Does the NHL have a painkiller problem?
By Stu Hackel
Ian Laperrière is a highly respected NHLer, a warrior and leader, a man who didn't fear the consequences of throwing his body at speeding pucks and who paid the price for it with lost teeth, lost vision and an entire lost season while he suffered from post-concussion syndrome. He certainly earned the 2011 Bill Masterton Trophy for his perseverance and dedication to hockey. And when he spoke last week on a Montreal radio station, reflecting on the NHL's dark summer, Laperriere raised a concern that should resonate throughout the hockey world, if only because of the messenger's credibility.
"Today the biggest problem, which isn’t talked about...is pills. It’s painkillers,” Laperrière said.
Laperrière knows something about pain and medicating it. In addition to losing seven teeth and getting hit in the eye with pucks during the 2009-10 season, he's had abdominal surgery, an operation to remove bone chips and scar tissue from his knee, and various hand, back, groin and neck ailments that forced him from the lineup at times during his career. “After my operations...I took two or three [pills] a day to ease the pain. But there are guys who take it just for the buzz," he said Friday morning over CKAC Radio (audio), the French language all-sports station.
“[Painkillers] are appropriate for those who need them," he said. "If I just had an operation, I may take my pills for two days, but the doctor gives me pills for twelve days. There are pills left over.”
And those leftover pills are apparently provided by some NHLers to their teammates.
Asked by host Michel Langevin how many players might be taking painkillers on a given team, whether or not they really need them, Laperrière responded, “The teams that I’ve played on, I would say four or five guys per team, and those are the ones I saw.”
Those who seek the buzz should concern the hockey world. “There is also a huge, huge problem when guys take them with alcohol," Laperriere added. "At night, they’ll go out to a bar, have a drink or two.” It was that mixture of alcohol with Oxycodone that caused the death of Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard in May. “People thought, ‘He died of painkillers, okay, he died.’ But no one talked about it....I think it’s a huge problem that we didn’t talk about it."
Boogaard's family disclosed after his death that he had battled addiction for some time. As Larry Brooks first reported in The New York Post, Boogaard had received counseling in the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, and The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that when Boogaard missed most of training camp and the first two weeks of the 2009-10 season under the guise of a concussion, he actually was entered into Stage 1 of the program. UPDATE: For more on Boogaard's painkiller addiction, read Michael Russo's story in Wednesday's Star-Tribune.
Laperrière's words did not get the exposure they should have. Some of that is because they were spoken at the outset of the Labor Day weekend. Also they were in French and not widely circulated to the rest of the hockey world. (Thanks to Marc Enners, aka Marc 10, who alerted us to the CKAC interview in his comment to a recent post in The Montreal Gazette's Hockey Inside/Out blog, and to Cassie Hackel for the translation).
Additionally, CKAC itself became more of a story in Montreal later in the day when, sadly and strangely, it dumped its all-sports format, replacing it with round the clock traffic, road work, and weather reports.
But there have been other articles, blog posts and interviews on this subject and they all tell the same story. The Globe and Mail website posted a story by Sean Gordon and Alan Maki late on Friday about the use of painkillers in the NHL. Along with Laperrière, ex-NHLers Brantt Myhres and Denis Gauthier were quoted, and both suggested that using painkillers is especially a problem among fighters.
“Of the 17 teams I played on, the majority of the fighters were the ones who dove into those substances,” said Myhres, who played on six NHL teams. “It’s a situation that needs attention.” A former fighter The Globe and Mail identifies as a former drug addict, Myhres is now a substance-abuse counsellor.
Gauthier, a former defenseman, said people don’t “appreciate what a tough guy goes through just to be healthy for the game. Everyone in hockey plays hurt, an enforcer usually hurts more than another guy – and they can’t back down, they always have to be physically ready.”
Gauthier also told Gordon and Maki, “I used to go see the guys who had just had surgery and ask them if they had any extra [painkillers] I could have....Percocets are golden in the hockey world.”
Laperrière had a similar observation in The Globe and Mail when discussing the death last week of recently retired NHL tough guy Wade Belak, saying, “I don’t know if Belak took these things or not, and I don’t want to speculate, but I will say this: Show me a tough guy and I’ll show you someone who pops pills.”
However, the use of the pills combats more than physical pain, as Gauthier recounted. “When Philadelphia sent me down to the minors, I went from 10 years of five-star hotels and first-class airplanes to riding the bus for 12 hours. It was a huge shock, it was tough. So, sometimes, I’d take a pill to try and relax and get some sleep, forget about everything for a while.”
Around the time Laperrière was speaking on CKAC, an interview with his former Flyers teammate and fellow fighter Riley Cote was posted by Mike Darling on the Men's Health magazine website. In it, Cote, who is now an assistant coach with the Flyers' AHL Adirondack Phantoms farm team, admitted to occasional Percocet use when he played, but says he knew the dangers and never became addicted. A self-confessed health freak, Cote has similar tales to the ones told by the others. "When I took a pill, I knew how bad they were for me, but what’s a guy to do? Your knuckles, your head are swollen, you’re out of options. Sure, you could suck it up, I guess. But if you want something, there’s a way to get it. Nobody’s pushing it on you, but you can get it if you want it."
Asked if teams or team doctors were to blame, Cote answered, "A lot of these guys are getting them from the black market, not from their doctors. Of course, doctors are overprescribing them, too. You hear about it all the time — somebody injures a hand and winds up with a prescription for 30 Percocet and two refills. Worse, these painkillers mask your emotional pain. They kill your ability to feel. Things that would normally bother you don’t bother you anymore. I can say this: Our team has never overprescribed this stuff, but I do know it happens....
"At the end of the day, the NHL is fighting the pharmaceutical industry," Cote continued. "The drugs on the street and on the black market will always be there. On the league’s part, maybe they could more closely monitor what the trainers have in their stock. Every Oxycodone pill should be accounted for. If there’s one missing, somebody’s in trouble. They could better educate people, too. Modern medicine is all about popping pills. It’s socially acceptable, and yet if you listen to the commercials there’s 16 side effects for every drug that cures indigestion. We should be educating people more, explaining what these medications can do to your body, to your liver. Some guys think, it’s OK -- I’ll just pop a Percocet—and then suddenly you’re building a tolerance. And it’s not just sports, it’s all across the board. Any time you mix stress and personal issues with chemicals, and put it in a blender, bad things will happen."
To Cote, the death of Boogaard was preventable.
On Sunday, over Montreal Radio Team 990's show The Franchise, Cote spoke with hosts Gary Whittaker and Nick Murdocco and producer Amanda Stein about his Men's Heath interview (audio) and was asked if the recent deaths of Boogaard, Belak and Rick Rypien indicated this was a pattern among fighters. "In my opinion, it's a complete coincidence and ironic that it's three enforcers. I mean, I think it's across the board in general and in all sports and it just happens to be three tough guys. And that's unfortunate because it really magnifies the role and really brings a red flag on the role. I mean, look at the history of hockey and tough guys, We haven't heard of this problem until this summer....What's changed in the last while? The one common denominator would be painkillers, pills."
And while these reports are all from the last few days, they're hardly the only penetrating looks at the issue. A few weeks ago former minor league pro Justin Bourne posted an article on Yahoo's Puck Daddy blog in which he recounted his first-hand experiences and observations of how painkillers are used in pro hockey, and not just by players who were the fighters.
"When you're playing in the minors, they're always around," Bourne wrote. "You don't have to stop. I have no idea if use is as prevalent in the NHL as they are in the ECHL, but there was certainly plenty of casual use by guys on the way up....When you talk to any hockey player in his mid-20s and beyond, a huge majority of them have endured something horribly painful that required these pills. And I mean required them. Just by nature itself, some people are hard-wired to love 'em, some are hard-wired to hate 'em. When you run enough pills through enough guys, it's inevitable you're going to hit a handful that love 'em just a touch too much."
It's uncertain how widespread this problem is in the game, but it seems very unlikely that it's isolated to a couple of players here or there. If Laperrière is right and four or five guys per team are regular painkiller users, that's nearly a fourth of all NHL players, an alarming number. You hope that is an overestimation, but you fear that it's not. It is a major issue on which the NHL and NHLPA need to get a handle.