Requiem for a Hockey Dream

Before money became involved in my hockey career, I never gave painkillers a thought or even really knew what they were or how powerful they could be.  The first time I was introduced to them was during my sophomore year in college.  I dislocated my SC joint, the area at the top of your chest where the sternum meets the collarbone.  Since the injury was one of those hockey injuries that you gut out and play through, I was given a figure-eight brace to wear and some painkillers.

Throughout my career, nearly half of the guys I played with were on one type of pain med or another.  At any given time, players would be taking various types of pain meds in order to play through separated shoulders, sprained knees or ankles, broken ribs, herniated discs, or strained backs.  Some guys were even getting cortisone shots in order to suit up.  There was a constant pressure to play through injuries.  You see, in hockey there is a stigma surrounding players that go on the injured reserve (IR).  Being on the IR means you are a “Band-aid” (Someone who is always getting hurt) or soft, so you do whatever you can to make sure you never have to miss time due to injury.

A couple trips to the IR and coaches start to forget about you.  If a team sees a history in a player of missing time due to injury they will shy away from drafting them or signing them.  If the player spends time on the IR, he is one of two things.  He is either prone to injury and in essence, a lemon, or he is soft and weak and doesn’t have what it takes to compete and grind it out at high levels.  Since you don’t want to get tagged with a bad reputation, you do whatever you have to do to play and keep progressing.

In the minors, playing in leagues such as the AHL, ECHL and CHL, you are likely someone who can easily be replaced.  If you suffer a major injury, such as tear up a knee or sustain a serious concussion, two things happen while you rot away on the IR.  Firstly, you get a black mark on your record of durability as a player.  People will now start to look at you as a pathetic cripple who may never bounce back and will surely be a shadow of his former self if he ever does.  Secondly, another player has been called up to replace you and has now been given a shot to take your spot for good.  When you do return from the IR, you will have to compete with the player who is filling your shoes to regain your job and role.  Keep in mind that you haven’t been in a game situation in probably three months and this other player is in peak form.

In the minors, unless you’re on a two-way deal with a big club, you’re in a tough spot because contracts aren’t guaranteed for the year.  As long as you are medically cleared to play, you can be released at any time.  When I was in the ECHL and CHL, we had the Professional Hockey Players Association (PHPA) and they would tell us never to play hurt.  They would say, “Just tell your coach that you don’t feel right to play and we’ll have your back if any issue arises.”  That sounded great in theory but if you were to ever tell a coach you didn’t feel like playing because your shoulder was sore, they would say, “OK no problem.  We’ll put you on the 7-day IR.”  The next day they would trade for another player and when you would come off that 7-day IR, you’d get the tap from the trainer to go see coach in his office, who would be waiting to tell you that you’ve been put on waivers.

In my first year in the ECHL, we were working out at our practice facilty that had soft, rut-filled ice.  I got caught up in a rut down in the corner and suffered a bad high ankle sprain.  I remember I felt a sharp pop above the boot of my skate and thought for sure that I had broken my fibula.  An X-Ray showed a significant separation in the bones and the doctor said I suffered a high ankle sprain.  A teammate of mine had suffered the same injury the year before and said that I would have been better off breaking my leg.

Since it was only a sprain and could be taped up, it was one of those injuries that you could technically play with.  I ended up playing through the injury, but the pain was so bad that my entire leg went numb when I’d take a hard stride on the bad leg.  To help get through it I was prescribed with Vicodin and Tinanzidine.  Ironically, at around the same time, two leagues above me, Sidney Crosby suffered the same injury and missed two months.  The difference was I was easily replaceable while Crosby was the face of hockey and the NHL’s biggest asset.

When you’re playing through an injury, one of the downsides among many obvious ones is that you are putting yourself at risk for other injuries by overcompensating.  When I had the high ankle-sprain, I struggled through five games until I ended up tearing my ACL, MCL and PCL in my right knee.  I was taking pills for the pain and with the ankle taped up, I was overcompensating in the way I was playing.  I had to alter my stride a bit because I couldn’t flex my foot the way I normally did.  We were playing in Cincinnati and I pinched in at the blue line and my bad foot got wedged behind their winger’s leg and I felt a sharp, numb pain shoot through my leg, which was happening a lot with the banged up ankle.  I went to quickly withdraw my foot and push off and when I did, my right leg collapsed under my body and got tucked under my right hip.  At that point the knee completely buckled underneath me.

Playing with that bad ankle left me open to other injuries and eventually it was my knee that paid the price.  I ended up having reconstructive surgery and was slated to miss the rest of the season.  I was pissed off at everyone, including myself when I injured my knee.  I knew I shouldn’t have been playing, but also knew that if I didn’t I wouldn’t have had a job when I came back.  I was mad at myself for allowing myself to get hurt and mad at the team for putting me in that position.  I ended up carrying that anger and resentment with me for a long time.

When you’re out with a major injury like a torn ACL, you basically become an afterthought.  All of a sudden, you are in your own world where your new teammates are the training staff and rehab team.  You don’t workout with your teammates anymore.  You don’t practice.  When you finally get to go back on the ice, you’re practicing by yourself just before or after the team conducts their full practice.  You don’t go with the team on road trips, which is where the real team bonding and gelling takes place.  You basically become an outcast.  Half the time, your teammates don’t want to be around you because you remind them that bad things can happen at any time.  It’s almost like you are a disease.

All of these feelings of loneliness and worthlessness combine with the pain of not being able to compete and it begins to eat away at you.  You are filled with doubt.  You don’t know what the future will hold for you.  Doctors tell you that the chances of making a full recovery are good but there is always the chance that the graft won’t take or that the knee can be reinjured.  You used to laugh and joke with the coach and feel valued and now he walks past you and nods while trying to avoid any type of conversation or contact.  Literally everything in your world is turned on its head.

For the first few hours after surgery, you feel like you can do anything.  You’re still hopped up on the good meds from the hospital and the femoral block in your leg is still in effect.  The next morning, you feel as though you have been hit by a truck.  For the next three days after the surgery you feel as though every hangover in your life has come back all at once to haunt you.  These are the days when the five prescriptions the doctors gave you become more important than food.  You look at the pill bottles, stacked like perfect glistening silos on your bedside table and you open each one.  Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet, Tinanzidine, and some other type of muscle relaxant, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.  All of a sudden you feel euphoric.  The dull pain that feels like it’s coming from the pit of your bones and body is gone.  Your self-pity and constant state of post-injury depression fades away.  You feel like a normal human being again, but only better.

They tell you not to drink while you take these pills, but you do.  Why?  Because you did it before and nothing bad happened.  Back when you didn’t even know what it was you were taking.  Besides, one of your teammates read an article that said professional athletes are bigger and stronger and their bodies can absorb more than the average human being.  So it’s ok to have a few drinks and take your pills.  Part of you also doesn’t care anymore and you just want to do what you want to do.

You embrace the party more when you’re injured, because it’s the only time you feel like you’re a valued member of the team.  When it comes to parties, you’re now the guy who has all the pills.  Guys you barely hung out with before the injury become your best friends.  It’s always, “You’re the best man.  I love you!  By the way, do you have any of that Oxy I can grab from ya?”  You’re being used but in the emotional state you’re in, you’ll take whatever you can get to make you feel relevant again.

You start to ask yourself, why did they give me five prescriptions anyway?  It seems even more strange when you go to the doctor and every two weeks he’s offering to refill your scripts.  Even if you took them as prescribed every day, you wouldn’t even be half-way through the bottles.  Since everyone wants them, you go along with it.  This is how the team cache is built.  You question it again.  Why so many pills?  Then you remember that we live in a greed-driven society and that pharmaceutical company fat cats pad their ridiculous bank accounts on the back of addiction and depression.  They grease the palms of the medical service industry to push their product.  The rich get richer.

The rehab for the injury is worse than the injury itself.  You’re getting probed at the doctor’s and then heading over to the rehab centre where they grind out your scar tissue and make you ride, step up and stride until your leg feels like it’s going to explode.  After that, its ultrasound and ice baths and more treatments that make you feel worse.  All the while, in the back of your head you keep thinking, this could all be for nothing.  The game that you make your triumphant comeback in could be the game where you tear it all up again, putting you back to square one.

Once you’ve had the taste of what painkillers can do for you when you are at your lowest point both emotionally and physically, you begin to make them a part of your daily regime.  With a 72-game regular season in the minors, the daily grind takes its toll on you.  That 72-game season includes “Hard” travel.  What I mean by hard travel is that you are shuttling around the country on buses and not flying charters like you would if you could only reach the fleeting dream you are constantly driving towards.  To save money, owners set up schedules so that you will be sleeping on the bus overnight instead of in hotels.  You crawl into a bunk that is big enough that your shoulders touch on each side of the two-inch thick pleather covered mattress pad but small enough that you have to tuck your legs up a bit because your body is too long to lay out straight.

Sleeping on the bus is hard with the cramped space, loud voices and bouncing and banging with every bump the bus goes over on the highway.  You get to a point where you’re exasperated.  You’re sore because you’ve just played 8 games in the last 10 days and you haven’t had a good night’s sleep since the last time you played at home.  Finally, you bitch about it to one of the guys and he hands you a couple of pills and says, “Take these and you’ll wake up in Laredo and feel like you just slept for a week.”  You take them and he’s right!  You go out that night and play with more energy than you have in months.  That’s how it starts with pills on the road.

One of the most difficult aspects of the whole situation regarding painkillers in professional sports is the stigma surrounding it.  Most of the public perception is that taking pain pills is a choice that people make and when they get addicted, it is their own fault.  The problem with the pills is that you either use them to make sure you can get out of bed each day and function on the ice, or you give up the dream that you’ve been chasing your whole life and find some other line of work.  Also, it’s not like these pills are kept under lock and key and physicians are saying, “Only take these if you absolutely need them.”  They are being literally shoved down athletes’ throats.  The pharmaceutical industry is big business and professional athletes are a big part of their customer base.

In the minors, med pill abuse was rampant and was definitely an issue that was grossly ignored.  I can’t speak for the NHL level at this point but I know that for minor leaguers, who make significantly less money, painkillers were just a part of day-to-day life.   For a long-shot prospect in the minors, where guarantees are as good as the discount paper they are written on, if taking painkillers was a way to keep your job and keep the dream alive, then you were going to do it.

In hockey, pain medicine use isn’t regulated and it’s something that is completely legal.  As long as you have pain, you can be prescribed with the pills.  Playing a sport like hockey and going full-tilt and head to head with 6’3, 215 lbs athletes 72 times a year, you’re going to experience a lot of pain.  The human body isn’t designed to take contact the way that it does shift after shift in a hockey game.  Since you aren’t breaking any rules and it makes it easier for you to go out every night and perform, you don’t feel like you are doing anything wrong.  You put trust in the system thinking that if this was something that was going to hurt me, they wouldn’t be letting us do it.

It never crosses your mind that these pills will consume your life and start tearing it apart.  I’ve seen scarred up minor pro lifers who were once top prospects have their life ripped apart from painkiller addictions.  Guys who were stars in junior and drafted by NHL teams, some that even played in the show, needed the pills to keep working and putting food on the table for their kids and didn’t realize how badly they were addicted while everything was crashing down around them.  They hook you because pain and depression go hand in hand.  When you take the pills, they make all that go away, but when you come off those euphoric effects, it all comes back and punches you square in the face.  So to feel good again you take more.  Since athletes are bigger and stronger, they tend to need bigger doses in order to satisfy the need.  As you’re dealing with bigger and bigger doses and your body becomes accustomed, you get to levels that are extremely dangerous and potentially lethal.

The fact of the matter is that player unions and professional leagues alike are failing their athletes.  By not addressing the painkiller issue, leagues like the NHL, AHL, ECHL and all the way down are turning a blind eye to a serious issue that is ruining lives and putting people in perilous danger.  The reason I say people and not just players is that a depressed, addicted athlete is unpredictable in what they might do.  At their lowest points it’s not uncommon for addicts to harm others around them as well as themselves.  There needs to be regulation on these harmful drugs in professional sports and more needs to be done to protect injured athletes, especially at the minor league level.  Outsiders will say that these guys choose to live like this and if they don’t like it, they should just get a job like everyone else.  The point isn’t whether or not it’s a choice, it’s that it all can be prevented and avoided.

On May 13, 2011, NHL winger Derek Boogaard died as a result of a lethal combination of oxycodone and alcohol.  Boogaard had been sidelined with post-concussion syndrome and was experiencing extreme depression.  His death, coupled with the eerily-similar tragic deaths of NHL colleagues Rick Rypien and Wade Belak within the same year, sent a chill through the hockey world.  Yet after the debates and public media banter fizzled out, the proverbial other cheek was turned before long and everything went back to business as usual.  If anything, these deaths were chalked up to the fault of rising concussion rates, while the issue of painkillers was swept under the carpet and hidden in the veil of gray smoke.

In 2013, the Boogaard family filed a wrongful death suit against the NHL alleging that the team physicians of the Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers carelessly prescribed Boogaard with painkillers that led to his addiction and that the drug treatment programs arranged by the NHL failed to properly conduct treatment, knowing Boogaard’s history with painkillers and the nature of his profession.  When I first heard of the lawsuit I thought to myself, “It’s about time.”  I am actually surprised that more athletes haven’t come forward with these types of lawsuits.  If more people come forward and make a stand, then change surrounding the issue of painkillers and the harmful effects on professional hockey might take place.  The more the issue is ignored, the worse things are going to get.

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

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