Between October and April of any given year, you will drop your battered self into an airplane seat on 80 or so occasions and rack up between 50,000 and 90,000 air miles.
You play an average of three games a week, and most of the time you’re suffering from a sprain, a strain, a tear or a break of one type or another.
So what do you do to withstand the maelstrom? In many cases the answer lies in the miracle of modern pharmaceuticals.
“You’ve just played a game, you have to travel, you’re up early the next day for a practice, maybe you’ve slept badly, maybe you’ve got other things going on at home or wherever, so for sure, pills can become a popular option for some guys,” the Vancouver Canucks’ Alex Burrows, whose team has one of the most demanding travel schedules in the NHL, said earlier this season.
In speaking to more than a dozen current NHL players and to several agents and hockey executives over the past five months, it is apparent the nexus of scheduling, player safety and travel is forming a little-noticed backdrop to the coming collective bargaining between the league and its players.
The life of the modern NHL player is not all first-class charters and swank hotels, there is also an eye-glazing amount of drudgery and crippling late-night flights and early morning practices, all of it seasoned with a generous pinch of fear – of injury, of unemployment, of failing on the ice.
As grinds go it’s fun, and handsomely remunerated; players happily embark, but even the fittest risk becoming tenderized by the end.
One Western Conference star described the perilous cycle thusly: industrial quantities of caffeine or over-the-counter decongestants (or both) to get up for games, alcohol and/or sleeping pills to tamp down post-game adrenalin, get up early for video and practice, rinse, repeat.
Since the death of former New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard, who accidentally overdosed on a cocktail of pain medication and booze last year, and the subsequent deaths of NHL tough guys Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, the league and its teams have followed up on a public pledge by commissioner Gary Bettman to amend the NHL’s substance-abuse and behavioural policy, and have quietly tightened the rules concerning the way medication is dispensed in dressing rooms.
Sources also said the two physicians who oversee the NHL/NHLPA substance-abuse and behavioural-health program, Brian Shaw and David Lewis, made a point during their annual tour of the league’s dressing rooms of stressing the perils of sharing pills, whether they are for pain or sleep. According to multiple sources, the NHL Players’ Association and the NHL had discussions before this past season to find ways to control the availability of drugs – some teams apparently now keep a detailed log of their players’ prescriptions and refills.
“They’re trying to do it in order to make steps in the right direction so that what happened [last] summer doesn’t happen again in the near future,” the Boston Bruins’ Milan Lucic said in an interview in the early stages of the season.
But as with most other aspects of the league, policies vary from team to team, and no system is perfect.
Conversations with players and other officials throughout the league reveal that while the prevalence of opiates such as Oxycodone in NHL dressing rooms has been well-documented, the same is true of sleeping aids such as the prescription drug Ambien, which many players privately claim are popular among NHLers.
Generally speaking, there’s a ready supply of whatever a player needs to dull the pain or find sleep – all it takes is a teammate with an extra tablet or two in his shaving kit.
“It still goes on and it always will, guys pass pills around,” said a recently retired NHLer who played the bulk of his career in the Western Conference, where travel schedules are the most punishing.
And despite all the good will and best intentions of the league and the players’ union – and there is plenty of evidence of both from both – the central problem is intractable.
Because of the complexities of schedule-making and the financial situation of teams and the multipurpose buildings they play in, the simplest solution for improving the players’ lot – spreading out the games or playing fewer of them – isn’t practical.
So the specific demands in the eventual contract negotiations will likely have to do with details such as minimizing the number of back-to-back games.
But some players are beginning to advocate for more sweeping change.
Though the NHLPA has yet to pick its bargaining committee for the contract negotiations – an announcement is said to be imminent – there is talk it may seek to address some of the nuts and bolts regarding the league schedule and associated logistical issues at the negotiating table.
The other main barrier is a cultural one – professional hockey does all sorts of things that make little or no sense from a high-performance training standpoint.
Reams of studies have concluded it’s best for athletes to train around the same time they compete and that rest is as important as effort.
And yet hockey teams, which invariably play in the evening, universally practise in the morning. Game-day skates, pioneered in the NHL by former Chicago Blackhawks coach Rudy Pilous to keep his players from carousing too late, are another tradition that runs counter to the science.
“Their main usefulness is as mental preparation, routine, there’s no discernible physical benefit. In my view they should only ever be optional, to have everyone skate is an aberration. Everyone recovers differently, everyone needs different levels of rest,” said Georges Larivière, an emeritus professor of kinesiology at the Université de Montreal who has long studied hockey players. “And everyone knows that no practice is truly optional if you’re a rookie or a fourth-line player.”
For all that, many players are comfortable with the ritual – beyond the patchwork of practices among NHL teams, there is a range of opinion expressed by those in uniform.
“I think you at least have to give guys the option, I know I like to feel the ice and get my legs going,” said 23-year-old Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban.
Among other players, the complaints are legion: coaches who insist players be at the rink for team meetings barely six hours after their charter has flown in; practice ice that is dangerously rutted and chippy because of the number of concerts and other events held in a typical NHL arena.
Larivière said teams typically don’t pay as much attention as they should to rest and recovery or to individual training and that the NHL routine becomes “a vicious circle.”
Other professional sports leagues, such as the NFL, have clauses in their collective agreements that limit the amount of time players can spend at the team facility and stipulate things such as the length of practices.
The NHL has no such strictures. The closest thing is Article 16.6 of the CBA, which reads: “practice sessions shall be scheduled at reasonable times in accordance with the general practice of clubs in the league.”
Some players see that as an area for improvement.
“The more guys are tired, the more likely they are to get hurt. This is going to be an issue [in the negotiations], maybe not the biggest issue, but it’s something a lot of guys are talking about,” said a player representative from an Eastern Conference team. Though the NHLPA has yet to set its negotiating positions, an official with the union said the player’s characterization “is accurate as far as we’re concerned.”
It’s not as though teams are completely insensitive to the concerns.
Many coaches only hold optional game-day skates and limit full-fledged practices to once or twice a week – and league-wide there is unprecedented emphasis on nutrition, preventive therapy and hockey-specific fitness training.
More and more teams are altering their travel policies and plumping for an extra night’s stay in a hotel after road games in faraway cities.
Several teams on the cutting edge, the Canucks and Calgary Flames chief among them, have done things such as consulting sleep doctors and arranging their practice and travel schedules in such a way as to minimize the physical demands on players.
“The games are so close, rest becomes a big factor,” Burrows said. “They’ve given us tricks to control our breathing, methods to help us sleep, whether it’s iPhone apps or other things to lower your heart rate and allow you to get better sleep. It works.”
But evidently not for everyone.