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Bourne Blog: Inside painkiller problems in pro hockey

The first thought that crossed my mind (after my stomach dropped) when I saw the first of many tweets offering sympathy after Rick Rypien's(notes) passing this week was "painkillers."

In Rypien's case, I was flat-out wrong, but it was telling that it was my first reaction, as it was when Derek Boogaard(notes) died as well.

It was my first thought because I played some minor pro hockey, and saw just how casual the use of the pain pills could be.

At the start of the past hockey season, I wrote a piece on steroids, saying that we need to implement better testing — up from none in the minor leagues — because a small number of players use them.

Painkillers are an entirely different animal. For one, many guys legitimately need them. If you make it through a season without needing at least one prescription to get through the aches, it's a miracle year —¬†or you likely didn't get much ice time, what with being a guy who apparently goes out of his way to avoid physical contact.

Any given player will generally get a batch of 30 or more of the lowest possible strength pain pill (barring a major injury) at some point, need about a dozen of them, then hang on to the rest.

And why not, right? With all the bus rides, flights, and only one day off a week, it's nice to be able to make that down time feel like legitimate down time.

Those extra pills are occasionally gifted back to teammates as well, to make that long bus ride a little easier for the guys who like them. Needless to say, in that environment, "PK's" are not hard to find.

Narcotic painkillers, in their lowest dose form, barely touch a bigger man. A five milligram Vicodin (hydrocodone/acetaminophen) is basically Advil to some hockey players. And that's how it starts.

The pills are built to take away pain — when there's no pain to take away, it becomes a light dopamine rush. And hey, that'd be nice to have every time you have to travel, wouldn't it?

The relief those pills provide can help us understand why it seems like more enforcers are in the group of heavier users.

It make sense — by their nature, they're bigger dudes who've grown accustomed to not worrying so much about what could happen to their bodies. These guys put their faces, knuckles and more on the line almost every game, and because of that, they experience higher highs and lower lows than most players. That's their life, and it pushes them to need relief more than others.

Abuse is certainly not limited to that type of player alone — goalies, scorers, D-men and the rest are nowhere near exempt — but enforcers seem to lead the way.

When you're taking them when you don't need them … well, you build up a tolerance. Suddenly it's two of them to feel anything, then three.

Who knows where that ride ends?

***

I climbed into the hotel shuttle on Sunday morning to head to the Anchorage, Alaska airport. My team, the Idaho Steelheads, were unusually belligerent, some of the guys having not been to bed after their Saturday night game — I could barely lift my head, but it wasn't from booze.

About 36 hours had passed since the puck spider-webbed my jaw bone, which was being held together by a 10-screw plate. An X-shaped plate held together my chin, where the jaw had completely split down the middle. Needless to say, I was in wires, and was drinking liquid Percocet like it was water (oxycodone/acetaminophen, each syringe-full being equal to a 10-milligram pill. I needed many full-syringes that day).

I sat in my hospital bed the night before and had the chance to speak with (OK, mumble at) my girlfriend on the phone after the accident, at what really should have been my lowest of low points. There was a chance I might look different, my hockey season was likely over (and having turned 26 the day the puck hit my face, I didn't have many years to play around with), and my jaw would have to be clamped shut for nearly two months.

I didn't know it at the time, but I would never play another shift of pro hockey again.

Instead, I was PUMPED when I talked to her, because apparently morphine is a hell of a drug (to steal a line from Rick James). I was going to catch up on my reading and get box sets of TV shows on DVD and watch 'em all and make awesome smoothies with berries and ice cream and peanut butter and have more time to hang out with her and … and … and then it would start to wear off.

Bourne Blog: Inside painkiller problems in pro hockeyAnother hit, and more excitement coursed through my veins. Maybe I'll start a blog!

That that stuff can warp your mind in that way is incredible. And scary.

It was two more surgeries and a couple months until I could stop taking them, and I was agitated and achy for weeks after I cut them out. I would repeatedly sweat through my sheets that first week without my usual dose of drugs.

They're truly tough to stop taking — I wouldn't say I was addicted, but there's no doubt that my body had become physically dependent. I'm proud I was able to leave them behind once the medical need was no longer there - some people aren't so fortunate.

I can think of one ex-teammate in particular that I have no doubt would be farther up the hockey ranks if it hadn't gone farther than that for him. I haven't talked to the guy in years — maybe he's kicked it — but when we played together, the kid was in the fog more often than not. He'd refer to morning sluggishness as his "pill hangover." I didn't feel close enough to him to say anything, and was convinced it wasn't my place anyway. He seemed happy with his pills, and he's certainly not the only pro player who feels that way.

When you're playing in the minors, they're always around. You don't have to stop. I have no idea if use is as prevalent in the NHL as they are in the ECHL, but there was certainly plenty of casual use by guys on the way up.

The thing is, they stop some guys from climbing.

***

When you talk to any hockey player in his mid-20a and beyond, a huge majority of them have endured something horribly painful that required these pills. And I mean required them.

Just by nature itself, some people are hard-wired to love 'em, some are hard-wired to hate 'em. When you run enough pills through enough guys, it's inevitable you're going to hit a handful that love 'em just a touch too much.

Pain management in itself is a very serious thing, so these pills need to be around to some extent. Since these drugs aren't going anywhere, we have to figure out how we can change things for the better.

I don't think there's an easy solution here, but something has to change. We don't need to be paying for these pills that help so many people with the lives of others.

Maybe trainers have to monitor the amount of pills coming out of individual prescription bottles every day. Maybe we just need to start by raising awareness of the problem.

The only thing I do know is that while a lot of players use the pills to take the edge off aches, sometimes it's their families that end up feeling the pain.

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