Riley Cote broke the rules constantly throughout his career with the Philadelphia Flyers. He scored just one goal and six assists in his 156 NHL games. But as an enforcer, Cote’s success was measured in infractions, and by that standard — with more than 50 fights and 411 penalty minutes — he did just fine.
The Enforcer’s Career
It was a short career, but one Cote wouldn’t have had at all if he wasn’t willing to throw punches with some of the toughest players in the league. And like many of the players he went punch for punch with, his trade caused him an enormous amount of physical and mental stress.
To deal with that stress, Cote turned to cannabinoids whenever he could.
“I’d quietly use it as an ally of mine. It helped me manage anxiety and pain” he says. “There was no physical addiction. It just made me feel better.”
Since his retirement in 2010, Cote helped found Athletes for Care — a non-profit organization that advocates for holistic approaches to wellness for current and retired athletes. Today he says he was far from alone among hockey players in consuming cannabis products — even in leagues where the practice was outright banned.
NHL Players Smoke Cannabis
“Good people break bad laws, I guess,” he says. “At least half of those guys consumed, and a fraction of those guys consumed regularly. Like, every day…. And that number is probably higher.”
While Cote’s estimate is anecdotal (and possibly hyperbolic, as some critics suggest), it does speak to a growing conversation about medicinal use of cannabis in pro sports.
NHL Cannabis Restrictions
Cannabis is not on the NHL’s list of banned substances because it isn’t considered performance-enhancing. But that doesn’t mean it’s officially condoned. It is one of many drugs players are tested for under the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, run jointly by the NHL and NHLPA.
According to Cote, a player who tests positive for a hard “street drug” such as ecstasy or cocaine will likely have to enter the league substance-abuse program for about a month. But a player who tests positive for THC, the primary intoxicant obtained from cannabis, will only receive a call. Either way, the test results aren’t revealed publicly, whereas a positive result for performance-enhancing drugs would be.
That approach, Cotes says, keeps most positive tests for cannabis use under wraps.
“Nobody I’ve heard of has tested positive strictly for THC and been thrown in the substance-abuse program,” says Cote.
The Final Hit
The NHL’s apparent blind-eye approach is considered to be more progressive than the more punitive regulations of the NBA and NFL, where players have to join a substance-abuse program for an initial positive test, and subsequent positive tests lead to fines and suspensions.
Recently, however, there have been hints at a shift in mindset from both the NBA and NFL.
Former NBA commissioner David Stern recently said that he believes the NBA should allow medical and recreational cannabis use.
The Washington Post has reported that the NFL reached out to the NFLPA about studying the use of cannabis as a pain-management tool.