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The Calgary Flames’ Michael Cammalleri says the NHL’s rigorous schedule can accentuate players’ substance abuse problems. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Calgary Flames’ Michael Cammalleri says the NHL’s rigorous schedule can accentuate players’ substance abuse problems. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

NHL Weekend

Saving hockey players from themselves Add to ...

The creature comforts are many when you play in the NHL, swanky hotels, people to lug your gear, plush travel on customized jets.

Well, maybe that last one doesn’t apply to everyone this year.

Call it one of the casualties of the lockout, but several teams, the Montreal Canadiens among them, have only been able to charter regularly-configured passenger aircraft rather than the luxury first-class jets of old – this is something of a drag when you’re trying to stretch an NHL-sized body out after the exertions of a road game.

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No one’s complaining about it, mind you – and really, who would listen if they did?

Besides, players’ lives on the road have improved in significant ways under the new collective agreement.

For one thing, teams are to be given no fewer than four days off – two at home, two on the road – for every full calendar month.

There is also a new rule forbidding teams from scheduling meetings or practices until nine hours after the players arrive at their hotel on road trips. And all players other than those on entry-level contracts, will now have their own rooms.

It’s actually about a lot more than travel perks.

“What [NHLPA head Don Fehr] did in preparation for this negotiation was talk to a lot of players. We’ve had some real tragedies in our game because of lifestyle and abuse of different substances and pills. It’s my belief that the schedule, the lack of rest, and the pressure helps accentuate this,” said Calgary Flames forward Michael Cammalleri.

Think of the new provisions as an attempt to save players from themselves – no one wants to have their work ethic questioned – by restricting the time they spend at the rink, especially on the road.

That supposes they’re getting their rest rather than carousing, but this year’s shortened season has put a renewed emphasis on physical recovery.

Teams will play more or less the same number of games as they would from January to April of a typical year, but more of them will be squeezed together in back-to-back contests and stretches of four games in five nights.

“When you look at the schedule and how condensed it is, rest is going to be a huge weapon for everyone. You need that time to recover ... you’re going to be playing every second night,” said Habs’ defenceman Josh Gorges, one of the team’s player representatives. “It’s basically a tool that says to guys: if you need rest, get it. Listen to your body, we’re not going to push guys into coming in early.”

Several players indicated the provisions are the latest part of a broader league and union response to a less-discussed aspect of NHL life: the abuse of sleeping pills and pain medication.

The passing of former New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard in 2011 put the issue into stark relief.

Cammalleri described the grind in previous years thusly: “You fly into a city and you can’t fall asleep until 4 or 5 in the morning. So you’re sitting there, watching TV, reading a book ... Well, the coach might have called a meeting for 8 o’clock the next morning, because there’s something he really wants to work on.”

So you take a sleeping pill. But then, said Cammalleri, “next time the one sleeping pill doesn’t work. Then, the next time, the one stimulant doesn’t work so it becomes two. Then it becomes four. The old school, of being afraid that guys are going to sit in the bar until 6 a.m., it’s really not the case any more. Guys go for the odd beer, but trust me, it’s too competitive in terms of jobs. There’s too much at stake. You’d be out of the league in two or three years. Period,” he said.

They are surely a benefit to players, but the new rules will require an adjustment for coaches, whose longevity depends on being able to find solutions to right the ship.

“Their job is to win or lose the Cup ... it’s a high pressure thing and they want to have a lot of meetings, and you don’t blame them for that,” Cammalleri said.

It will be interesting to see whether the rules are bent as the season wears on and teams inevitably start to slip out of contention.

The competing imperatives of rest and doing what it takes to whip a team into shape will surely heap added pressure on coaches, whose tenure averages out to less than three years.

Perhaps some rules will eventually be needed to save the bench bosses from themselves as well.

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