SI Vault
 
Special Report: Hockey's Little Helpers
February 02, 1998
The legal drug of choice in the NHL is sudafed—not for cold relief, but for the on-ice boost it offers
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 02, 1998

Special Report: Hockey's Little Helpers

The legal drug of choice in the NHL is sudafed—not for cold relief, but for the on-ice boost it offers

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2

Still, NHL Olympic participants and trainers are taking no chances with Sudafed and its chemical cousins. The Canadiens have changed their protocol for the distribution of over-the-counter cold remedies this season, requesting that players get them only from the medical room even though anyone can pick up a box of 24 Sudafed extra-strength decongestant—one of eight Sudafed brands marketed in Canada—for $6.99 at a pharmacy. (Last week one Montreal player had a bottle containing Sudafed tablets on a shelf in his locker.) Several Olympians, including New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur and Colorado right wing Adam Dead-marsh, haven't taken the medication even to fight winter colds this season because of the approaching Games, according to newspaper accounts and team sources. Wharton says, "We've been super cautious with [Red Wings Olympians Steve] Yzerman and [Brendan] Shanahan for months."

The impish Shanahan, though, was less circumspect in a Jan. 18 interview with TSN in Canada. When asked if he enjoyed teaming with U.S. players on the North American squad in the All-Star Game, he cracked that it gave him an opportunity to "see if anybody's popping Sudafeds in the American drinks."

Shanahan was joking, but the casual approach to over-the-counter medications is no laughing matter. The effects of pseudoephedrine are similar to what Canadian Olympic team doctor Eric Babins calls its "first cousin"—adrenaline, or norepinephrine: It can increase breathing capacity by shrinking and unblocking nasal passages and dilating the bronchial passages while raising the heart rate and blood pressure. The drug stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which controls involuntary muscles and responses, including the fight-or-flight response so critical in the wild. Players who have used Sudafed say that if they take the medication an hour before a game, they begin to notice its effects 35 or 40 minutes later, during warmups. Doctors say pseudoephedrine is at its most potent about two hours after it is taken, although the drug remains active in the system from eight to 16 hours, depending on the dosage, the formulation and the individual. Potential side effects include tremors and anxiety, but there appear to be no long-term effects unless the user already has a cardiac condition. While the pills may not be physically addictive, the high that the players get from the medication is.

According to players and medical personnel, Sudafed began to appear in NHL dressing rooms in the mid-to-late 1980s. The approach to the medication at the time was surprisingly relaxed on some teams. When Wharton joined the Red Wings as their strength and conditioning coordinator, he says, Sudafed tablets sat on the table in the dressing room "like a bowl of fruit. But we got rid of them right away." He estimates that three quarters of the Detroit players at the time used Sudafed before a game.

"[When I played for Edmonton], I remember somebody walking [from the back of the dressing room] with a little jar, and he used to rattle it, and it sounded like a snake," says Moog, who spent five full seasons with the Oilers, from 1982-83 to '86-87. "We used to call [the tablets] 'rattlers.' [He'd say,] Anybody want a rattler?' "

The use of Sudafed probably crested three or four years ago, not long after the issue of over-the-counter medication was discussed at a meeting of the NHL Physicians Society. "There was a concerted effort among the doctors at the time to tell players that [misusing the medication for a boost] was not a good idea," says Terry Groves, the Calgary Flames' team internist since 1980. In the early 1990s, Groves says, a notice was posted in the Calgary dressing room that cold remedies, specifically Sudafed, would not be dispensed by the trainers. He says he sees no current evidence of Sudafed use by Flames players.

"We're trying to get across our message," says Ga�tan Lefebvre, the Canadiens' athletic trainer, who keeps a card handy listing all the over-the-counter medications proscribed by the IOC. "Those medications are for medical purposes. If you're looking for an edge, try getting it by working out in the gym."

But if the message about misusing Sudafeds is being spread, not all NHL players are listening. Some have merely abandoned Sudafed for other legal products that provide the same boost. Players are using various alternatives—including Up Your Gas tablets—that contain the Chinese herb Ma-Huang and are available at health-food stores. "Some of the younger players are taking a more holistic, natural approach," Moog says of the switch from Sudafed to a naturally occurring form of ephedrine, a stimulant with properties similar to pseudoephedrine, which also could produce a positive drug test at the Olympics.

Even a squeaky-clean Olympics will not mask the fact that hockey's little helpers are part of the NHL scene. They might not be the thinking man's choice—"Guys don't need it if they're healthy in their [heads]," says Red Wings center Igor Larionov—but they are an option.

1 2