Back in May, a video featuring the Washington Capitals’ Evgeny Kuznetsov sitting near two lines of a white, powder-like substance that many presumed to be cocaine began making the rounds on social media. It was taken while the team was in Las Vegas to play the Golden Knights.
Not much came of it — Kuznetsov issued a denial that said he never used drugs, the Capitals and the NHL followed with statements of their own, and people more or less moved on amid the churn of playoff hockey.
The issue resurfaced when the International Ice Hockey Federation announced in August that Kuznetsov had tested positive for cocaine back in May while he was competing for the Russian national team in the world championships. Kuznetsov then issued a statement in which he acknowledged he had “disappointed so many people.”
The IIHF assessed a four-year ban and, in September, the league levied one of its own, suspending Kuznetsov for three regular-season games, not for the drug test itself, but for “inappropriate conduct,” presumably for misleading both NHL and team officials.
The entire saga peeled back the curtain on the topic of drug use in the NHL, an issue often shrouded in secrecy, protected by confidentiality and mostly kept obscured, save for the odd rumor that gains traction on Twitter or hockey message boards.
And it prompts a number of pressing questions: How common is drug use in the NHL? Which drugs are the most prevalent? Is the league concerned?
In an attempt to answer these questions, The Athletic spoke to dozens of people within the game — players, coaches, executives, agents, scouts and more — to gauge what is taking place behind closed doors and once players leave the rink. To encourage candor and to assuage any fear of retribution, personal or professional, anonymity was granted to those who asked for it.
Here’s what we found:
The vast majority of people interviewed indicated that the tendency of players from eras past to abuse drugs, even painkillers, has shifted. Marijuana use is still considered common and its legalization in many places in the United States and the federal legalization of the drug in Canada has prompted discussions between the NHL and NHLPA about an informal agreement about its usage.
But the growing sense is that some players are spurning the postgame six pack of beer and turning to stronger substances, including hard and synthetic drugs. At least 10 people interviewed for this piece cited cocaine as the vice of choice among NHL players, especially among the younger set. Molly (a pill form of MDMA, which is also known as ecstasy), was frequently mentioned as a drug surging in popularity as well.
“It’s really the secret that everybody knows,” said one recently retired NHL player who still is working in the game.
The NHLPA does survey drug testing each year, in part to determine which drugs are on the rise and in part to identify substances that are becoming a cause for concern. Testing for drugs of abuse used to be administered to only 1/3 of NHL players, the NHL and NHLPA struck a resolution in 2016 to apply the testing to all players, so as to ensure more accurate and comprehensive results.
And while the NHLPA does not release the results of that testing, there has been concern from both within the union and the league in recent years about cocaine use specifically. In 2015, an explosive article by TSN revealed that team security officials were discussing its rise and the NHLPA was addressing its use in “closed-door meetings with numerous NHL clubs.” Even NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly acknowledged that the number of positive cocaine tests among players had increased.
This did not come out of nowhere.
Players like Zack Kassian and Nick Boynton have spoken candidly about their issues with hard drugs, including cocaine. Back in April 2015, Jarret Stoll, then a member of the Los Angeles Kings, was busted in Las Vegas with both cocaine and molly in his shorts as he was getting ready to enter a hotel pool party to celebrate the end of the season with many of his teammates.
It is impossible to know just how prevalent cocaine and molly have become, but people are talking about it as a legitimate trend and there is anecdotal evidence to suggest the drugs are in circulation.
“Guys are just popping molly on the weekends or before a team Halloween party or whatever,” said the retired player, who has been shocked at how openly the drugs are now used.
One veteran NHL player said that when he was first in the league, booze reigned supreme. Now, he’s seen a sharp rise in what he calls “festival drugs” like cocaine and molly. Ten years ago, hearing about cocaine use in an NHL setting was rare.
Now, though it’s not necessarily rampant, he said it’s not uncommon.
“It’s not like it’s a hockey thing. It’s a culture thing,” the player said, pointing to the usage rates among the general population as well.
Part of the drug’s ubiquity is its surge in availability. According to a 2017 report issued by the State Department, and a subsequent article summarizing the findings in the Washington Post, the size of Colombia’s illegal coca crop “exploded since 2013,” and the surging output was reflected with the drug’s increased appearance on U.S. streets.
Several research studies suggest cocaine usage is an increasing area of concern, as well, particularly as it relates to cocaine-related deaths. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, “the number of overdose deaths involving cocaine almost doubled” between 2014 and 2016.
When asked what they’d warn young players about, both Adam Henrique and his Anaheim Ducks teammate Devin Shore said cocaine, because they feel its use is becoming more commonly accepted and openly used among the general population.
A 2016 survey on National Drug Use and Health, administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, revealed that the number of young Americans who tried cocaine for the first time took a massive jump, increasing 61 percent from 2013 to 2015. According to a 2018 study by SAMHSA, 16.1 percent of the American population 18 and over had reported using cocaine during their lifetime.
Henrique said he’s afraid to even use tobacco chew because of its addictive properties; the idea that cocaine is now becoming so popular is a disturbing one.
“Cocaine is a huge drug now,” Henrique told The Athletic. “I’ve noticed, in general, if I’m out with buddies, whether it’s during the year or the summertime, if someone points it out to me — I’m oblivious to it — but once someone points it out to you, you can’t not see it.
“It seems so casual, that it’s not a big deal; like having a beer almost, which is kinda scary,” he said. “Where does it stop?”
Shore chimed in to back up Henrique’s observation.
“I’ve heard people talk more about cocaine (now) than I have in high school,” he said.
Even those in management seem willing to admit that this is becoming a worrisome trend and that anyone connected to the game who denies such drugs are making the rounds is being either intentionally obtuse or incredibly naive.
One NHL executive scoffed at the idea that players would never dabble in these substances or be subject to the same temptations.
“Fuck that,” he said. “They’ve got the same problems of any other kid.”
The executive went on to say that rumors are rampant that at least a few of the top players in the league are developing a reputation for cocaine use, and that it shouldn’t be even the least bit surprising.
They play on the edge, he said. Why is it shocking if they live that way, too?