Monday, November 14, 2011

Bad Habits

One of the things I enjoy about living in Canada is the frequency with which one just stumbles across hockey-things in ordinary life. For example, this morning (by which I mean early afternoon, since I am seldom conscious during the real morning on a Sunday), I am eating my Cheerios and flipping channels and there’s Georges Laraque, just hanging out on TV.

It only takes a second to realize he is in tortured-Laraque mode, wearing his very serious expression and sighing heavily before he speaks, as though it requires a tiny, painful contraction of the soul to push every sentence past his lips. The woman who is interviewing him is all big moist eyes and quavering lips, like a sad anime bunny.

They are talking about fighting, which is, I gather, the ostensible theme of this program, and judging by Laraque’s lack of geniality and the reporter’s fighting-back-tears expression, they are not in favor of it. Laraque is asserting that the emotional stress of playing the enforcer role drives men to self-medicate. The earnest lady’s eyes well up fresh as she pushes the question: How so? What sort of drugs have you seen players resort to?

Now this is a delicate moment for Laraque. He can’t not answer, that would undermine his previous statement and damage the earnest lady’s mission. But, on the other hand, he’s got a reputation as a fairly classy dude to maintain, and he’s gotta know it’s not for him to go around spilling the beans about anybody else’s drug problem, even by implication. He needs an answer that will shock the worried-mom demographic but not the hockey world, something sort of sensational but not really new.

So he goes with, “Sleeping pills.” The camera then cuts to another ex-player talking about the stresses of travel, and how easy it is to start relying on pills to keep your sleep cycle regular, and then again to an ex-trainer who confirms that he used to worry about how often players on his team would have a couple of beers and then take sleeping pills, as though it were no big deal.

At this point, somebody in the editing room realizes that this sleeping pill tangent is taking the whole production off-message, and the thing steers back to the anti-fighting crusade, and I lose interest. But the little sleeping-pill digression… I hadn’t thought of that before. That’s worth further consideration.

Sleeping pills are a fairly common sort of drug. Once upon a time I had to use them myself for a while, to put down a bout of chronic insomnia. We live in a society that requires a pretty strictly regulated sleep schedule in order to keep up with a strictly regulated work day, and even a minor, temporary sleep problems can seriously fuck up one’s functionality. People with sleep disorders, or even sleep inconveniences, don’t generally want to make a whole fuckload of lifestyle changes, and doctors don’t generally want to recommend a whole run of expensive and complicated sleep therapy for a relatively mild problem, so pills are an easy and natural solution, one that plenty of people take advantage of. Which is fine: when used properly, hypnotics are safe, mundane substances.

Alcohol is also a fairly common drug. Actually, scratch that, alcohol is the most prevalent drug in the Western world. In North America, alcohol is so common as to be virtually mandatory. Forget social lubricant, it is the social glue of our culture. It is how we bond, and I would hypothesize that for males of the jockish persuasion, it is particularly essential to the formation and maintenance of friendships. And, while nobody would say that heavy drinking is completely harmless, most people who grow up in a society as alcoholic as this one know how to keep their consumption to reasonable levels. It’s the mild drug problem we all have.

Prescription pain killers are, likewise, ordinary and unremarkable. We’ve all had them, for a tonsillectomy or a nasty infection or a broken bone, and it’s downright miraculous- you’re writhing on the bed in six kinds of hell, sit up long enough to swallow a pill, and half an hour later everything’s sunshine and roses. There’s an occasional recurring argument about what the most important invention in human history is, with some people going for the printing press and others for the iPhone, but me, I say it’s morphine and all her derivatives. Lucky people that we are, we don’t have to experience even a hundredth of the pain that our ancestors bore in their short, torturous lives. Because we take pain killers a lot.

Now, these three things are all, independently, totally safe, normal things. The problem is that mixed together they can be very dangerous indeed, particularly mixed together regularly over a long period of time. And professional hockey is exactly the sort of career that is likely to facilitate and encourage that sort of mixing. Players travel a lot across time zones and yet are under tremendous pressure to try to maintain a strict daily routine: cue sleeping pills. Players are injured frequently and expected to continue training and playing through those injuries: cue pain killers. And hockey players come from a society where drinking is such an standard part of the male socialization that ‘a couple beers’ is utterly routine: cue alcohol.

So I believe the anxious ex-trainer when he says that he saw far more substance-mixing in his career than he was comfortable with. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where a professional hockey player gets into the habit of taking all three of these fairly often, and therefore ends up with the whole ugly cocktail pumping through his bloodstream at once. Sure, there are warning labels, but once you’ve done it a few times, felt perfectly fine and not died, it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that anything is safe. But feeling safe is not the same as being safe. Taking any of these things over a long period is risky, mixing them together repeatedly is flat-out dangerous, and compound that with any kind of psychological or genetic predisposition to addiction and you can easily see how it might leave a man in a very dark place after a few years.

This is a perfect example of what I was trying to get at in one of my previous pieces about the dangers of hockey. There is no clear answer to this problem, nothing to prohibit or ban, no unilateral ruling that will eliminate the risk, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not an issue. The professional hockey life puts a player at a higher risk for addiction, overdose, and accidental drug interactions than an average person, not because it breaks their souls but simply because it puts so many more drugs in their path. The solution is not to get all teary and emotional and call for the game to be made in some way nicer or safer; neither is it to shrug and blame the problem on individual character flaws. It’s to recognize addiction as an occupational hazard of pro hockey, publicize information about it so players can try to protect themselves and each other, and treat it when it occurs without stigma or scandal.


alice said...

In this regard, it's important to note teams like the Canucks and, now, I believe, the Jets, that are scheduling travel and even practices with optimal sleep cycles for the players in mind.

Hockey isn't unique with regard to these issues, though, other sports don't have "enforcers" per se. When Major League Baseball started drug testing a few years back, and offensive output declined, there were those who said "see, they were doing steroids. Not so fast. The testing program also screened for amphetamines which, according to just about everyone I'd read, had been ubiquitous in major league clubhouses, and were part of players' self-medication to match their circadian rhythm to game schedules. Now all they have is strong coffee, and, I imagine, some testing agency is going to want them to limit that also.

E said...

i recall reading something recently about the flames hiring a sleep specialist as well.

i didn't get to the traditional linking of fighters specifically with drug problems in this piece, but you reminded me, so i'll just toss this out there: i have a hypothesis, as yet unconfirmed, that part of the reason enforcers seem to be so much more frequently afflicted by addiction problems comparative to other players is partly higher risk- they have more pain to kill than other dudes- and partly higher visibility relative to their role. i'd guess that low-tier players are more likely to have addictions or proto-addictive behaviors go unobserved or untreated longer than high-end ones (who are more precious investments for the team), but most non-goon fourth-liners just vanish from the public consciousness as soon as they're not on the roster any more. enforcers, because of their higher public profile and the ongoing popularity of 'the fighting debate', retain the name recognition to have their stories told.

Taylor said...

Don't you think it may have something to do with worrying that the other teams gorilla who may be even bigger, stronger and tougher than you are, might just cave your face in during tomorrow night's game?

E said...

i have absolutely no doubt that for some fighters that has played a role, but i also think that has to be balanced against the fact that gorilla-on-gorilla violence nowadays mostly exists by consent of the gorillas themselves. enforcer fights are increasingly early-shift, get-it-out-of-the-way affairs in which both parties seem not just consenting but almost eager to justify their place on the team by 'doing their job'. there comes a point where, in the modern game, a goon has to recognize that he is the author of his own misery. he made the choice that staying in the nhl is worth the role he has to play to stay there, and so i think it's a little disingenuous for him to start blaming what the role 'forces' him to do for his problems. which is not saying he doesn't deserve treatment and care, only that he might have to recognize that the price of sanity, for him, is getting out of the game.

however, i think there's probably a lot of underexplored pressure on 3rd/4th line types who aren't pure goons but still get expected to fight in order to spare the stars.