"I went to a fight once and a hockey game broke out."
It’s an old, old joke—usually attributed to Rodney Dangerfield, and one that illustrates the frequency of brawls in ice hockey, which continue to be a major draw for NHL fans.
For Riley Cote, a former left wing for the Philadelphia Flyers, his unofficial job was getting “punched in the face for a living,” as he puts it. His informal role as an enforcer or “goon” meant he was expected to throw down with anyone giving the star players a hard time. In his playing career, Cote has been in more than 250 fights on ice, some of which left him with lifelong injuries.
Like the National Football League and other full-contact sports, the NHL has had to contend with persisting damage to players, including concussions. But Cote thinks he has a potent remedy: marijuana.
After retiring in 2010, Cote came out as an advocate for hemp and cannabis, founding the Hemp Heals Foundation and co-founding Athletes for Care, a post-career organization for professional sports players. He says the therapeutic properties in weed helped him survive his eight years in the league. I called Cote at his home in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania to discuss addiction, fighting, and getting high to come down from the stress of a game.
Tell me about your time in the NHL.
I was what you'd call a mindless warrior. I had spirit, but I didn’t do things necessarily the right way. It certainly put me where I needed to be in life, let’s put it that way. It woke me up and isolated some public health issues. [I took] notice of the state of emergency that society is in with physical health, mental health, and addiction issues.
This is stuff that's not really taught. A lot of self-medicating cannabis stuff, I figured out on my own. If you play in the NHL now, even the minor leagues, you will have every resource available to man, almost to the point where there's no way you can fail. They have a nutritionist, they have a sports site guy, they have a sleep specialist, all the strength and nutrition guys you can ever imagine. They take every vital, they look after every little part of your body.
The next step is offering these tools that can alleviate some of these problems that wind up trickling into people's lives as they go on with their career, but eventually transition into the real world. The mental health issues are the big ones that need to be nipped in the bud. Cannabis and all these different types of things that I've changed along the way can eliminate or at least help these guys avoid it.
How did you discover weed?
I was introduced to cannabis at 15 years old. It was a black market thing, so it ended up being at party scenes. I started consuming a little more in my junior hockey days, [when I discovered] the therapeutic values of it: promoting relaxation and rest, promoting sleep. So I quietly kept doing it into my pro career.
There's obviously a few guys on each team that would do it, you would kinda do it with. But it was an ally of mine. It managed my anxieties fighting. Any type of fighting is a fight-or-flight response, so it creates anxiety, but fighting on the regular within a hockey game is a different type of anxiety. I thought it really helped with that, that was the big one and obviously that it promotes sleep, which is a huge part of the recovery process.
If it helps relax and calm the nervous system, if it helps manage pain, if it helps your anxieties and depression, if it helps you sleep—to me, those elements right there are the recovery process. The properties in cannabis are anti-inflammatory. It's amazing how you wake up in the morning and you actually feel mobile and functional as opposed to stiff and almost like arthritis-ridden. That's the way I was feeling at 28. I’m 35 now. Not that I’m that old, but I feel so much better.
Obviously, there’s other elements that I’ve changed to promote that, but I honestly believe that the cannabis and CBD [an active ingredient in marijuana] I take really helps with waking up in the morning, promoting just a state of well-being.
I'm not exactly the world’s biggest hockey fan, so can you explain how fighting is allowed in the sport?
It’s certainly changed a lot from back in the Slap Shot days and the Broad Street Bullies, when there were line brawls and bench brawls every other game. There is still fighting allowed, but they restricted the amount and the type and the refs get involved a lot more than they used to.
It’s really an element of self-policing. Like on the street, police officers are there to keep the peace, take care of penalizing the players, but if something is missed, well, then the players get their retribution with fights.
It’s also momentum swings—if you’re down a couple goals and you need a spark, there's a couple ways to get into a fight. It’s either simply ask a guy to fight [or] you go around, kinda poke the hornet's nest, which would be the goalie. You touch the goalie, generally you're gonna have a swarm of guys trying to get in your face and be confrontational. It's a mind game type of thing, about protecting your superstars, keeping the peace through intimidation.
Accountability is a very powerful thing, like if you touch our superstar, this six-foot-five, 245-pound human being is going to come and punch you in the face till you drop. Who wants to sign up for that, right? There’s only a select few people that actually do and I'll end up being one of them.
So there's this huge psychological warfare type of thing. It's almost like a mini war zone—you never know when a fight can happen, but it's always tense. A lot you see now are more spontaneous, emotional fights by guys that really shouldn’t be fighting. If a ten million-dollar guy loses a fight, breaks his hand or orbital bone, you miss him for six to eight weeks because of it.
That's why you had guys designated just to [fight.] I'm willing to do it. If I blow out my hand or my knee or my head or whatever—they can live with me being on the shelf. I’m replaceable, but it's hard to replace your premier player, so having those guys get hurt from a cheap shot or a fight, it's hard to really justify.
Did you ever get into fights off the ice?
I’ve been in two fights off the ice my whole life and they were because of my friends. So for me, I was never a fighter; I’m a peaceful guy. I would way sooner smoke the peace pipe than fight somebody. That’s because that was a job—that was my role. You know, it paid the bills and I was able to live my childhood dream, playing in the NHL. I never drew it up where I was gonna be a scrapper, but when you’re driven and you want something so bad, you do what it takes.
Can you describe a particularly bad injury that you received as an enforcer?
I was never put out long-term with injuries. I did have a cracked sinus cavity, which I didn't miss any games for and sounds worse than it is. I got my ass beat pretty good when a guy I used to train with—probably one of the biggest, toughest guys to play—got me held in the corner, pounded me pretty good. My one eye swole shut pretty much immediately after the fight.
Next morning, I'm blowing my nose in the shower and I feel almost like a balloon inside my head blow up and swole up my other eye. So now I had two swollen eyes, so I go to my trainer, like, “Holy shit, what the hell happened?” I thought I had a broken orbital bone, which are major bones you really can’t play without, but it ended up being a sinus cavity. It was the most bizarre thing ever, but I played the next night with literally two black, swollen eyes I could hardly even see out of.
I dislocated my finger, probably right at the end of my career which really screwed me up and it's still messed up today. It's like a crooked, L-shaped finger. One of my last fights, I go in with my right hand and it gets caught in his jersey, right off the grip. My finger literally wrenched sideways. I had three or four different surgeries on it and it's pretty good, but I can't straighten it fully. I had wrist surgery that didn't affect anything long-term, I had a couple eye surgeries, but that wasn’t from a fight, that was from a hockey stick. Knees, shoulders, but those are general wear and tear, and then a couple concussions I was diagnosed with.
But that's another thing—now that I know the science on cannabinoids, specifically CBD as a neuroprotectant, that it actually promotes neurogenesis, I look back on my cannabis use and I actually believe that it's helped me, helped protect my brain and helped my mental health.
Some of these guys have a lot of head issues—they literally get hit in the head once or twice, with limited amounts of head trauma, and they're retiring with all these problems and I’m like man, I've been in over 250 fights. I got punched in the face for a living and I feel pretty damn clear, pretty damn focused and my mental health is better than it's ever been.
Obviously, there's other elements that I’m incorporating in all this. I changed or removed destructive behavior, but nonetheless, I have to believe. If you want to compare cannabis to alcohol, which is glorified in a sport like hockey—Canadian hockey players love to pound beer after a hockey game or after a fight [where] you’ve been punched in the face ten times, I wouldn’t say is a great thing for your brain.
Some people have said that sports players are overpaid. And maybe I used to think that, but really, it’s not true. You guys are put through hell sometimes, and really get chewed up and spit out. However many millions you make, you deserve, I think.
I think growing up, I was regurgitating a lot of what my mom used to say, “Well, these damn hockey players make way too much money.” And it’s like, until you’ve lived it, and you understand the business, I fought for a living, literally, but it’s entertainment for people. People love that shit.
You put your body on the line in the name of entertainment, so people on a Sunday afternoon can get together and watch it and do this big to-do. When you're putting your physical body, your mind, your spirit on the line, I don’t agree with people that say they’re overpaid, especially these big time guys.
There's so much pressure, there's so much physical trauma to your body. And the physical part seems to be the surface of the mental and the spiritual part. You see a lot of these guys deteriorated as humans cause they live their whole lives wanting to be a football player, so they can be a star, and then they realize that it's not all it's cracked up to be.
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You're making other people rich, you're putting on a show in a sense, but it's not all roses. There's a lot of underlying darkness, especially if you're not a superstar, especially football. [They have] non-guaranteed contracts, you’ve got these guys literally fighting for their lives. Every tackle is like a lifeline of theirs.
Only a handful guys can go their whole career as a superstar, collect all this money, and then live happily ever after. It fosters this false belief in life, I think. Because everything is handed to you. You got people cheering for you, you got paychecks coming in, you got parties, you got girls, you’re living the dream. But a lot of it's very shallow.
And don't get me wrong, I appreciate my opportunity and I'm blessed to have played a game that I love and grew up playing, but I realize there's so much more to it. And we can help bring back a little of the spirit, help make the game cleaner so guys don’t have to go through such dark spells. Maybe we can minimize some of this if we were able to treat some of the injuries the right way, especially mental health issues.
Right now, the protocol is pump you full of pills and a couple of refills and you probably got a half-addicted player on your hands, if not a fully addicted one. The opposite is true if using cannabis and substances that don't offer those potential risks of abuse and addiction.
It's always the same story. Johnny falls off his bike, blows out his knee, gets surgery, gets some pills. Next thing you know he's a synthetic heroin addict, then becomes a real heroin addict because he just can’t afford pills on the street anymore. An acute injury, you manage your pain in the wrong way, you think it's normal and then your life is slipping away right in front of you. You can change that story. I’m living proof. Did I have a great, huge, long career? No, but I cut my losses when I recognized my problem and recognized that I could change and do good.
If you teach how to use cannabis the right way, some people are still going to abuse it, but I think generally you’re gonna have a more responsible cannabis user. I’d rather have someone abuse something like this where you’re gonna wake up the next morning instead of having a 911 call on your hands or jamming a Narcan syringe in your arm or whatever. The negative outcome of this is far less destructive than abusing hard drugs that are widely available.
You’ve said that more than half of NHL players consume marijuana. How do you know that?
I don’t know, I didn’t poll them all, but I played the game at every different level you could possibly play it. junior hockey and Central Hockey League, East Coast Hockey League, American Hockey League. No matter what league I played at...there's always a group, a good chunk of the team that that would smoke.
Did they smoke as regularly as I did? I can't quantify that. As far as Canadian hockey players and guys, especially now with the information behind it, guys are trying to self-medicate. That's where it all ends up being, that's why people gravitate toward the plant. They want to find relief.
So, how much pot were you consuming during your time in the league?
Well, it wasn’t before games, it was always after, as a recovery tool and the night before. Back then, I was still not sure if consuming during the day was a moral thing to do. There's probably a bunch of years where I struggled with the spirituality of it because it went against everything I had been taught and told as a child. I struggled with that for a long time, maybe until my early 20s, when I said, you know what, I'm gonna listen to my body and the way I feel and go with it. I started building my own personal philosophy around that, but a lot of it being every night after games.
I mean after you've [had] three pots of coffee before a game and crushed two Red Bulls and ate some Sudafed, [the way] your mind is running after a hockey game, it's not gonna relax anytime soon. So the only thing I could do was put myself to sleep with some cannabis. There were no other options. And it worked. It worked really well.
On the other side of that, I was doing that because I was going to war in a sense. I was going to fight, so I didn't want to go up there just casual and with my guard down—I'm going out there in kill mode, and it’s hard to relax when you do that.
The NHL seems to turn a blind eye to cannabis use. They don’t often test for it and if they do detect it, they rarely, if ever, suspend a player for it. But you think they should be more open to the idea of players using cannabis. Can you explain your reasoning?
In theory, they have probably the best policy because they kinda just keep the flies away by not really enforcing or not testing to suspend guys. I don’t think that they should be promoting the use of cannabis, I'm saying more promoting use of phytocannabinoids. If you want to keep it uncontroversial, let's say non-psychoactive compounds. I do support THC, don't get me wrong, but people always take it that I’m promoting a “just get stoned” type of attitude. But I think they should be open to the use of CBD specifically.
I think that needs to be promoted and used as organizational tools to protect their investments. Protect the brain, remove inflammation, promote sleep. I can’t tell you how many guys I played with have an Ambien addiction. So if you can manage your sleep, manage anxiety, manage pain, inflammation? As a general manager, if I have a ten million dollar guy on the shelf for an injury I could have possibly prevented—maybe this guy got extra rest because he used cannabis versus not—these are big business deals. If you can facilitate the recovery process and the repair process with a non-psychoactive component like CBD and the rest of those non-psychoactive phytocannabinoids, why the hell wouldn’t you use that as a tool?
When I talk about cannabis, it brings [people] back to the bong or the blunt, but I'm thinking about all these uses, different balms and salves, transdermal patches, sublinguals, suppositories, this whole array of sprays and serums that athletes will be using. It's the future of sports medicine, no matter which way you cut it, so how quickly are these teams gonna jump on? The players are already quietly doing it. They’re way ahead of the game.
Do you think that that the NHL will ever come out in support of cannabis use or at least CBD use?
I do. I’m not sure if they’re going to come out, wave the flag and say, we support this now. You know, Canada's gonna go full recreational next year, a federal government’s lifting the ban, so I think eventually they're going to be okay with it. I’d probably wait for the US, but I think there's gonna be support. [Maybe not] a press conference to say we're gonna administer CBD and cannabis into our protocols. I think they’re just gonna quietly do it.
You’re far from alone. Rob Frid, of the London Knights, had more than 75 concussions in his career and he’s also come out in support of cannabis. There’s also former NBA star Al Harrington , Jack Ham of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Eugene Monroe of the Baltimore Ravens. So many players are coming out about this. What do you think is driving that?
Players are acknowledging that it’s medicine, that it does work and they’re using their platforms to promote the healing properties, the recovery process, properties of this plant. It’s no secret. Some guys take longer to come out of the closet than others, and some have more business interests than others, but I think there are a lot more guys involved in cannabis and passionate about cannabis than are public about it.
What’s the mission behind Athletes for Care, the organization you helped found?
Cannabis is the substance that brought us all together. We’re all passionate about natural healing, recovery and changing policy. We understand it is the ultimate tool and it's not exclusively cannabis, but that's a big chunk of it because we see that as the acute healer for pain, immediate pain, mental health issues, and addiction. But also we dip into meditation, yoga—you have to change the other things as well.
Cannabis is not this silver bullet [or] magical cure for everything some people will claim it to be. It is a tool to use with other tools. If we can use our platform as athletes to get some studies involved and change policy in the leagues, that means it will trickle over into society. Because every issue we deal with, every other person deals with. We all believe cannabis is the solution for all these problems, specifically pain and specifically the opioid crisis and concussions. It’s always about serving others—it's not just athletes we're taking care of.
We're using the athletic side to tell our stories, but they're symbolic to the same stories that every person, every single day goes through. It’s a daily grind of struggling with pain, anxieties, managing sleep, and managing your overall stressors.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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