NHL and Their Alcohol Problem


As a long time hockey fan, I’ve always viewed the league through the best lens possible, sure Twitter has made me a little jaded, but for the most part the league is something I’ve always given the benefit of the doubt. Something went wrong, “oh it’s a small sample of the population, there was bound to be a few bad guys” was my usual retort (unless it was Shane Doan, screw that guy). But the older I got, the more I dug into the history of the game but I guess I went only after the highlight reel of hockey. Learning about the high points, and brushing aside the less than perfect moments.

When you think controversy in the NHL, it tends to fall to the thought of player safety with a focus on head injuries followed by the depressive episodes that are not identified until a death. But so much more plagues the NHL than just that. As April is Alcohol Awareness Month, it’s important to look at the history of the NHL and how affected the sport is by unchecked alcoholism and alcohol abuse.

Currently alcohol use and abuse is covered by the NHL/NHLPA Program for Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health, which also covers domestic violence, behavioral issues, and “substance abuse” that isn’t steroids. The NHL has been a thing for almost 100 years, the program was created in 1996. Pretty sure the mid-90s didn’t invent alcoholism.
The topic had been broached prior to, but the perception of the league is best summed up by former Commissioner John Ziegler when the idea of a league promoted program was suggested, again, in 1991: “I think what we have to be careful of is not getting things out of proportion. If we had one problem per club – and I don’t think we do – you’re talking about less than 1 percent (of the players)”. As we’ve come to realize, this statement is so incorrect, it is silencing.
I can’t see an advertisement for Roll Up The Rim without thinking about the photos released in the Tim Horton police report. It took 30 years for the report to be released, but eventually we all learned about the vodka bottle. Bob Probert may be best known for being one half of the Bruise Brothers or CTE, but his struggles with alcohol and other drugs made just as many headlines. Bryan Fogarty was never able to play a full season with a life fueled by alcohol and drugs. Terry Sawchuk’s face may have been battered looking but his internal struggles were even greater as his depression, alcohol abuse, and domestic abuse all intertwined to make him a volatile man off-ice, right up until his bizarre accident with Ron Stewart and eventual death. The 1993-1994 Hartford Whalers hold the distinction of having 10 alcohol related arrests in 25-days. Minnesota North Stars lost their coach Glen Sonmor when he had a drink, which violated a clause in his contract. Craig MacTavish spent time in prison after killing a woman while drunk driving. Doug Harvey suffered from bipolar disorder, won seven Norris Memorial Trophies, and eventually succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver.

The list of the past can keep going, and I know that you will all yell at me for leaving someone off this list, but there’s more to come.

The modern-day warriors have no better chance of escaping alcoholism. Rich Clune, Brian McGrattan, and Jordin Tootoo are the faces of clean living in the NHL after their battles with alcohol took dark turns. Dany Heatley still lives in the shadow of his car accident almost 12 years later. And yes, we all laugh at Patrick Kane’s debauchery, Dustin Byfuglien’s weight post-drunken boating arrest, Ed Belfour’s billion dollar offer, and the other shenanigans the NHL is famous for but at what point do shenanigans turn into a problem? Clune and Tootoo were able to recognize their problems, but how many men slip through the cracks under the expectation that alcohol is as part of hockey as ice and rubber pucks are?

We all laughed in 2011 when the Dry Island request slipped out of the Philadelphia Flyers locker room, but is curbing the pressure of drinking the worst idea in the world? Yes, these are grown men capable of making their own decisions but the mob mentality is stronger than any willpower an addict struggling may have.

The NHL may be working towards a safer game, growing the sport around the world, but the assistance for players in this issue has been stagnant since the program’s inception in 1996. There’s no seeking help in privacy through the NHL/NHLPA program if the press releases are any indication. Stepping away mid-season to get treatment for alcohol addiction isn’t always an option and isn’t always the most desirable for the competitive. The games, practices, and team obligations may be enough for some to not have time to “fall off the wagon” but the off-season or those players who need more are left alone to face alcohol without structure.

NHL teams have elite staff: multiple physical therapists, masters of equipment, strength and conditioning coaches, team doctors security members, and so many more but no team has a dedicated mental health therapist on staff. The bodies are well cared for, but the mind seems like almost an afterthought. Having a staff therapist would not solve all the problems, you cannot force someone who doesn’t want help to seek out help, but having the option and lifting the stigma of seeking out help might open up conversation between players and someone who could provide help.

The NHL is a wonderful league, hockey is an amazing sport, but the rampant alcohol issue is a huge unspoken problem. Former Commissioner Ziegler turned a blind eye, Commissioner Bettman worked in a temporary solution, but it’s 2015. Getting help shouldn’t be seen as a weakness or a collapse of masculinity. The NHL can help take steps by catching up with a comprehensive addiction program that includes alcohol, aiding their players in the process. Because what’s the point of expansion, fancy arena upgrades, concussion proofing the game, and tv deals if players are dropping dead of alcohol related issues?

If you or anyone you know is suffering through addiction, know that you are not alone. There are services to help:

USA has the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to assist in locating local treatment options:

And for Canada the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse has a by province/territory list of locations and phone numbers for assistance: