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High Times Five years after he says he last smoked heroin, the L.A. Kings' Jere Karalahti looks back on his dreamy days on drugs

Jan. 21, 2002
Jan. 21, 2002

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Jan. 21, 2002

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High Times Five years after he says he last smoked heroin, the L.A. Kings' Jere Karalahti looks back on his dreamy days on drugs

Jere Karalahti's favorite movie is Oliver Stone's Natural Born
Killers, and when he thinks of the film's eerie, odd-angle shots
and the way its main character, the bald and wild-eyed Woody
Harrelson, surrenders to maniacal and murderous impulses,
Karalahti can't help but laugh. "It's just so wacky," he says.
"It's just the best movie."

This is an article from the Jan. 21, 2002 issue Original Layout

Karalahti, 26, plays defense for the Los Angeles Kings and his
affection for Killers is in perfect accord with the image he has
projected since arriving in the NHL midway through the 1999-2000
season. At 6'2", 210 pounds he plays an edgy, hard-hitting game.
His skull is as bald as that of Harrelson's character, and his
torso is covered with menacing, black-ink tattoos. Karalahti
wears a Mephistophelian goatee, and he looks out from pale-blue
eyes that fade to gray when the light is low. He has thick,
expressive eyebrows, one or the other of which tends to rise
when he is in thought.

Last month, over a plate of ravioli in an Italian restaurant
near the Manhattan Beach, Calif., home he shares with his wife,
Susanna, and his 1 1/2-year-old daughter, Ronja, Karalahti was
discussing one of his favorite subjects--movies--when he brought
up Trainspotting, the Scottish film that chronicles the lives of
young heroin addicts. Karalahti recalled the movie's narrator
talking about the pleasures of the heroin high. "When he says,
'Take the best orgasm you've ever had, multiply it by a thousand
and you're still nowhere near it'?" says Karalahti. "That's it.
That's what heroin is like."

Karalahti knows. He had a good time when he was on it, and he is
not shy about saying so. Though he says it has been five years
since he last smoked heroin--or used any other drugs--and
exactly that long since his arrest for possession of it and
other illegal substances rocked the Finnish hockey world, he
remembers his drug days with a dreamy fondness. Karalahti is
what you might call a successful user: He led a thriving life
even in the years when he was on narcotics, and he escaped the
drug world before it devoured him. Karalahti's involvement with
drugs ended because of circumstance--not because of waning
devotion.

When he returns to Finland in the off-season, Karalahti hears of
former drug buddies who are jobless or in jail, or who have been
shot or stabbed. "I always had hockey in my life," says
Karalahti. "The others had nothing. Two things saved me: I had
my sport, and I got caught. It didn't feel like it at the time,
but getting caught was the best thing that could have happened
to me. After that I had to make a choice between hockey and
drugs."

For several years Karalahti had chosen both, leading what he
calls "a double life." The middle of three boys, he grew up in a
three-bedroom apartment in Tapulikaupunki, 20 minutes from
downtown Helsinki. By the time he was seven, he was playing
organized hockey. His father, Arto, was about 10 years into his
career with the Finnish police force.

When Jere was 14, his parents divorced, and though he moved to a
nearby town with his mother, Merja, he spent much of his time in
Tapulikaupunki, where he hung out with his old friends and where,
by his mid-teens, he and his peers found drugs readily available.
"We started to run a little wild," he says. When Karalahti wasn't
playing hockey, he sought excitement elsewhere. With drugs--at
first marijuana, then cocaine--came a sense of daring, and he and
his friends began committing small robberies. They started with
cars and food markets, breaking in after nightfall. "It wasn't
that we needed the money," says Karalahti. "It was more the
thrill."

They especially thrilled in not getting caught, and close calls
added to the rush. Karalahti recalls the time he was pulled over
for speeding, the policeman writing a ticket, oblivious to the
collection of tall glass bongs in the backseat. In one
drug-enhanced gambol Karalahti and his crew broke into the
showroom of a luxury car dealership in Helsinki. First, they
drove a Porsche through the tall French doors at the front of the
store. Then, disgusted at the unsightly dents in the car, they
left it on the sidewalk, went back into the showroom and drove
another sports car through the gaping hole.

All the while Karalahti excelled in the Finnish hockey amateur
ranks, and in June 1993 the Kings selected him in the sixth round
of the draft. Karalahti, then 18, remained in Finland and signed
with HIFK, one of the country's elite clubs. "He was a great team
guy and an awesome player," says Kimmo Timonen of the Nashville
Predators. "He was my defense partner, and the way he played, you
couldn't tell he had a problem with drugs."

Timonen says he got a little worried in January 1995 when he,
Karalahti and the rest of Finland's junior national team came to
Red Deer, Alberta, to play in the world junior championships.
They arrived several days before the games began, and Karalahti
immediately went AWOL. He had met some Native Americans in a bar,
and they'd invited him to their reservation to get high.
Karalahti went on a mind-altering binge, spending close to 48
hours drinking and smoking various drugs with his new friends. "A
lot of it was just enjoying this big pipe with those guys and
looking up at the sky," he says.

When he returned to the team two days later, Karalahti admitted
where he'd been and, after a reprimand, was allowed to play in
the tournament. A few days later he scored a third-period goal as
Finland tied Sweden in a crucial game. "That's the best Jere
story," says Kings defenseman Mattias Norstrom. "Taking off to go
smoking with Indians? That's why we all call him Chief."

After that trip to Canada, Karalahti's drug use intensified. He
recalls tripping on LSD at a Pink Floyd concert in Germany.
Karalahti had also begun to smoke heroin, staying away from
needles because he was afraid his teammates would see track marks
on his arms. He loved the onset of the heroin high and how alive
he felt: Mr. King of the Earth. Now Karalahti speaks of heroin
almost protectively, emphasizing the pleasure of it and saying
that descending from the high "was not so bad for me. I was in
good shape from hockey."

Though he lost weight--at one point he dipped nearly 30 pounds
under his playing weight--his addiction didn't keep him from
being among the best players on the team. "He was great on the
ice, and he had nerves like ice," says Markku Hurme, a HIFK
teammate. "We liked him so much because he was always calm and
good to everyone. We started to understand something was wrong
though. He'd be late for practices, and afterward he'd
disappear. We would go out and do stuff together, but he was
never around."

By then, many of Karalahti's friends had begun to deal drugs.
Small forests of marijuana grew in the basements of houses where
Karalahti often spent days stoned in front of video games. Law
enforcement officials, however, were soon on to him and his
friends, and one morning, shortly before Christmas 1996,
Karalahti arrived to practice at HIFK arena to find policemen
waiting to arrest him.

He spent four days in a cell while officers searched his
apartment and interviewed his consorts. They found only
marijuana at Karalahti's place, but others in his ring had
implicated him in matters involving a variety of other drugs. He
eventually pleaded guilty to possession of 800 grams of
marijuana, 30 grams of amphetamines and 10 grams of heroin and,
thanks to his hockey connections, received only three months of
probation.

Karalahti, named to the Finnish national team just before the
arrest, is the only prominent Finnish hockey player ever
arrested for drugs. His story was carried in news reports for
days and took on added intrigue because Arto was a well-known
and respected police inspector. "They say parents are the last
to know," Arto says. "I didn't find out until someone came to me
and said, 'Arto, we have arrested your boy.' You can imagine how
difficult that was."

Karalahti was suspended from the Finnish league for the
remainder of that season, but HIFK continued to be supportive,
allowing him to practice with the team and arranging for him to
attend an eight-month rehab program. Karalahti, who had been
living alone, moved in with his father. "My body felt O.K.,"
says Karalahti, who began to train rigorously. "But it was hard
in my mind. With drugs, you think you're in charge, but you're
not. They are in charge of you. I knew I had to make a choice."

When he returned to HIFK in September 1997, he was, in Hurme's
words, "much more athletic than before." Karalahti had gained 30
pounds of muscle and a new dexterity. His powerful slap shot made
him a dangerous scorer, and he quickly became one of Europe's top
defensemen. In '98 and '99 he was named a first-team tournament
all-star as Finland took silver medals at the world
championships.

In the fall of 1999 the Kings were ready to bring him to the
NHL. Karalahti had to submit to months of drug testing before he
was granted Canadian and U.S. visas in November. The Kings liked
him for his versatility--a mixture of ruggedness and offensive
ability--and that year he had six goals and 10 assists in 48
games. Last season he finished second on the team with an
average of 2.84 hits per game, and in L.A.'s first-round playoff
upset of the Detroit Red Wings, Kings coach Andy Murray called
him "one of the best players on the ice." All told, he made 53
hits in 13 postseason games, including a crushing check of Joe
Sakic that forced the Avalanche center to miss two games with a
shoulder bruise.

That hard-nosed style suits Karalahti. He often dresses in
black, and he loves heavy metal music. His chest and back are
decorated with a web of tattoos: His left shoulder celebrates
Pantera's grating metal album Cowboys from Hell, and on his
right shoulder is a huge image of Odin, the Scandinavian war
god, whom Karalahti calls the god of death. "I don't know, maybe
I have these to remind me of what might have happened," he says.
"People in that world got hurt. I was lucky."

He will not, however, pretend that he has left that world
entirely behind. Last December the Kings were in Detroit when
Karalahti went out and, he says, "got a little crazy with the
drinking." The next day he was late for practice. "The only time
you worry about Chief is when you don't see him," says Norstrom.
"Most guys, when they're late, it's not a huge deal. With him, we
worry: Where is he?"

The Kings immediately sent Karalahti to Los Angeles, where he
tested negative for drugs. He entered the NHL's substance abuse
program and since then has undergone twice-weekly testing for
drugs and alcohol. Karalahti says he was touched that the Kings
cared. "Now I have to stay out of trouble," he says. "I have to
get myself to work every day."

Karalahti lives in a town house overlooking the Pacific with
Susanna, whom he met 6 1/2 years ago in Finland and married in
May 2000. He's in the second year of a three-year, $2.4 million
contract, but he is always aware, he says, that he could lose it
all with one misstep. In Helsinki, school groups ask Karalahti
to preach to kids about the evils of drug use. He refuses. "I
can't do it, it's too close still," he says. "You'll hear a song
on the radio, and it will bring you back to that time, you know?
I have a great wife and a beautiful girl, and the money's crazy
right now. But I can't say I'd never go back to the drugs. I
don't think you can ever say that."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL O'NEILLCOLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Coming to America Karalahti had to submit to months of drug testing to get his visas and play for L.A.
"Getting caught was the best thing that could have happened to
me. After that I had to make a choice between hockey and drugs."