Josiah Bounderby was most assuredly not on his way to a hockey game.
Instead, he was, as Charles Dickens recounted the moment in Hard Times, headed home to tell his faithful housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit, who secretly loved him dearly, that she’d likely want to move out on her own once he married the lovely-but-loveless Louisa Gradgrind.
First things first, he ducked into the chemist’s shop and asked for “a bottle of the very strongest smelling-salts.”
You never knew, back then, when someone might faint.
More than 150 years later, you never know when a perfectly healthy, wired-to-the-gills professional hockey player might need a little something extra to fire them up – something that, as one NHL player told Sports Illustrated a couple of years back, chemically screams at them, “Hey! It’s game time now. It’s time to get going!”
As if perhaps they might have missed the buildup in the dressing room, the ticking-down of the clock, the shouts, belly bumps, backslaps, shoulder punches, knee-pad taps and secret handshakes before they raced down the corridor into an explosion of light, cheers and ear-pulverizing music as they leapt out onto the ice.
Maybe they fell asleep during the anthem.
Whatever, it is a familiar scene as the television cameras roll down the bench just before puck drop. There are heads snapping, noses jolting, eyes wincing, brains rattling as player after player holds something tiny in his hand, brings it as close to his face as he dares – and sucks in the magic that tells them, “time to get going!”
It is not the old men hoping to get some extra jump. Some of the most enthusiastic players when it comes to sports smelling salts are the youngsters. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner, 20, has been known to grab a hit during games. Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, who turned 20 only this week, uses them.
It could well be argued that there are a few Canadian NHL cities where, given the results of this last season, it should have been the fans rather than the players taking a snort of smelling salts to start each period.
Unlike in Dickens’s time, today’s smelling salts come in small vials that are snapped open in order to release a small amount of ammonia gas that is mixed with a variety of other ingredients. The released gas has an instant effect, irritating the nose and lungs to create a quick sucking in of air. It can revive the faint; it can give the wide awake a sense of instant “alertness.”
If fans connect smelling salts to any sport it is generally boxing, a trainer leaping onto the canvas to revive a knocked-out pugilist. Their popularity soared with powerlifting and a quick internet check will quickly take you to an Amazon order form for Nose Tork, a small bottle at $5.99 that gets such rave reviews as “It helped me in my squat/deadlift flights. Managed to get 470lbs for a squat while my deadlift was 600 lbs sick! That was my 1st time hitting 600lb.”
Curiously, one five-star review comes from a lawyer who says he not only uses it at the gym but at work: “Crack this bad boy open, and take a whiff (sic) – guarantee you’ll hit the ceiling.”
Australian neurologist Dr. Paul McCrory is likely the world expert in athletes’ use of such a kick-start, having worked with soccer clubs, F-1 racing drivers and boxers and having studied concussions for most of his career. His research has found reference to the use of smelling salts as far back as Pliny, Chaucer and Shakespeare and, of course, Dickens. All made reference to the use of smelling salts as a restorative.
Something happened over time, however. As McCrory wrote in a 2006 edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, while they were once widely used to revive athletes who were knocked out or groggy from a hit, the thinking among medical experts has long been that they can be dangerous if utilized in this manner, potentially causing the head to snap back with “the potential to cause or exacerbate spine injury.”
For the conscious athlete who knows the snap is coming, however, it can be invigorating to the point that, as McCrory says, “Over time they have tended to remain a traditional part of the trainer’s kit [along with the ubiquitous sponge and cold sprays] rather than in the medical bag.”
Hence you have the trainers tossing the little vials to the first few players and those players handing them along to the next player who prefers to start his game with what often amounts to a sharp slap in the face, tears included.
Despite the popularity of smelling salts in certain sports such as hockey, McCrory says research has never been able to determine, “Whether the salts increase alertness or improve reaction times or have other positive cognitive benefits remains to be proven scientifically.”
Don’t try to tell the players that, though. They will say they get a dash of “adrenalin” from the sniff. They say a hit just before puck drop makes them “sharper.” Some players start every period with them. Some will grab a quick hit between shifts. Several coaches can’t start their game until they’ve had a hit – and they aren’t even playing.
McCrory is quick to point out that, “… there are, in fact, no reports of adverse health problems related to the use of smelling salts in sport.”
A Globe and Mail query sent to the World Anti-Doping Agency in Montreal found that WADA is very aware that “some athletes, including hockey players, take ammonia in the form of smelling salts or something similar.”
Smelling salts are often confused with amyl nitrate, WADA cautioned, which has a somewhat similar if more dramatic effect. Known as “poppers” among users, amyl nitrate has raised far more concern than mere smelling salts. Two years ago there was even a debate in Britain that would have seen poppers banned as a psychoactive substance. It led to a bizarre debate in Westminster about the use of poppers to “enhance intimacy” among a certain sexual subculture. The bill was defeated 309-228. (Poppers are prohibited for sale in Canada.)
“In any event,” responded Maggie Durand, WADA’s manager of media relations and communications, “neither amyl nitrite nor ammonia are known to provide any performance-enhancing capabilities and neither is on the List of Prohibited Substances and Methods.”
So there you have it. Had the NHL gone to the Olympics in February, as should have happened, not a thing would have been said if the cameras panned the benches just before puck drop and seen dozens of heads jerking back and forth in unison.
As WADA confirms, the packets these players bring up to their noses contain no “performance-enhancing capabilities.”
Just don’t try telling the players that.