How legal marijuana can devastate an Ontario Hockey League player's career: Matt Cullen

Marijuana might be legal in Canada but that doesn't mean OHL players won't destroy their hockey careers because of it. Matt Cullen, CBC Sports reporter, explains why talented young hockey players in the province will need to stay away from pot.

A 2nd violation results in a 25-game suspension

Niagara IceDogs goalie Colton Incze makes a save on Emmett Sproule of the Erie Otters on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018 at Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pa. (Jack Hanrahan/Erie Times-News via AP)
Marijuana might be legal in Canada but that doesn't mean OHL players won't destroy their hockey careers because of it. Matt Cullen, CBC Sports reporter explains why talented young hockey players in the province will need to stay away from pot.

Now that marijuana is legal, weed can be the new drug of choice for high performance athletes when it comes to pain relief.

It might be a better choice than opioids or other prescribed drugs.

Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid told the Associated Press, "I say this more talking about the CBD side of it, obviously: You'd be stupid not to at least look into it. When your body's sore like it is sometimes, you don't want to be taking pain stuff and taking Advil all the time. There's obviously better ways to do it."

But the NHL isn't ready to play that game just yet. The drug isn't banned and players aren't punished but it isn't exactly condoned. In junior hockey, however, players in the Ontario Hockey League are in a trickier situation.

Matt Cullen is a reporter for CBC Sports and also provides commentary for the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads.

Cullen spoke with the CBC's Conrad Collaco about marijuana and junior hockey in Canada.

You can read an abridged and edited version of the interview or listen to the full audio interview by hitting the play button above.

Matt Cullen, CBC Sports 

Matt Cullen is a reporter for CBC Sports and is also a play-by-play commentator for the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads. (CBC Sports)

What are the rules in junior hockey around cannabis? 

Cannabis is still a banned substance for junior hockey players in Canada even though it's legal in the country. The OHL and the Canadian Hockey League follow the rules of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports (CCES). The CCES follows the rules set by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). WADA covers off many countries and in most of those countries  cannabis is still illegal. 

I asked a couple players and coaches about this. OHL fans might remember Jeff Kyrzakos. He played two years with the Owen Sound Attack. He went on after that to play seven seasons of pro hockey. He's back in the OHL now. He's an assistant coach with the Mississauga Steelheads. He's really taken on a mentorship role. A lot of players have asked him about how to handle the subject. He says it's a pretty simple conversation.

Jeff Kryzakos, assistant coach with the Mississauga Steelheads, talks about how the team views the legalization of marijuana.

The penalties can be severe. The first violation is a warning. The second one is where they really get serious, a 25-game suspension. The third violation is a two-year ban. A two-year ban essentially means throwing any hope of a pro career out the window. That's a devastating situation if it ever happened. 

Education is a big part of making sure the players know the rules. How has the OHL and coaching staffs approached this with players?

It's always a choice they have to make, whether they want to be hockey players or they want to party and do things that maybe aren't allowed within the league.- Jeff Kyrzakos, Mississauga Steelheads

I reached out to OHL and CHL commissioner David Branch. He says coaches have been working with the league and with the players.

His position is that nothing has changed. Cannabis has been considered an illegal substance by WADA since 2004. It puts junior hockey players in a unique situation because the majority of young men, 19 and over, can consume cannabis but OHL players cannot. 

Cole Carter, who has played with three different junior teams over his four year OHL career including Windsor, Kitchener and now Mississauga, where he is the captain. He is fighting for a pro contract. Here's what he has to say.

Cole Carter, captain of the Mississauga Steelheads, talks about why he thinks marijuana being a banned substance won't be a problem for him and his teammates.

It makes it difficult for these players as they can't use cannabis while people around them can legally.

Do you see a way players might benefit from taking cannabis for pain relief rather than prescribed or over-the-counter painkillers?

I asked a number of OHL players and coaches this and they gave the exact same message as what Connor McDavid is saying. You would be stupid to not at least look at it and study it. David Branch said more research needs to be done. Almost everyone I've talked to is open to finding out more about this but right now there's just not enough information to go ahead. I don't see this happening any time soon. 

Players are responsible for their drug tests. Cannabis can be detected in someone's body for up to 30 days. What about second hand smoke if players are at parties or other gatherings where people are consuming legally? 

The rules are very clear. Players are responsible for their own bodies and their own tests. Players around the OHL told me that it's not really an issue because the people they spend time with either on the team or their close friends are not marijuana users. However, its accessibility now could have an impact at parties — if you go on the road. There could be difficult situations where even seconds or minutes being around second-hand smoke from cannabis could have a devastating impact on these players. They could be forced to make awkward decisions that might make them feel uncomfortable. 

For the players who work so hard to try to take their game to the next level and play professional hockey if would be devastating to see such a long suspension for something like that.- Matt Cullen, CBC Sports
I asked Jeff Kyrzakos of the Steelheads about this and he says he's been in this sort of situation before and you have to be smart. 
Jeff Kryzakos of the Mississauga Steelheads talks about the advice he gives young players regarding marijuana.
It's only been two weeks since marijuana has been legalized. What will it be like six months down the road, a year down the road. Will we start seeing some suspensions due to second hand smoke? For the players who work so hard to try to take their game to the next level and play professional hockey, it would be devastating to see such a long suspension for something like that." 

You see a lot of players from professional leagues across North America, not just hockey, saying it doesn't impact my performance on the field. If anything it goes the other way. It's not a performance enhancer. You have to wonder if this will change some time soon with all the questions being raised now. 


Conrad Collaco is a CBC News producer for CBC Hamilton with extensive experience in online, television and radio news. Follow him on Twitter at @ConradCollaco, or email him at conrad.collaco@cbc.ca.


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