From Hockey Goon to Psychedelics Guru
Over four years in the NHL, Riley Cote pushed his body to its limit. After his playing days, he expanded his mind
Riley cote’s journey to enlightenment began in earnest when a hulking man punched him in the face. Cote, now 40 and retired from professional hockey, remembers the moment with a dark laugh. He’d gotten into this particular bust-up one night during the 2009 season with one of the NHL’s most vicious fighters, and took the worst of it, waking the next day with his left eye blackened shut.
“What,” he asked himself, “am I doing?”
He drove to the Philadelphia Flyers training facility and got into the shower. Feeling congested, he reached for a tissue. He didn’t realize he’d suffered a cracked sinus, so what happened next was physics. When he blew his nose, the air — rather than coming out of his nostrils — inflated his face. The pressure surged instantly behind his good eye and closed it tight.
Team trainer Derek Settlemyre heard Cote scream. “His whole face had swollen up,” Settlemyre recalls. “We tell them, if they think they have a fracture, ‘Don’t blow your nose’ — and he did.”
After eight years in pro hockey (four in the NHL, four hopping around its minor-league teams), Cote felt his re
Steve Volk wrote about racism in policing in the May 2021 issue. tirement bearing down. As an NHL “enforcer” — a player whose main role is to get into fights — he’d taken countless hits on the ice. Off it, he selfmedicated with booze and drugs. He’d brutalized his body inside and out by the tender age of 28. “I damaged my brain,” Cote says. “Punching it and dehydrating it and partying my ass off.”
Today, Cote is a new man, with a mane of long brown hair, a yogatrimmed physique, and an aura of ease in his own skin. It is a transformation he credits largely to psychedelic drugs. Since retiring, Cote has emerged as one of the sports world’s most vocal advocates for what he calls “plant medicines” — from cannabis, itself a light psychedelic, to weightier hallucinogens including DMT and magic mushrooms — to treat post-concussion symptoms (think headaches, insomnia, depression, and possibly, the degenerative brain condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE). In 2017, Cote co-founded Athletes for Care, a group that promotes research into the physical and emotional health issues athletes face and novel paths for treatment. He regularly speaks at conferences on the benefits of psychedelics. And, perhaps most important, he reaches out to players who are known to be struggling post-career, even arranging magic-mushroom ceremonies where they can safely experiment with psychedelics.
Cote understands the hesitation surrounding these drugs. While psychedelics fill him with “love,” “gratitude,” and a “connection to a higher energy source,” they are technically illegal throughout most of the U.S. Beyond that, the experience, whether good or bad, can be intense. Certain users experience not just so-called bad trips, but also psychotic breaks from reality. Cote says talking to a first-timer about using psychedelics is basically like asking them: “Do you want to see God? Are you sure?” The ask is so big, the answer is often no.
cote was worried when he walked into the lunch area at the Good Hope House Retreat Center in Jamaica one day in April, got a green smoothie, and waited for one of the biggest weekends of his life to unfold. An ESPN crew was coming to film a magic-mushroom ceremony he’d helped organize for a group of retired athletes, including former players from the NHL and NFL. All had pledged to eat “breakthrough” doses — enough, that is, to induce a mystical state — of mushrooms containing psilocybin, which is legal in Jamaica.
The opportunity to showcase mushrooms as medicine to a mainstream television audience was a precious thing, but as Cote sat with some early arrivals, he couldn’t enjoy it. He kept mulling a more practical concern: Would everyone actually show up? Two people in particular — Steve Downie, an ex-Flyers teammate, and Justin Renfrow, a former NFL lineman — were due any minute. Or not. In the past 11 years, Cote has invited a lot of people to venture down the magicmushroom path, and most who say yes subsequently run into excuses not to follow through. In fact, second-thought declinations are so common in Cote’s experience that he doesn’t judge anyone for them.
“It’s scary, right?” Cote says. “There’s a fear associated with it. There’s a lot of unknowns, like, ‘Where am I going? What am I getting myself into?’ It all sounds grand when you’re sitting on your couch, you know, and talking about it via text or phone. But when you’ve actually got to be committed to something and actually do it, it’s another story.”
There is some irony here. Since Cote began proselytizing, scientific research bolstering the case for psychedelics has accumulated. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore established a center for psychedelic and consciousness research in 2019, and has published 50 peer-reviewed papers that indicate psychedelics help treat depression, promote psychological insight, alleviate anxiety in cancer patients, break smoking addiction, and improve overall life satisfaction. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration, which had for decades held the line against psy
chedelics, granted “breakthrough therapy” status to psilocybin use for severe depression, an act designed to accelerate the drug development and review process. MDMA, better known as the club drug Ecstasy, also won breakthrough status, and could receive full approval to treat post-traumatic stress disorder next year.
At the same time, the discovery of CTE has created a crisis across all contact sports, linked to myriad symptoms, including memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulsecontrol problems, aggression, depression, anxiety, suicidality, and progressive dementia. The condition can only be confirmed after death, but the list of the dead with CTE is long, including four soccer players, more than 300 NFL players, and at least a dozen high-profile hockey players: Stan Mikita, Bob Probert, Derek Boogaard, Jeff Parker, Wade Belak, Larry Zeidel, Reggie Fleming, Rick Martin, Steve Montador, Zarley Zalapski, Todd Ewen, and Dan Maloney.
Dr. Julie Holland, a practicing New York psychiatrist and psychedelics expert, says the application of psychedelics to sports medicine is new, but makes sense based on the current scientific literature. “We know that many psychedelics have really potent antiinflammatory effects,” says Holland, who is also a longtime medical adviser for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS. “The other thing is, they’re being explored for treating neurodegenerative disorders, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy. These athletes that get multiple blows to the head [represent] a case where you really need not only anti-inflammatory effects, but this purported neuroplasticity that comes with psychedelics.”
Studies largely involving rodents suggest that psychedelics reduce neuroinflammation, a key component of both Alzheimer’s disease and CTE; produce healing from brain injury; and possibly even prompt neurogenesis, or the birth of new neurons. They have also been shown to increase the density of dendritic spines — small protrusions found on nerve cells — in turn spurring the growth of neuronal connections that can be lost in cases of chronic stress or depression. Some human experiments suggest that psychedelics reduce activity in the default mode network (DMN), a web of connected brain regions responsible for self-awareness, social thinking, and thoughts about the past and future. The mystic feelings that users like Cote report — such as the loss of a sense of self, and the ability to set aside the past or think afresh about the future — are thought to arise from this reset of the DMN.
Cote started Athletes for Care with such edgier therapies in mind — initially just cannabis, and then psychedelics as the encouraging science grew. And while he might not be the group’s most famous retiree (members include former NFL star running backs Tiki Barber and Chris Johnson, and former UFC champ “Bas” Rutten), he looms as perhaps its most pivotal figure. He is a partner in a hemp-derived CBD recovery product line called BodyChek Wellness and an adviser to Wake, a multipronged company that is collaborating with Baltimore’s Lieber Institute for Brain Medicine to use genetics research to develop psilocybin-based treatments tailored to individual patients — a potentially dramatic step toward eliminating “bad” or ineffective trips. At AFC’s most recent board meeting, in March, Cote led a deep discussion around psychedelics, presenting the current body of research and urging the group to strengthen its commitment to incorporate psychedelics into its work.
“Riley has been a leader in this space for a long, long time,” says Marvin