An Enforcer’s Life On And Off The Ice

The average American sports fan probably has as many misconceptions about hockey as they do about cannabis. Ask them what images come to mind when they think of the sport, and they might mention its unique set of necessary equipment: sticks, a puck, skates. They might describe its netted goal, or the knight-like padding cocooning its goalies. But odds are, they’re going to think of the fights.

Blood on the ice puts asses in seats. Hockey is not a combat sport in the sense that the physical domination of the opponent’s body isn’t its explicit goal, but combat is an intrinsic piece of its appeal and identity. American football and rugby similarly use the force of colliding bodies to control territory and strategic momentum, but neither sport regularly allows individuals from opposing teams to take their gloves off and rough one another up. The great cinematic stories about football and baseball are almost biblical parables about aspiring heroes and fearless leaders — “Field of Dreams” and “Remember the Titans.” The great hockey movies are entertaining romps about charming rapscallions hitting each other — “Slap Shot” and “Goon.”

Riley Cote was one such goon, or enforcer. During his four NHL seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers, he served over 400 penalty minutes. During his entire career as a professional hockey player from 1998 to 2010, Cote served over 1,000 penalty minutes. That is a wild amount of time spent in the penalty box. Between 2006 and 2010, Cote engaged in over 50 fights on the ice.

In hockey, a minority of players score the majority of goals — players like Sidney Crosby or Wayne Gretzky. Since Hockey is a contact sport, any injury those players receive could represent a serious disadvantage to their team. And since an average hockey player can travel at upward of 25 miles per hour, it’s easy for such injures to occur outside the referee’s field of vision. That’s where Cote comes in.

“Ultimately, my role as an ‘enforcer’ was to protect [my] teammates,” Cote says. To him, the time he served in the penalty box was worth it. “When you have a bunch of grown men fighting for a little piece of rubber, that are highly-trained athletic beasts — there’s a lot of stuff that goes unnoticed. Refs can only police so much,” he explains. “That’s where guys like me come in. The enforcers do the dirty work, and then go to the penalty box to serve [our] five minutes.”

Winnipeg’s Finest

Cote was raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the middle child between two girls, with a Catholic father and a German-Mennonite mother. Cote put on his first pair of ice skates at age four. At five years old, he was playing ice hockey.

Cote’s parents took their children to church on Sundays, but on most other days of the week Cote could be found skating in the community center two blocks from his home, or on one of the two ponds within walking distance of his house.

Being a middle child in a wintery city with not much else to occupy a young boy’s time left Cote with ample opportunities to perfect his ice hockey fundamentals. His two sisters also played recreationally, but Cote took it more seriously. For Cote, there was one distinct goal – to play professionally in the NHL.

“I was a really competitive kid,” Cote says. Coachable and hungry to learn, Cote dreamed of going pro at a young age. His early years were spent in an offensive role, comprised of scoring goals which ultimately landed him as one of the better players in Winnipeg.

Cote’s scoring domination, however, didn’t last past adolescence. Drafted into the Western Hockey League at age 15, Cote moved away from home, and at age 16 began full-time for the Prince Albert Raiders in Saskatchewan. Realizing he was now going up against the best players in Western Canada was a wake-up call. “I remember thinking Holy shit!” states Cote. “I’m not as good as I thought I was!”

As in all professional sports, a path to the NHL showed no quarter to a talented young man with a dream like Cote. “I worked my ass off,” he recalls. “I was athletic and could hold my own; however, I knew that regardless of how hard I trained, I did not have Wayne Gretzky’s natural ability. My only option was to pick it up or find a new identity.’”

“My War”

Cote struggled in Juniors and wound up playing several years in a checking role, only occasionally fighting before realizing that as he says, “the only guys getting called up were the guys with a lot of goals and a lot of penalties.” Cote finished his final two years in Juniors in an offensive role.

“I just fought my way through the Central Hockey League,” he proclaims. “I fought my way through the American Hockey League. Then I fought my way into the NHL. It was the same job with the same routine, just a different tax bracket.” Cote was drafted by the NHL and picked up by the Philadelphia Flyers for their 2006-07 season, where he played for an additional three seasons.

Cote stands just over six feet tall, and at the time weighed around 214 pounds. Many of the players he fought stood six and a half feet tall and weighed between 225 and 270 pounds. Cote had to work to gain weight to keep his role, and fight with even greater ferocity than the enforcer role usually calls for. “I had fights where I would get my ass kicked, I didn’t give a shit — that’s when I’d go down swinging” he says. “I was all in.”

I can’t tell how many guys I’ve played with and played against that have addictions to alcohol, opioids, Ambien or benzodiazepines… all because we’ve been handed a recovery toolbox without the proper tool — meaning cannabis.

– Riley Cote, cannabis advocate and former NHL player

Going all in carries a stiffer penalty than a few minutes off the ice. The experience of constantly gearing himself up to play left him with anxiety and insomnia. “In hockey, it’s not like UFC, where you circle a date and time on the calendar and you say you’re fighting at this exact moment,” he describes. “There’s games where I amped myself up to fight and I never fought. So, that meant this constant state of anxiety.”

That perpetual state of anxiety left Cote with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. One of his primary triggers is a song every American knows by heart, whether they like it or not. “Sometimes when I hear the national anthem, especially at hockey events, or sporting events, I have flashbacks. Just the mental stress and the mentality and the mindset I was in, at that moment with I heard the national anthem. For me, it was like, ‘I’m getting ready to fight. I’m getting ready to go to war. This is my war.’” Cote clarifies that he does not compare hockey to literal actual armed combat, but enforcing was his own personal sustained conflict. “Obviously you can’t compare it to the real war, but it was for me. It was man-on-man combat in front of 15, 20,000 people.”

Cannabis and the NHL

Cote ended up treating his anxiety with cannabis.

“I just call it the ultimate recovery tool,” Cote reveals. “I was always the first guy at the rink. I took pride in that. Whether I was really sore or banged up, [cannabis] just helped me manage all of that.”

Cannabis, however, couldn’t keep him on the ice. The professional life of an enforcer matches brutality with brevity. “I ran my body into the ground fighting,” Cote says. “Obviously, I was still living pretty hard off the ice, a lot of drinking, a lot of unsustainable activities that came along with the glorious life of playing professional hockey, but my physical body broke down. Everything kind of comes to an abrupt end at age 28.” Cote retired from professional hockey in 2010 after his fourth season with the Flyers.

Cannabis has a unique place in hockey — The NHL does not include it among its banned substances. In contrast, the NFL and NBA impose suspensions on players that test positive for THC, and even minor league baseball players have been punished for consuming cannabis. That lax attitude isn’t likely to change in the future, since Cote’s native Canada has now legalized cannabis use, and nearly one quarter of the NHL’s franchises exist within our neighbor to the north’s borders.

To hear Cote tell it, many hockey pros are no stranger to recreational cannabis. “On every team I played with there was … at least 50 percent of the guys, especially younger guys who were a little more open with it, that would consume. I think the number is probably higher,” he surmises. “I think in football and some of these sports they’re saying 70, 80 percent [consume cannabis], and I wouldn’t doubt that. There’s a lot of closet smokers and cannabis consumers — the older married guys that aren’t going out with the younger guys regularly are probably at home, dialing it back with their wife.”

Despite hockey’s recreational cannabis culture and the NHL’s willingness to look the other way, pro hockey leagues have yet to reach any formal understanding regarding using cannabinoids as part of athletic care, as opposed to other habit-forming medications.

“I can’t tell how many guys I’ve played with and played against that have alcohol and opioid addictions, Ambien addictions and benzo addictions,” Cote recalls. “It’s all because we’ve been handed a toolbox without the proper tools — meaning cannabis or cannabis based products.” While he doesn’t particularly blame the league’s trainers and medical professionals for not taking a more proactive pro-cannabis stance, it’s still a Schedule I substance; Cote sees a world where athletes cannot legally access cannabis as part of their care regimen as one that is tilted against them.

Retirement and Recovery

Cote took his recovery into his own hands. “I started mindfully consuming CBD just to help treat whatever damage I thought I’d caused. I stopped drinking for a full year. The last two surgeries I had, I just used cannabis to manage my pain, no pharmaceuticals,” he says. According to Cote, he hasn’t touched a pharmaceutical drug since 2009.

Cote’s use of cannabis initially clashed with his religious upbringing. While he was raised a nondenominational Christian, he now prefers to call himself spiritual, owing to the transformative experiences that he’s had with cannabis. “I had some spiritual challenges when I started consuming cannabis, and kind of experiencing life on my own … about the structure of religion. You can teach morals and be a good person without the structure of religion. I think that’s just ends up being a control system.”

In the same way that the NHL doctors deny players cannabis as an important recovery tool, Cote takes some issue with the religion he was brought up in for denying cannabis as a spiritual tool. “Mother nature acts as my God. And I’m part of mother nature, so then again, you have to take care of yourself as well as you have to. You have to believe in yourself, you have to treat yourself as a God. Because if you don’t, who will?” In his retirement, Cote has left the violence of his twenties behind him, which left his relationship with the role of enforcer a bit ambiguous.

I fought my way through the American Hockey League. Then I fought my way into the NHL. It was the same job and the same routine, just a different tax bracket.

– Riley Cote, cannabis advocate and former NHL player

“I think the guys that put themselves through the most hell, probably get rewarded in that capacity [enforcing] as far as the scale and payment,” Cote says. It is worth noting that fights and enforcing have been on a steady decline in professional hockey for years. The bench-clearing brawls that inspired “Slap Shot” were a thing of the past when Cote began his career, and in the eight years since his retirement the NHL has moved further away from fighting.

“Managing all that stuff with cannabis and other natural alternatives is this whole other side of life. It’s certainly more important than the ego-driven culture of sports. I still love hockey, and I still play hockey, but I don’t think I ever really enjoyed the game of hockey while I was pro, because all I was concerned with was fighting.”

In the end, however, Cote prefers to dwell on the positive outcomes of his rarified career as a professional athlete. “I could blame the NHL and my hockey team for a lot of negative things that happened in my life, but I could also cherish and dwell on all the positive things it’s given me. Sure, there was some darkness that came along with it. I think that’s the beautiful part of the story; I was able to figure it out.

Advocacy and Entrepreneurship

Cote retired in 2010, making the jump from on-ice enforcer to off-ice cannabis and hemp advocate. Cote founded the Hemp Heals Foundation, “a non-profit organization that supports sustainable agriculture, sustainable health and clean natural medicine, while focusing on a holistic approach to optimum health,” according to their website.

In 2016, Cote co-founded Athletes For CARE, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to creating a community where all athletes can find support, opportunity and purpose in life following a career in sports. “CARE” represents the organization’s mission of Community, Advocacy, Research and Education, which also supports medicinal cannabis as one of many wellness alternatives to traditional forms of pain management, like opioids. Cote’s willingness to speak on behalf of cannabis in the NHL may already be having an impact: Don Fehr, executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association, said in July of 2018 that it was “possible that the NHL and NHLPA could come to an informal understanding about marijuana usage among players in the league in the future.” That statement came after months of stumping by Cote.

Cote sits on the board for the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council, an organization working towards expanding the cultivation of hemp in Pennsylvania, where Cote acts as a partner in three cannabusinesses. Cote co-founded AgriNext, a hemp grow initiative that does not currently have any products at market, but will produce food products, textiles, plastics and CBD. Cote’s second PA-based venture, ThetaHemp, encompasses a separate hemp farm in PA that will include a new line of health and wellness products set to hit market in 2019.  Thirdly, in August 2018, Cote launched BodyChek Wellness, a line of premium hemp extract products designed to optimize health and enhance everyday performance.

Cote’s passion for cannabis has not completely eclipsed his childhood love of hockey, though he’s spending more time coaching than checking these days. He served as assistant coach for the AHL Lehigh Valley Phantoms from 2010-2017 and continues to coach and train youth hockey players in the Philadelphia area.

As a coach, Cote tries not to teach the way he was taught. “You need to have confidence, but I don’t think you need to be an egomaniac,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of really confident human beings that were really, really successful and good at what they did. But they weren’t arrogant, they weren’t driven by this ego. Because there’s too much of it. The sport itself is ego, especially on the coaching side of it. ‘Who can re-invent the wheel the best?’”

“My approach of coaching, pro or not, is always the same. I just be myself, and take the ego out of it, and focus on being a really good communicator, and connect with the players.”

One of his pupils may, like Cote, join the Flyers, where their body will undergo the trials and tribulations of a professional hockey career. If they do, their recovery and care may be treated with cannabinoids, not opiates, thanks in no small part to battles Cote has slugged out, both on and off the ice.