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.