. It does give you a little jolt, whether it’s just in my head.”
Given the briefness of these sniffing sessions, health risks are virtually non-existent. “No reports of adverse health problems related to the use of smelling salts in sports,” the BJSM article concluded. At least, not for the ammonia itself. One year, Palmieri either squeezed too tight or used a shoddy brand, realizing this when he looked down and saw blood. “I never realized how they worked until I cut my finger open and I asked my trainer, ‘What just happened?’” he says.
Fewer and fewer players appear to be using smelling salts lately, estimates one Eastern Conference trainer who recalls seeing a minor-leaguer cram one package into each nostril and crack them inside his nose. “My first year in the league, everyone was doing it,” the trainer says. “They were f---ing out drinking all night, so they’d have to wake up before the game.”
But as a support staffer, hired to help the product, he feeds the routine just the same. He orders shipments before each season, hands out between eight or nine per game, and discards the extras over the glass or into the television station between the benches, while the players settle into their seats and ready for work.
“It’s a weird thing,” the trainer says, “but we do weird s--- anyways.”