Thursday, September 8, 2011

Does the NHL Have Issues?

Are headshots and concussions the biggest issues facing the NHL right now?

Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby met with the media on Wednesday to update his battle with post-concussion symptoms, and pulled no punches when asked if he thinks the expanded Rule 48 goes far enough in the fight against headshots.

Under the new rule, most hits to the head will now result in a minor penalty. The 24-year-old Crosby, who hasn’t played since early January, says though that there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be an all-out ban on headshots in the NHL.

I bet Marc Savard, David Perron and countless others would agree with him there (though Scott Stevens might not), but is player safety as it pertains to headshots and concussions really the biggest problem facing the league right now?

Maybe not.

There were two articles that caught my eye this week, both hinting at a much bigger problem within the ranks of the NHL.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune's Michael Russo recently spoke with Ryan Boogaard about the life and death of his brother Derek, who spent five years with the Minnesota Wild before moving on to the NY Rangers.

It turns out that Boogaard struggled with an addiction to painkillers and was in and out of rehab twice between 2009 and his death in May of this year, which was caused by an accidental overdose of alcohol and Oxycodone. His other brother is accused of giving him the drugs that day, but Russo says some players have also admitted to sharing prescription drugs like Percocet with teammates as well.

Ryan Boogaard says in the article that there is “a lot of prescription pill drug abuse in the NHL.”

Former Philadelphia Flyers tough guy Riley Cote lends some credibility to that statement in an interview with Men's Health from earlier this month, entitled “The NHL’s Worst Summer Ever.”

The Adirondack Phantoms assistant coach, who recently retired from the NHL after four seasons, says the life of a hockey enforcer is a struggle, both mentally and physically. For the physical pain, there are pills, which Cote says also end up masking the emotional pain.

He says teams don’t push drugs on players, but it’s easy enough to get them if you want them.

“A lot of these guys are getting them from the black market, not from their doctors. Of course, doctors are over-prescribing 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.”

Cote says he thinks drugs like Oxycodone should be banned from pro sports, because “those things are designed for emergency cases,” adding that he knows people who are addicted to them and they are “bad news.” At the very least, he says the NHL should closely monitor what trainers have in their stock and if pills go missing, somebody should be in trouble.

Does the NHL have a drug problem?

It’s probably no worse in hockey than it is in any of the other major pro sports, but that doesn’t mean the league shouldn’t give this the same treatment as its battle to reduce concussions.

If we learn anything from the tragic deaths that have rocked the NHL community this summer, it should be that looking out for the mental health of players is just as important as making sure they’re safe on the ice.

What do you think: Should the NHL look into reports of prescription pill drug abuse, or is it probably just a few isolated problems?

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