When Dr. Feelgood Rides the Bus

First things first, if you haven’t already read Justin Bourne’s latest at Puck Daddy about painkillers in hockey, do so immediately. He raises a lot of excellent points and was the inspiration for this follow-up.

I saw a lot of things playing hockey. Most were wonderful. Some were scary, bordering on horrifying. And others were sad and a little disappointing. I won’t claim to be perfect, or that I am without vices of my own, but I generally steered clear of trouble (to the point where my parents recently admitted that they sorta hoped I’d do something “bad” or “reckless” once in a while, since apparently volunteering to get hit by guys twice my size going 30mph or lay my body in front of frozen rubber moving 100mph isn’t quite reckless enough). When it came to things like drugs and alcohol, I was — and continue to be — as far removed from that world as you can be.

I’ll have a glass of wine with dinner from time to time. Or sit down for a beer with my father-in-law. And that’s about the extent of it. I can count on a single finger how many times I’ve been fall-down drunk where I needed help functioning. It’s a horrible feeling, and I can’t understand why people volunteer to feel that way often.

During a painful off-season that has seen the hockey world lose two young and promising men in Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, you begin to reflect on some of the memories of your own playing days and frighteningly piece together eerie similarities. Painkillers have been at least partly to blame for one of those deaths, and we’re not quite sure about the other one just yet.

Both were tough guys, and it remains to be seen if chronic traumatic encephalopathy played a part in their deaths, as it may have with legendary fighter Bob Probert. And while I agree with many of my fellow bloggers that it might be inappropriate timing to breach the subject of fighting’s place in the game at the moment, it is a subject that’s going to have to be discussed. Personally, I’ve always thought that fighting does have a place in the sport, and that the guys that do it are among the more noble of athletes. But if what they do is, quite literally, killing young men, it may be time to take a closer look. But that’s a conversation for another day.

Today’s problem is drug use in our game. Despite Boogaard’s death, you can’t convince me that drug use is rampant in hockey or that it’s a problem among our players. In fact, I’d bet my house on the exact opposite. Compared to basketball and football (and even baseball, if you count steroids), I’d wager that hockey is the cleanest of all of the major sports. But while we may think of our heroes as saints, they are human after all and many will indulge in what will squarely be viewed as a dark side from this day forward.

As early as 14, I remember kids taking mild painkillers before games, and without any existing injury, to take the edge off of the inevitable body checks they were about to receive. I politely refused when offered, preferring instead to feel every bone in my body as they throbbed after big collisions (that kind of pain lets you know you’re alive is what it does).

Bourne is absolutely right about a couple of main points: A) You will, under no circumstances, make it through a season without getting hurt. That is an absolute fact and you’re kidding yourself if you think you can go an entire game unscathed, let alone a season or a career. And B) There will very likely be a time during your hockey days that an Advil won’t cut it. The painkillers that are being used (legally, even) can do some wonderful things to dull the agony, and when used responsibly help lots of Americans get through their daily tribulations.

But that kind of medication scares the hell out of me. While I wouldn’t say that I have a very addictive personality (in that respect), nor does substance abuse run in my family, I could sense the danger in getting accustomed to the kind of nirvana that it promised. Soon enough, as Bourne says, that little bit becomes a little more and a little more until you can’t feel normal without it. And therein lies the rub.

I had my knee operated on in 2009 following years of pain that I had become, more or less, used to. At first, my knee troubles were dismissed as growing pains… and then a type of juvenile arthritis… and then a degenerative muscle disorder… until finally, at the ripe age of 27, it was determined that, yes, in fact, there was a pretty big problem under there. I had a benign cyst growing under my kneecap, one that likely started as an overcompensating immune system attempted to repair an injury to one of the internal ligaments. The cyst had wrapped itself around the joint and the ligaments within it, causing my entire left leg to be solid as a rock at all times, which in turn made walking down stairs difficult. While I may have put my body through a lot by 27, it certainly wasn’t enough to have difficulty walking and I finally went for a fifth (or sixth, I lost count) opinion. The New York Knicks orthopedic surgeon found the mass (which was hidden from traditional MRIs) and said he needed to go in there and scoop it out. Should be as good as new in a week. Liar.

While the surgery went well and I was assured that anything potentially damaging had been removed, I’m not sure I was properly prepared for the brand of pain that was coming my way when the anesthetic wore off. Anesthetic, by the way, that I begged them not to use. In the past, I’d had difficulty awakening from general anesthesia. First, at the dentist, and then after a necessary procedure in college. Instead, I asked, can you just give me the local anesthetic and I’ll sit here quietly staring at the ceiling tiles? The surgeon and anesthesiologist both assured me that I wanted no part of being awake during the knee operation, and promised they’d give me the lightest dose imaginable.

Still, I woke up much later than they said I would, and perhaps that’s where my fear of painkillers in general comes from. They sent me on my way, sans crutches but with a prescription for Oxycodone. This was one of those times mentioned above where a painkiller would become necessary, as the haze wears off in the hours and days following surgery. However, I refused to fill that prescription, instead opting to “soldier through” the pain and do what I could with an Aleve here and there.

I’m not going to pretend I was a man about it, or that I made the right call. Because that kind of pain is just a shade under unbearable, where you briefly consider asking your wife to hit you with a sledgehammer so you’ll feel nothing instead of excruciating agony. I’m not going to be shy here: I cried like a little girl when the anesthetic finally wore all the way off around 1 in the morning. It hurt so bad I could hear and taste it. That may sound ridiculous, but trust me… it’s an awful existence twelve hours after surgery.

Did Derek Boogaard have that kind of agony in May? Was Rick Rypien recovering from something last week? Did the kids on my high school hockey team think that popping Vicodin on a normal day would make them invincible? I don’t have the answers to those questions, but what I do have are more anecdotes that only lead to further questions.

At one point, I had a teammate that would drop acid before games, when he knew we wouldn’t be tested, for one of two reasons. It either made him a better hockey player when he couldn’t feel his legs, or he was a complete fucking lunatic. The things he did when he was inebriated like that were borderline scary… and he was on my side of the scary. I don’t know what happened to him, as we’ve lost touch over the years, but if you were to tell me that he was in prison or dead, I’d be sad for the loss, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

In college, again as Bourne says, it wasn’t uncommon for one guy to pass another a pill before (or, more likely, after) a game. I’m not sure how many of them were pre-med (oh wait, yes I am: zero), but something tells me they weren’t in a position to be distributing on a bus. Again, like high school, I would politely decline and wonder if I was the weird one for not indulging.

That prescription I didn’t fill following my knee surgery? I would later have a teammate (from a men’s league, mind you) offer me a pretty penny if I did get it filled and hand them over to him. I pretended like I lost the slip, apologized and it was never brought up again.

In light of the Boogaard news and the potential for it to have been repeated by Rypien, I don’t feel good about these stories. I don’t feel like I took a moral high road and that I was able to steer clear of peer pressure. I feel like I let teammates down by not helping if they needed it. They may not have all been abusing it, but we’ve all learned recently that it doesn’t take a whole lot to derail that train permanently. If any of us needed that kind of medical attention, we had doctors and trainers and managers nearby to help us. Something tells me the guys with their hands out in the back of the bus weren’t in the kind of pain that required what they were swallowing.

And all I can do now is hope that they live longer than Rypien’s 27. Or Boogaard’s 28. Or Probert’s 45.

And that no one ever has to wonder if they’d done enough to help a teammate.

12 thoughts on “When Dr. Feelgood Rides the Bus”

  1. You know man, I hate to say it, but I can’t agree at all.  I played college hockey in Michigan from 02-06 for a pretty decent team.  Yes, there was a little use of painkillers.  But the way you describe it?  Maybe I was naive, but to my knowledge, this simply didn’t occur.   I took IB Proven a decent amount, but never to a point of abuse or even close.  If I had a ache that would affect me before a game, I’d grab 6-800 mg from the trainer.  This maybe happened a couple times a year. 

    It’s a horrible thing that’s happened to Rypien, Boogaard, and Probert.  But look at the one thing they had in common–they were fighters first, not hockey players.  That’s a whole different story that isn’t an issue in college.

    Are there people addicted?  Absolutely.  Maybe even one or two players on my team, but noone I knew personally.  Is it anything like you describe?  I really don’t think it is. 

    1. I appreciate your input and I’m glad to hear you didn’t have similar experiences, but I’ll be honest. I’m irked by this comment. There’s nothing in here for you to “disagree” with unless you are, in fact, implying that I’m lying. There’s no opinions being tossed around and I’m not saying everyone who plays hockey is like that. But I’m sharing stories that are real, in the same vein that Bourne did. To “really not think it is” like I’ve described is tantamount to saying this has been fabricated and that’s not an implication I take lightly. 

      I played hockey for 19 years, and there are mentions of — maybe — five or six guys in this piece. That’s not all that prevalent and, frankly, we’re both being naive if we think those were the only ones. For you to think it’s less than that is silly. 

      1. Michael,

        I’m not disagreeing with the fact that you saw people take painkillers and don’t mean to imply that you are lying at all in that respect; please don’t take it as such.  I’m simply disagreeing with the overall tone of the story which seems to imply that there is a painkiller problem in hockey, something that Jason Justin Bourne implicates in his article.  I simply disagree with that sentiment.  

        You start out with this: “Today’s problem is drug use in our game.”  You do then follow up with a bit of a contradictory statement with the previous: “Despite Boogaard’s death, you
        can’t convince me that drug use is rampant in hockey or that it’s a problem among our players.” The general tone of the article, along with the title, however, aligns with your first statement and that’s how I read it.  Statements like this seem to imply that it was widespread and more than the 5-6 players you mention:

        In college, again as Bourne says, it wasn’t uncommon for one guy to pass
        another a pill before (or, more likely, after) a game. I’m not sure how
        many of them were pre-med (oh wait, yes I am: zero), but something
        tells me they weren’t in a position to be distributing on a bus. Again,
        like high school, I would politely decline and wonder if I was the weird one for not indulging.

        Now I am not claiming that my fellow teammates never took painkillers.  Nor am I claiming that there weren’t abuses out there occasionally of Vicodin, etc.  And I’m certainly not saying that no one on my team used drugs.  A decent number of teammates smoked weed.  Usually it was just occasionally, but one season I’d even say it was fairly prevailent.  One player used to smoke before every game, and it honestly made him a much better player (weird guy, great defenseman).  I know a few guys enjoyed nose candy once in a while, one of which decided he liked it a little too much and ended up getting in legal trouble for it.  So in no way am I saying that there weren’t drugs around the team in some way or another. 

        But I can’t agree that the use and more notably abuse of painkillers (or even drugs) was as common as you indicated.   I certainly never felt weird for not indulging in any drugs, it wasn’t my thing and that was fine.  I drank my ass off in college, but we even had players who didn’t drink.  They were never given too hard of a time for it.  Nor was there wasn’t a “back of the bus” pain pill trade going on in my experience. 

        Did it happen occasionally?  Absolutely.  Our team was in fact probably no different than your average group of college guys.   Are there going to be individual problems within that group?  Certainly.  But is that an indicative of a problem within hockey?  I don’t believe so.  Those players would have become addicted to something, whether or not they played hockey or if it was painkillers, acid, meth, coke etc..

        If we were to talk about further questions regarding hockey players, I think drinking would be one to ask.  But that’s neither here nor there, nor am I saying that there is a problem.  Just that it was certainly more of a potential problem then painkillers.    (Now, that being said, there might be a problem of painkillers amongst fighters, which is a different breed than a regular hockey player.)

        The hockey locker room is a rough place. Individual instances of this
        behavior certainly occur.  But the fact that there are anecdotes from
        both our careers doesn’t to mean mean that there is any need for “further
        questions.”  It simply wasn’t a serious problem from my experiences.  

        So again, I’m not calling you a liar.   I think you should be able to see is that I simply have had some similar and some different experiences; from this, I’ve formed a different opinion than you and felt I should share it.  I love the site, your writing, and your contribution to the blogosphere.  Plus without you, I wouldn’t have free curly fries twice per year…and that certainly counts for something. 

        Chris

        1. Oh my God, dude… we also had a kid that would smoke weed before games and he was a goddamn rockstar when he did, and mildly useless when he didn’t. What’s with that? Ha

          Very fair critiques, Chris. I hope you don’t think I was being disrespectful in my response to yours. I took it as a blanket “disagree” and not to a handful of lines that I do still stand by. I don’t think that drug use is a big problem in our game, but it’s certainly a bigger problem than I’d like it to be. If that makes sense. 

          Like you just said, I don’t think hockey made them addicts. I think they’re addicts who play hockey. I simply wanted to share that they’re in that group, like they’re in all group. 

          1. Of course, there should a huge asterisk by everything I wrote:  I wasn’t a real hockey player, I was a stupid goalie. Pretty good one, but still a goalie. 

            Kidding aside, I think we’re on the same page. 

  2. I’m right there with you.  When I had my wisdom teeth removed I was given Oxycodone as well.  I got it filled but was too afraid to take it.  I think I just ended up throwing it away.  The pain from the surgery wasn’t ever bad enough for me to take more than an Ibuprofin or two a day.

    1. I had a single wisdom tooth removed and I also got the script filled, but didn’t take it. It certainly hurt, but it wasn’t something that needed more than an Aleve or two a day, like you said. Considering the weak stomach I’m blessed with, it didn’t seem like a reasonable trade-off in case my tummy started to rumble. HA

    2. I had a single wisdom tooth removed and I also got the script filled, but didn’t take it. It certainly hurt, but it wasn’t something that needed more than an Aleve or two a day, like you said. Considering the weak stomach I’m blessed with, it didn’t seem like a reasonable trade-off in case my tummy started to rumble. HA

  3. As someone who’s athletic career has solely consisted of PE classes in high school, I don’t have the authority to comment on sports related drug use, however I can say bravo.  I had surgery on my middle finger last summer (and YES, it was a great excuse to flip the bird in the car all of the time) and they prescribed me 50 oxycodone tablets.  FIFTY.  For a finger.  I took exactly…one.  I took it and immediately felt about 10 times worse than I had before.  The part that’s even worse is that there is actually a measurable concentration of oxycodone and other pain killers in most city water streams due to use and to people flushing it.  Seriously?  I actually buried mine in my backyard.  I know that sounds incredibly stupid, but I couldn’t believe that it was in the water supply.

    Anyway, I’m no authority on sports teams, but I can also say that I have known a lot of people that pop OTC pain meds like they are candy.  (“Oh, I feel off today so I’ll just take 4 ibuprofen.  I have to take 4 because my tolerance is so high.”)  Just because they are cheap and easily accessible does not mean that overuse (or unnecessary use) doesn’t have consequences…like liver damage.  Its definitely scary how that thought really doesn’t seem to have the same impact on people’s decisions as it used to.

  4. This is a freaking awesome writeup.  I, as a casual skater and stickhandler, underwent surgery on my groin region in the spring.  The pain you described is EXACTLY what it feels like.  It was so hard NOT to WANT to take a pill to make it stop.  Thanks for writing this as it needs to be pointed out that there is a very fine line we all walk with pain killers. 

  5. What about the good ol’ days? And old time hockey?? What did those guys use to help the pain, especially with the equipment (or lack there of) that was used then?? Point being.. I think this whole problem is more of a sign of society as a whole, not just hockey players and athletes. You don’t have to watch the news, to know It just so happens that pain killer use is on a huge rise, as it is. The effect just happens to be rolling over into hockey.. I mean these guys aren’t playing all the time and when they’re not, they go back to old towns, old friends, old or new habbits. Of course, their are exceptions to any rule. Unfortunately, as long as it continues to grow outside of hockey, the problem is just scratching the surface. Education is probably the best tool and then regulations.

    One thing is for sure, where there is hockey, there is pain. That will never go away, no matter how much you limit the game. Alternative treatments on case by case, player by player, basis would be a start. Both writers had experiences where they had fellow teamates blaze up before the games and actually play better. No doubt, not the case for everyone, especially on the harsh NHL level. Opens up the doors to at least explore less harmful alternatives. If after a game, instead of popping a pill, why not smoke a dooby? Smoking bad for needed lung strength… eat a brownie. That should make the bus ride and related pain, a bit more tolerable. Studies upon studies, showing is much less harmful and addictive, than the now used meds. (even tylenol) …Not a solution by any means, but a start.

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