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NHL stays with status quo as Canada pot legalization looms

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As Riley Cote took and delivered countless punches over more than a decade of junior and pro hockey, he was eager to avoid painkillers.

Early on, marijuana was touted to the enforcer as a healing option.

”I started noticing some therapeutic benefits,” Cote said. ”It helped me sleep, helped with my anxiety and general well-being.”

Now a handful of years into retirement, Cote is a proponent of cannabis and its oils as an alternative to more addictive drugs commonly used by athletes to play through pain. Marijuana can be detected in a person’s system for more than 30 days, is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency without a specific therapeutic use exemption and is illegal in much of the United States.

Canada on Wednesday will become the largest country in the world to legalize recreational marijuana. That means it will be available under the law in seven more NHL cities (it’s been legal to adults in Denver since 2012). The move is a step forward for those who, like Cote, believe marijuana has been stigmatized and should be accepted as a form of treatment.

”It was so tainted for a long time,” Ottawa Senators forward Matt Duchene said. ”And now people are starting to learn a little bit more about it and there is definitely some positive uses to different elements of it.”

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association plan no changes to their joint drug-testing policy, under which players are not punished for positive marijuana tests. It is the most lenient approach to cannabis by any major North American professional sports league.

”The Substance Abuse & Behavioral Health Program for decades has been educating players on using drugs, legal or illegal,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said. ”That process will continue and we will consider what changes, if any, in our program have to be made. But right now, we think based on the educational level and what we do test for and how we test, at least for the time being, we’re comfortable with where we are.”

While the NFL and NBA can suspend and MLB can fine players for multiple marijuana infractions, only a significantly high amount of the drug found in NHL/NHLPA testing triggers a referral to behavioral health program doctors. Cote estimated about half of players during his NHL career from 2007-2010 used some sort of cannabis for medicinal purposes, though players suggest use in hockey currently is lower than the population at large.

More than two dozen U.S. states allow marijuana use for a variety of ailments, but the federal government has not approved it for any medical use. Some players have already done research into the benefits of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) oils. There’s a curiosity about whether marijuana could one day replace or limit painkillers like oxycodone, even if players aren’t yet ready to make that leap.

”There’s not a lot of science out there yet in terms of long-term effects,” said Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele, who is still on the fence about cannabis use for medical reasons. ”I think it’s something that still needs to be thought really clearly about in terms of understanding the long-term effects.”

Through his Hemp Heals Foundation and work with Lehigh Valley University in Pennsylvania, Cote is doing his part to increase the information available. He’s quick to point to studies on cannabis that suggest it can help people after PTSD or head trauma. And yet he acknowledges there’s a long way to go.

”There’s a lot of different things that point to the fact that the science is now backing it up,” Cote said. ”There’s probably billions of anecdotal stories, but those don’t mean anything unless it’s backed by science, unless it follows the order of the way it’s supposed to be.”

Bettman contends the mainstream medical community has not concluded that cannabis prevents or heals injuries, and said an argument could be made to the contrary. NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr said it’s a subject that is ”at best in its infancy and is going to develop over time.”

Given the looming Wednesday legalization in Canada, the league and union opted for education over policy changes.

”What we feel was an important element is at least educating the players better on the current marijuana landscape both from a legal and illegal perspective and what’s permitted and not permitted,” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. ”But also ‘What are the products out there?’ because there’s probably publicly a great misconception of what marijuana is, how it’s used, what it’s used for to what the reality is.”

Players who aren’t yet educated about marijuana are willing to ask around about potential benefits as more studies are done.

”I say this more talking about the CBD side of it, obviously: You’d be stupid not to at least look into it,” Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid said. ”When your body’s sore like it is sometimes, you don’t want to be taking pain stuff and taking Advil all the time. There’s obviously better ways to do it. … You’re seeing a lot of smart guys look into it. You’re seeing a lot of really smart doctors look into it. If all the boxes are checked there and it’s safe and everything like that, then I think you would maybe hear them out.”

The possibility of experimenting with cannabis extracts is more possible in the NHL than for players with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors or MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays because of the regulations in those sports.

In the NBA, a second positive test carries a $25,000 fine and each subsequent test a suspension of five games, then 10 and so on. In baseball, a player on a 40-man roster could be fined up to $35,000, while a player not on a 40-man roster is subject to a 50-game suspension for a second positive test and 100 for a third.

A Raptors spokeswoman said it’s business as usual for the team because the new laws in Canada don’t change NBA drug policy. Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins also largely deferred to the league office.

”Major League Baseball does a good job on educating players across the game on risk in and around that,” Atkins said. ”It’s a complex situation that is very personal. I’d need more information to say if we’d just tolerate it or not.”

For now, marijuana is technically a banned substance as a drug of abuse in the NHL. Cote would love to see marijuana removed from NHL/NHLPA testing to open the doors to widely accepting it, though players say it would take years for hockey culture to welcome such a change – if it ever would.

”I played in Colorado where it was legal for a while and I thought it was going to change society a little bit, and it didn’t, really,” Duchene said. ”I don’t think it’s going to be as big a thing as people might think.”

AP Baseball Writer Ron Blum, AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds and freelancer Ian Harrison contributed.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

The Playoff Buzzer: Coyle plays OT hero; Tarasenko puts on show

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  • The Boston Bruins brushed off a 13-second disaster in the third period as Charlie Coyle scored the game-tying goal and then the game-winner in OT against the Blue Jackets
  • Blues picked up right where they left off in Round 1 thanks to Vladimir Tarasenko, Jordan Binnington and others. 

Boston 3, Blue Jackets 2 [OT] (BOS leads 1-0)

Everything looked breezy for Boston before Brandon Dubinsky and Pierre-Luc Dubois scored 13 seconds apart in the third period to turn the tide of the game. That was until the Charlie Coyle Show made its second-round debut. In the first episode, Coyle played hero, scoring the game-tying goal and then the winner in the ensuing overtime frame. The Bruins deserved it based on metrics and they ended up winning it on merit.

Blues 3, Stars 2 (STL leads 1-0)

The Blues needed Tarasenko to get going and they needed to rally around the same defensive structure that helped them see off the Winnipeg Jets. Job done in Game 1. Tarasenko had scored a brace. The Blues held the line and Binnington took care of the rest. The Blues were also able to penetrate a penalty kill that had gone 15-for-15 in Round 1, so there’s more joy to be had in Joyland for St. Louis.

Three stars

1. Charlie Coyle, Boston Bruins

Depth. It matters.

Coyle scored his fourth and fifth goals of the postseason, a game-tying goal late in the third period to force overtime and the game-winner off a slick feed from Marcus Johansson in the extra frame.

Boston was dangerous with their two top lines. If they’re getting continued scoring their bottom six, watch out everyone.

2. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues

The Blues needed more from Tarasenko if they were going to taste success in their Round 2 series against the Dallas Stars.

Tarasenko had two power-play goals in Round 1 but didn’t get much-done five-on-five. Tarasenko scored once again on the power play in Game 1 against the Stars and then extended a third-period lead to 3-1 with his first five-on-five goal of the playoffs.

This is a good start.

3. Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues

This guy. On Jan. 6 he didn’t have a win in the NHL, now he has five playoff wins under his belt spread across two rounds.

Binnington couldn’t care less about his likely snub in the rookie of the year race. He’s got a much bigger trophy on his mind. Binnington made 27 saves in the game, including 16-of-17 in the third period as the Stars searched for a tying goal. Something about Binnington’s calmness…

Highlights of the night

OT winners are always better:

Don’t give this man this kind of space:

Factoids

Friday’s games

Game 1: Hurricanes at Islanders, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live stream)
Game 1: Avalanche at Sharks, 10 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live stream)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Tarasenko takes over, Blues snag Game 1 vs. Stars

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If you needed a star player to score a big goal in a playoff game, who would you pick?

Most hockey fans would tab Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and other players who’ve already won at least a Stanley Cup. Maybe you’d lean toward Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, or Nikita Kucherov, if you wanted to mix things up.

St. Louis Blues fans would insist that Vladimir Tarasenko should be on the tip of your tongue, and in a tight 3-2 Game 1 win (and 1-0 series lead) for the Blues against the Dallas Stars, he added to his robust big-game resume.

(Game 2 airs on NBC at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday; stream here.)

While Ben Bishop will be haunted by allowing the Blues 1-0 goal early in Game 1 via Robby Fabbri, you wonder if there’s only so much anyone could do to stop Tarasenko on both of his goals. In particular, Tarasenko showed why his nickname is “Tank” on his second goal, as he absolutely powered his way past Miro Heiskanen and roofed a fantastic goal by Bishop. Tarasenko simply would not be denied:

At the time, Tarasenko’s second goal of Game 1 made it 3-1, but with Jamie Benn scoring a strange 3-2 goal that survived a goal review after an ill-timed whistle, the Blues needed every one of those Tarasenko tallies. Tarasenko’s nicest goal of the evening ended up counting as the game-winner.

With this result, Tarasenko now has an outstanding 26 goals in his last 50 playoff games. That ties Tarasenko with Sidney Crosby for the fourth-most postseason goals since 2013-14, and Crosby hit that mark in 82 playoff contests. None of that is meant to insult Crosby; instead, the point is that Tarasenko’s been an absolute superstar in the postseason.

Interestingly, Tarasenko was pretty quiet in Round 1, only managing two goals in six games against the Winnipeg Jets. The Blues were carried by other players like Jaden Schwartz with Winnipeg’s top line carrying the way, but on Thursday, it was the Tarasenko show.

***

While it was a tough night at times for Bishop (who took a scary puck to the head), Jordan Binnington was a mix of brilliant and a touch scrambly. Binnington also felt some content during Game 1, as this scuffle began when the rookie goalie was bumped by Blake Comeau:

Binnington gave up a juicy rebound or three in Game 1, yet he really locked it down when Dallas tried to wage a comeback; Binnington stopped 16 out of 17 shots in the third period alone.

This loss stings, but the Stars can feel comfortable that they weren’t merely facing a struggling Predators team. Dallas was absolutely able to hang with a St. Louis squad that was a buzzsaw at times down the stretch this season, and honestly, the Stars sometimes looked flat-out better.

The Blues found a way to win Game 1, which in this case, meant riding Tarasenko’s dominant scoring and Binnington’s brilliant netminding. If this one was any indication, more wins against Dallas won’t come easy, so the Blues might need more of that from their biggest star, and their rising star in net.

The Stars will try to even up the series against the Blues as Game 2 takes place at the Enterprise Center on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET (NBC; stream here).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

If Bruins keep getting secondary scoring, look out

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The Boston Bruins have long been considered a “one-line team,” and that’s not such a bad thing when that one line features Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak.

You’d think that the Bruins would have lost Game 7 against the Maple Leafs and Game 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, what with that one line essentially being held scoreless.*

Nope. The Bruins won both of those games, which leaves them with a 1-0 series lead against the Blue Jackets to begin Round 2.

[Read all about the Bruins’ 3-2 OT win here.]

* – Bergeron scored an empty-netter in Game 7, but it was a 5-1 goal that barely beat the buzzer and meant even less to the outcome of that decisive contest.

Consider some of the less-obvious players who’ve come through for the Bruins lately, and we’ll ponder how likely it is that they’ll be able to continue to contribute.

David Krejci

But first, an obvious player, as Krejci is a player whose play (73 points this season, tying a career-high) screams that the Bruins really haven’t only been a one-line team, in the first place. It’s probably true that Krejci isn’t quite the pivot who topped all playoff point producers in 2012-13 (26, seven more than anyone else) and 2010-11 (23), but he remains worthy of more attention than he gets on a team with justifiable spotlight-takers in Bergeron, Marchand, and Zdeno Chara.

The Bruins might end up needing even more from the supporting cast members below if Krejci needs to miss some time. NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty reports that Krejci is considered day-to-day, and it’s possible he got hurt here.

Even if Krejci plays, there’s the chance he wouldn’t be at full-strength, so these players may need to continue to step up as the series moves on to Game 2 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC; stream here).

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Charlie Coyle

The headline-grabber, naturally, is Coyle. He was already heating up during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but Game 1 was his masterpiece, as Coyle scored the goal that sent Game 1 to overtime, and then tapped home the 2-1 OT-winner.

If you ever want a snapshot of how dramatically luck can shift from terrible to incredibly friendly, you could do worse than to look at Coyle right after the trade deadline versus Playoff Coyle.

Through 21 regular-season games after being traded to Bruins: two goals, six points, a pitiful 4.8 shooting percentage on 42 SOG.

Through eight playoff games: five goals, six points, an absurd 35.7 shooting percentage on 14 SOG.

Obviously, the truth about Coyle is somewhere between the guy who couldn’t buy a bucket during the regular season with Boston, and the player who’s scored a goal on his last three shots on goal.

Coyle finished 2018-19 with 34 points, but he generally strikes as a 40-50 point player, and has shown a decent ceiling with a career-high of 56 points in 2016-17. You can’t really expect spectacular scoring from Coyle, but if this run really heightens his self-confidence, he could really give the Bruins a chance to win the depth battle, at least some nights. That’s not as spectacular as scoring OT goals, but in the likely event that the top line starts scoring again, it makes the Bruins frightening.

Marcus Johansson

Goal scorers are the guys who “hit the long ball” to a great passer’s Maddux, but you merely need to watch replays of the two Coyle goals to see that Marcus Johansson was just as instrumental in those tide-changing tallies.

It’s tough not to root for a player like Johansson. When he was traded from Washington to New Jersey, it seemed like the Capitals got cap-crunched, and the Devils were really building something. Unfortunately, thanks in large part to a bad hit by Johansson’s now-teammate Brad Marchand, Johansson suffered serious health issues, and really hasn’t been the same player.

The Bruins were smart to give Johansson a shot via a rental, though, and the B’s could really be onto something if he finds chemistry with Coyle. Johansson’s 30 points in the regular season are actually a lot more impressive when you consider that he was limited to 58 games played, and if he can stay healthy, the Swede could put together a stellar contract year (er, contract playoff run?).

Again, don’t expect Coyle and Johansson to do Game 1 things during the rest of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet the chemistry and confidence could start soaring at this rate.

(And, hey, Coyle’s contract ends after 2019-20, so really, they’re both more or less playing for their futures.)

Jake DeBrusk

As the Bruins’ frequent second-liner alongside Krejci, DeBrusk quietly put up 27 goals despite being limited to 68 games. He had some memorable moments during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and remains a strong contributor for Boston. In fact, if Krejci misses time, DeBrusk could show how much havoc he can create on his own.

Sean Kuraly/Noel Acciari/Joakim Nordstrom

OK, these guys weren’t exactly high-scorers during the regular season, and their contributions might not be super-dependable. Acciari’s goal on Sergei Bobrovsky to start the scoring in Game 1, and Kuraly’s big 3-1 goal against Frederik Andersen in Game 7 of Round 1 were both goals that the netminders really should have had. Still, if those guys can get the occasional goal and avoid being deep underwater on tougher nights, that could be big. (Some nights will be easier than others.)

Kuraly, in particular, shows a nice burst that can cause headaches for opponents, and his possession stats have been positive so far now that he’s managed to get healthy enough to appear in the playoffs.

***

Don’t let some hit-posts and other near-misses fool you; the Bruins are still going to lean heavily on their top trio, and barring health issues or a truly profound cold streak, they’ll likely deliver.

You need another players to pick up during the grind of the postseason, particularly against teams that are gameplanning to stop Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak. The Bruins have been getting needed contributions from their supporting cast, and while that luck is almost certain to eventually cool off, there’s a solid chance that Coyle and Johansson could be bigger contributions than they were during the regular season.

That makes the Bruins a scary postseason opponent, especially if Krejci’s issues are short-lived.

The Bruins hope to build on their 1-0 series lead against the Blue Jackets in Game 2 at TD Garden at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday (NBC; stream here).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Coyle’s clutch as Bruins take 1-0 series lead vs. Blue Jackets

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Some deadline deals never work out for teams once they hit the playoffs. Others take a little time to find their stride.

And then there’s some that make an immediate impact.

While Charlie Coyle‘s arrival in Boston earlier in the year wasn’t much to write home about, his presence in the Stanley Cup Playoffs has been nothing short of sensational.

And the Boston Bruins can thank Coyle for a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven Round 2 series against the Columbus Blue Jackets after he scored two monumental goals for the Bruins in a 3-2 overtime win on NBCSN on Thursday.

Coyle’s wasn’t the biggest name to get a plane ticket to a new destination. He was added depth for a Bruins team were bolstering their lineup for a run at Lord Stanley. But sometimes depth plays a crucial part for a playoff team, and Coyle now has five goals and an assist in eight playoff games with his new club.

Coyle came through in the clutch not once, but twice on Thursday.

Boston had jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first period on a shorthanded goal by Noel Acciari (more depth) as Boston tried to deliver the knockout blow in a flurry of offense in the opening period.

The Blue Jackets withstood the storm, much like they did against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. As the game progressed, Columbus slowly found its stride. They hadn’t played in a week after sweeping the Lightning in the biggest shocker of Round 1. They looked, perhaps, too relaxed.

But when the third rolled around, a gift of manna emerged from the heavens in the forms of a 13 stretch where the Blue Jackets turn the game on its head.

Boston will probably say this one was just a blip on the radar after the win. Columbus, meanwhile, will say they stuck with it and use some solace.

Both statements have some semblance of truth embedded in them, but in a race to four wins, it only matters that the Bruins found a way.

And that way was directed by Coyle.

The former Minnesota Wild forward tied the game with less than four minutes remaining to ultimately send the game to overtime, where he’d write the conclusion to the story as he tapped in a perfect pass from fellow trade deadline acquisition Marcus Johansson to seal the victory.

Boston probably deserved to win, truth be told. The possession numbers and expected goals favored them heavily and they were able to rebound from the 180 that happened. The playoffs are as much about rebounding from adversity as they are about trying to avoid it altogether.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck