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High times
Kostya Kennedy
January 21, 2002
Five years after he says he last smoked heroin, the L.A. Kings' Jere Karalahti looks back on his dreamy days on drugs
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January 21, 2002

High Times

Five years after he says he last smoked heroin, the L.A. Kings' Jere Karalahti looks back on his dreamy days on drugs

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When he returned to the team two days later, Karalahti admitted where he'd been and, after a reprimand, was allowed to play in the tournament. A few days later he scored a third-period goal as Finland tied Sweden in a crucial game. "That's the best Jere story," says Kings defenseman Mattias Norstrom. "Taking off to go smoking with Indians? That's why we all call him Chief."

After that trip to Canada, Karalahti's drug use intensified. He recalls tripping on LSD at a Pink Floyd concert in Germany. Karalahti had also begun to smoke heroin, staying away from needles because he was afraid his teammates would see track marks on his arms. He loved the onset of the heroin high and how alive he felt: Mr. King of the Earth. Now Karalahti speaks of heroin almost protectively, emphasizing the pleasure of it and saying that descending from the high "was not so bad for me. I was in good shape from hockey."

Though he lost weight—at one point he dipped nearly 30 pounds under his playing weight—his addiction didn't keep him from being among the best players on the team. "He was great on the ice, and he had nerves like ice," says Markku Hurme, a HIFK teammate. "We liked him so much because he was always calm and good to everyone. We started to understand something was wrong though. He'd be late for practices, and afterward he'd disappear. We would go out and do stuff together, but he was never around."

By then, many of Karalahti's friends had begun to deal drugs. Small forests of marijuana grew in the basements of houses where Karalahti often spent days stoned in front of video games. Law enforcement officials, however, were soon on to him and his friends, and one morning, shortly before Christmas 1996, Karalahti arrived to practice at HIFK arena to find policemen waiting to arrest him.

He spent four days in a cell while officers searched his apartment and interviewed his consorts. They found only marijuana at Karalahti's place, but others in his ring had implicated him in matters involving a variety of other drugs. He eventually pleaded guilty to possession of 800 grams of marijuana, 30 grams of amphetamines and 10 grams of heroin and, thanks to his hockey connections, received only three months of probation.

Karalahti, named to the Finnish national team just before the arrest, is the only prominent Finnish hockey player ever arrested for drugs. His story was carried in news reports for days and took on added intrigue because Arto was a well-known and respected police inspector. "They say parents are the last to know," Arto says. "I didn't find out until someone came to me and said, 'Arto, we have arrested your boy' You can imagine how difficult that was."

Karalahti was suspended from the Finnish league for the remainder of that season, but HIFK continued to be supportive, allowing him to practice with the team and arranging for him to attend an eight-month rehab program. Karalahti, who had been living alone, moved in with his father. "My body felt O.K.," says Karalahti, who began to train rigorously. "But it was hard in my mind. With drugs, you think you're in charge, but you're not. They are in charge of you. I knew I had to make a choice."

When he returned to HIFK in September 1997, he was, in Hurme's words, "much more athletic than before." Karalahti had gained 30 pounds of muscle and a new dexterity. His powerful slap shot made him a dangerous scorer, and he quickly became one of Europe's top defensemen. In '98 and '99 he was named a first-team tournament all-star as Finland took silver medals at the world championships.

In the fall of 1999 the Kings were ready to bring him to the NHL. Karalahti had to submit to months of drug testing before he was granted Canadian and U.S. visas in November. The Kings liked him for his versatility—a mixture of ruggedness and offensive ability—and that year he had six goals and 10 assists in 48 games. Last season he finished second on the team with an average of 2.84 hits per game, and in L.A.'s first-round playoff upset of the Detroit Red Wings, Kings coach Andy Murray called him "one of the best players on the ice." All told, he made 53 hits in 13 postseason games, including a crushing check of Joe Sakic that forced the Avalanche center to miss two games with a shoulder bruise.

That hard-nosed style suits Karalahti. He often dresses in black, and he loves heavy metal music. His chest and back are decorated with a web of tattoos: His left shoulder celebrates Pantera's grating metal album Cowboys from Hell, and on his right shoulder is a huge image of Odin, the Scandinavian war god, whom Karalahti calls the god of death. "I don't know, maybe I have these to remind me of what might have happened," he says. "People in that world got hurt. I was lucky."

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