Ex-NHLer’s brain shows how much we don’t know about CTE

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - DAVID SHOALTS TORONTO

Cote says he’s proof pos­i­tive that cannabis can ef­fec­tively treat ail­ments tied to a rough and tum­ble ca­reer

Ri­ley Cote is a re­tired NHL en­forcer who has a new mis­sion, preach­ing the gospel of medic­i­nal mar­i­juana, and the great­est sign of so­ci­ety’s chang­ing at­ti­tude to­ward the sub­stance might be that hockey is lis­ten­ing to him.

The frus­tra­tion for Cote is that at least pub­licly that is all the hockey com­mu­nity is do­ing right now, at least as far as the of­fi­cial or­ga­ni­za­tions go. He is still fight­ing the per­cep­tion medic­i­nal mar­i­juana is just a eu­phemism for the re­cre­ational form, rather than an ef­fec­tive treat­ment for med­i­cal is­sues, such as anx­i­ety, sleep dis­or­ders, chronic pain and in­flam­ma­tion.

The other prob­lem is that the drugs of­ten pre­scribed by con­ven­tional doc­tors to man­age these prob­lems, of­ten bar­bitu- rates and opi­oids, can be a lot more dan­ger­ous than medic­i­nal cannabis.

“Most of these guys have been brain­washed into think­ing cannabis is mar­i­juana and mar­i­juana is just smok­ing joints,” Cote said ear­lier this week when he was in Toronto to speak to a group of NHL alumni along with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of three cannabis com­pa­nies. “I con­sume cannabis ev­ery day but in small amounts. I’m not smok­ing Cheech-andChong style all day.”

Cote, 36, says he uses cannabis tinc­tures and oils to treat prob­lems com­mon to the men who made their liv­ing as NHL fighters: anx­i­ety, in­flam­ma­tion and lack of sleep. There are many tragic sto­ries about hockey fighters who fell vic­tim to sub­stance abuse and men­tal ill­ness be­cause of the na­ture of their work, which re­sulted in re­peated con­cus­sions for most of them. Cote says he was not im­mune to those things but cannabis, which he was in­tro­duced to recre­ation­ally at the age of 15, helped him avoid be­com­ing one of those sto­ries.

“When the nine-to-fiver has done their job, they can go home or to the happy hour to un­wind,” Cote said. “It’s dif­fer­ent when you’re wrap­ping up a game at 10 at night. I ramped my­self up to fight, prob­a­bly fought that night, swollen hands, swollen face, maybe bumped my knee.

“Then I’ve got to go home and find a way to sleep and wake up in the morn­ing for a 10:30 prac­tice. That’s why ath­letes seem to find ways to self-med­i­cate more than tra­di­tional nine-to-fivers.”

Cote helped form the group Ath­letes For Care, a non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to im­prov­ing the lives of ath­letes through al­ter­na­tive medicine and bet­ter health care. As a spokesman for both this group and his own cannabis busi­ness, Cote has talked to the NHL Alumni As­so­ci­a­tion and the Cana­dian Hockey League, which over­sees the best 16- to 20-yearold play­ers in the coun­try.

While eye­brows might be raised at the no­tion of spread­ing the cannabis gospel to teenage hockey play­ers, Cote says the medic­i­nal ben­e­fits of cannabis can­not be de­nied and it is bet­ter to ed­u­cate young peo­ple than to let them ex­per­i­ment on their own.

With mar­i­juana on the verge of le­gal­iza­tion in Canada next month, and the dis­cus­sion of its medic­i­nal value grow­ing, CHL pres­i­dent Dave Branch says his or­ga­ni­za­tion has a duty to ex­plore the is­sue. While mar­i­juana re­mains on the list of banned sub­stances and CHL play­ers are part of a part­ner­ship with Health Canada that en­cour­ages young peo­ple to make healthy choices about cannabis, Branch said he and his fel­low CHL of­fi­cials want to know more about the medic­i­nal ben­e­fits.

“There’s a lot of things that are go­ing to come at us in so­ci­ety with the le­gal­iza­tion next month,” Branch said. “We’ll have to be in po­si­tion to make in­formed de­ci­sions. Like most banned sub­stances, if there is a medic­i­nal pur­pose and a young player in our league is pre­scribed mar­i­juana, then we have what we call a ther­a­peu­tic ex­emp­tion for that in­di­vid­ual.

“We’re go­ing through some ed­u­ca­tion here and we feel it is im­por­tant with the young peo­ple we have in our ranks to pro­vide as much ed­u­ca­tion as pos­si­ble.”

NHL Alumni As­so­ci­a­tion ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Glenn Healy has spo­ken to Cote about for­mer play­ers par­tic­i­pat­ing in a health study con­cern­ing chronic pain and other symp­toms. The as­so­ci­a­tion has also been ap­proached by just about ev­ery cannabis com­pany in ex­is­tence about a busi­ness as­so­ci­a­tion.

While the as­so­ci­a­tion is in­ter­ested enough in the is­sue to be work­ing with sev­eral neu­rol­o­gists who are study­ing the medic­i­nal ben­e­fits of cannabis, Healy said any of­fi­cial rec­om­men­da­tions to the for­mer play­ers will not be made un­til “science tells me this is ef­fec­tive.”

But there is a grow­ing num­ber of for­mer play­ers who say they are see­ing long-sought re­lief from de­bil­i­tat­ing ill­nesses and symp­toms. Steve Ludzik is a for­mer NHL player and coach who was di­ag­nosed with Parkin­son’s Disease 18 years ago when he was 39. Ludzik says he was al­ways op­posed to drug use and this made him re­sist try­ing medic­i­nal cannabis to treat his symp­toms, the worst be­ing the in­abil­ity to sleep – un­til three years ago. He wishes he had not waited so long.

“I was the most neg­a­tive per­son about it,” Ludzik said. “I should have taken it five years ago and I wouldn’t do it. Then I fi­nally tried it.

“It just lets me go to sleep. I take it at 11 o’clock and I can get three or four hours. That’s a god­send to me.”

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