Puff, Pucks, Pass: An Incomplete History Of The Boston Bruins And Cannabis

Lt: Derek Sanderson photo by John van-Schalkwyk via Boston magazine; Top: Don Cherry via Straight Up and Personal; Rt: Tom McCarthy illustration via NHL Alumni

“Do you smoke marijuana? ‘The Fifth!’”

The National Hockey League has always been a little hard to read on the subject of weed.

While they no longer classify cannabis as a banned substance or punish for positive tests (similar to most other pro sports leagues including the NBA as of this month), up until a few years ago the hockey gods were prohibitionist dinosaurs. As reporter Gare Joyce explained in a 2018 feature that broke down the NHL’s longtime position:

While the debate around marijuana use in hockey is nuanced, my reporting suggests NHL executives’ attitudes are not: Most have a low tolerance for anyone in the game who is even an occasional marijuana user; despite marijuana’s potential utility for pain management and anxiety treatment, at least a few executives want nothing to do with any player who touches the stuff. ‘If I knew that one of my players was using [marijuana], hell, yes, I would be concerned,’ said one GM.

With that baseline, it’s no surprise that few great weed and hockey stories got out over the years, about the Bruins or any other team—even though league insiders guesstimate that up to 70% of NHL players partake. At the same time, it’s worth noting how drug testing in hockey stemmed less from weed and more out of concerns around performance-enhancing substances popular in the mid-2000s. According to thehockeywriters.com, that trend led to mandatory testing being introduced in 2006, “exposing players to a minimum of two drug tests per year without warning,” followed by “more attention in recent years to recreational drugs, such as cocaine and marijuana.” Specifically, “NHLPA officials started noticing an increase in players testing positive for cocaine use in 2015 and in 2016 the league and the Players’ Association agreed to start checking all samples of drug-tested NHLers for recreational drugs.”

In Boston, the tone seems to have been set early on for players to be scared straight. As Don Cherry, who coached the Bruins from 1974 to 1979, wrote in his 2014 memoir, Straight Up and Personal: The World According to Grapes:

I remember back in the ’70s when I coached the Boston Bruins, a player got caught with a joint. The New York Rangers management, including their coach, said they were backing our player. I had a meeting with the Bruins players. I started the meeting by saying, “You like the way the New York Rangers management and coach back their players?” Naturally they all said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, don’t expect that from me. If one of you guys gets caught with drugs, I’ll cut your heart out. I not only will ruin your hockey life, I’ll make it so you have no life when you get back to Canada, and don’t come begging for mercy. You’ll get none.”

Still, everybody knows there were exceptions for the biggest stars, and in the ’70s one of the most famous fuckups on skates was Derek Sanderson. As Boston magazine put it in a 2012 lookback at their own 1971 cover profile of the partying star center, at various points he “became the highest-paid athlete in the world, drove a Rolls-Royce, opened a bar with Joe Namath, did a lot of drugs, and eventually drank his way out of hockey and into disrepair.”

That piece also excerpted an exchange about weed from the ’71 story by the great Jon Klarfeld:

He rejects his swinger image, preaches against excess. “I don’t drink, myself. I’ve seen booze reduce people to vegetables. Cool guys and classy girls, I mean, getting really disgusting on booze.

“But not on marijuana.”

The pixie smile flashes, the bombs-away grin.

Do you smoke marijuana? “The Fifth!”

Do you think marijuana should be legalized? Again he takes the Fifth Amendment.

Sanderson leans forward in his chair again. “Hey,” he says, “put it in your story just like that. Then people won’t know whether I do or I don’t.”

Sadly, Sanderson’s later thoughts on cannabis have been less clever. As he preached in his 2012 book, Crossing the Line: The Outrageous Story of a Hockey Original, “There are many different chemicals in marijuana, and the medical world does not know what most of them do to body parts like your pancreas, heart and liver. They do know what THC does. It destroys depth perception, it destroys your ability to pick up moving objects, it stops short-term memory from passing knowledge to long-term memory, and it makes you lethargic.” It gets more embarrassing from there, with the sober legend incorrectly claiming that “daily smoking can get users addicted in days or weeks, not months.”

Beyond Sanderson, if one looks deep enough on the bench, there have been ties between former Bruins and players from other teams and violent drug-dealing motorcycle gangs, often with hockey guys who were tough enough being used as muscle men among bike clubs. But as far as stories that are actually public and well-documented, the ultimate Bruins cannabis tale involves Tom McCarthy, who played for Boston in the 1980s including in the 1988 Finals.

McCarthy, who passed away last April, suffered from alcohol dependence throughout his nine-year NHL career, at one point entering rehab during the off-season. He played his best seasons in Boston though, wrapping his career here with nearly 400 points. But it was what he did after his retirement from hockey that McCarthy may be best remembered for.

In 1994, the former player was busted for trafficking a truckload of marijuana, leading to a prison sentence of 10 years in the miserable maximum-security penitentiary Leavenworth in Kansas. His brother told reporters that McCarthy “received the stiffest sentence possible because the U.S. government, under 1980s-era President Ronald Reagan, ‘decided that marijuana was the root of all evil.’”

Hardly a lethargic burnout, McCarthy convinced the warden to let him start a ball hockey league behind bars, which he later said taught him how to teach. And it gets better. As the Globe and Mail wrote in his obituary:

Mr. McCarthy reconnected with his friend Mr. Black, a former minor hockey foe, and they began working with a friend’s bantam team in Mississauga, with the ex-con coaching and Mr. Black serving as an on-ice fitness trainer.

Mr. McCarthy went on to coach, and sometimes partly own, small-town junior teams in lesser-known leagues across Ontario, like the Huntsville Otters, Trenton Golden Hawks, North Bay Junior Trappers – who won the 2012-13 Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League title – and Espanola Rivermen/Express. He sandwiched two stints with Espanola around one season (2016-17) coaching a Romanian pro team, before retiring from the game for good.

Not too bad for a stoner.