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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
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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

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At 6:30 on game nights in Montreal, as the fans start streaming into the Molson Centre, as the TV sportscasters fidget while waiting to deliver their live reports, as the hot dogs grill in the press lounge, Canadiens goal-tender Andy Moog goes through his pregame routine in the dressing room. He takes two Sudafed tablets and washes them down with a cup of water—it is not a question of health but of habit. Moog took Sudafed for the first time six or seven years ago, when he was with the Boston Bruins, because he had a terrible head cold. Since then, his remedy has become his ritual. Four other Canadiens also reach regularly for Sudeys, as they sometimes call them, to kick-start their motors, to get ready to play. For these men a game face includes an open mouth and a couple of hockey's little helpers.

A similar scene is being played out in dressing rooms throughout the NHL. The exact number of players who use Sudafed, a nonprescription drug that contains the stimulant pseudoephedrine, in an effort to boost their performance on the ice, is unclear. Two NHL trainers estimate that before a game 20% of the league's players routinely take over-the-counter medications that contain pseudoephedrine, not to combat the sniffles, as the manufacturers intended, but to feel a little buzz. The NHL, however, disputes that figure, saying the percentage of players using drugs such as Sudafed is much lower and that they use them for medicinal purposes only.

The brand names vary—pseudoephedrine can be found in dozens of cold remedies—but Sudafed remains the most popular choice for players who want a pick-me-up. It's the NHL's dirty little secret, and with the Olympics imminent, it is of great concern to the league because although Sudafed is legal, it is on the Olympic list of banned substances. Consider the following:

?Anecdotal accounts of Sudafed abuse in the league abound. A former coach says one of his players built up such a tolerance to the medication that he had to gobble 20 pills to get the desired boost.

"There are all kinds of overdose stories—guys not being able to finish the first period because they get the shakes, paranoia, anxiety," says Detroit Red Wings athletic trainer John Wharton, who's been with the club since February 1991. "There are some guys who have been able to tolerate [large doses of pseudoephedrine]. The most I've seen a player take is eight pills. That dose would put some people in the hospital." Wharton says he has seen four or five abusers in the last seven years.

? Jari Kurri, the respected 17-year veteran right winger of the Colorado Avalanche, says some of the dirty play in recent years might be a result of players having had something more than the usual competitive juices flowing through their systems. He suggests a link between the use of pseudoephedrine and the increasing lack of respect NHL players have shown each other in this decade. "You take it, you get hyped up," says Kurri, who also says that he took Sudafed once before a game last season when he was with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. "I don't know if the stickwork, the dirty hits, are because of that, but I think it's something the league should look into."

Montreal right wing Mark Recchi sees no correlation between pseudoephedrine and dirty play but doesn't deny that Sudafed gets him going. "You get a bit of an upper from it," says Recchi, who no longer takes the medication but admits that at one time he used it every 10 or 15 games. "You get pretty wired up. Sometimes it gets you a little emotional on the ice, a little too fired up."

? Brian Savage, a left wing on the Canadiens, takes two Sudafeds before every game at roughly the same time as Moog. Savage says he started the routine three years ago, his second season in the league. "I'm not sure if it pumps me up anymore," he says, "[but] if I'm a little groggy, it brings me up." Sometimes the trouble is coming down. After a game that ends at about 10:15 p.m., Savage can't fall asleep until 2 or 2:30 a.m. "I go out for dinner, have a glass of wine," he says. "Then I can fall asleep."

With the Nagano Olympics scheduled to open on Feb. 7 the abuse of over-the-counter drugs has become a delicate issue for the NHL. The league, in its initial Olympic involvement, is providing players for six Dream Teams for Nagano, and the last thing it needs is a doping scandal. Sudafed use could lead to one. The NHL, in conjunction with the players' association, tested prospective Olympians during training camps and has continued with random testing during the season in hopes of preventing the embarrassment of a failed test at the Games. In Nagano a positive drug test after a game by a player would result in the suspension of that player from the Olympics and in his team's forfeiting that game. If a player tested positive after a medal-round game, he and his teammates could be stripped of their medals.

An IOC drug-testing official told SI that if a person ingested a small quantity of pseudoephedrine—the normal dosage in two regular-strength Sudafed pills—traces of the stimulant could show up in his urine sample up to a month later. However, the official said that "after about a week" it was unlikely that enough would show up to produce a positive result.

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