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Drinking, driving in hockey: some traditions die hard

There was a story making the rounds in the National Hockey League about a dozen years ago of a player who, after drinking too much beer in a bar one night, did the sensible and prudent thing and called a taxi to take him home.

As the driver pulled up in front of his house, the player issued a new set of instructions, however: "Turn around and take me back to my car."

"But why?," the puzzled cab driver asked.

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"Because," the player answered, "I just wanted to make sure there were no check stops on the way home."

So back they went, and this time the player slipped behind the wheel of his automobile and drove himself home, undoubtedly over the legal alcohol limit, but secure in the knowledge that, short of causing a major accident, he wasn't about to get caught by the police.

Fact? Or urban myth?

It probably doesn't even matter, because when the story was told among players in the 1980s, it was done to elicit laughs, not to address the real issue, which is how unbelievably stupid it was for people to drive cars home drunk just because they couldn't be bothered retrieving them from downtown the next morning.

Things were like that a generation or two ago. The euphemism to describe NHL players who played hard and then drank hard afterward was old school. Once upon a time, these types of players were common on every team. They sipped beer in the dressing room after the game and rolled their eyes at the new breed of coaches who sent them off-season training schedules and prattled on endlessly about the value of fitness and nutrition and squeaky-clean living.

Gradually, though, attitudes in the NHL changed and evolved, and as the salaries increased, the message slowly sank in. Even if they weren't about to do the right thing for the right reasons, everybody, even the simpletons, could do the math. In 1990-91, a player could make a tidy living in the NHL on an average salary of $271,000 (U.S.). Today, they can get rich, with the average salary being $1.9-million (U.S.).

As a result, their priorities shifted.

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Now, just about everyone follows the rules of healthy living. They hire personal trainers. They stick to rigid workout regimes. They see themselves as Me Inc., a one-man corporation with a limited working life, in an industry where the competition for jobs has never been greater. In the new NHL world, there isn't the same tolerance or forgiveness for players who endlessly burn the midnight oil.

A major turning point in the fight against alcohol abuse in the NHL -- and by extension, drinking and driving -- came in 1994. As part of a new collective labour agreement, the players and the league jointly introduced the behavioural and substance abuse program. Every year, doctors from the program address NHL players about the perils of alcoholism, drug use and other lifestyle-related issues, including marital problems and stress.

"The impact of these educational initiatives cannot be overstated," said Bill Daly, the league's chief legal officer. "It has had a significant impact. In addition, our players are now training year-round. They're much more careful about what they do to their bodies."

Arguably, the Detroit Red Wings rank as the poster boys of the new attitudes to alcohol use and abuse. The Red Wings' senior vice-president, Jim Devallano, who has been with the organization for 22 years, said: "In my early years, drinking was very, very prevalent amongst the players. It was a way of fostering camaraderie." Interestingly, after winning the 1998 Stanley Cup, a handful of Red Wings players demonstrated their new awareness of the perils of drinking and driving by hiring a limousine to ferry them to and from a team party. Sadly, the limousine that was supposed to be their haven crashed and ultimately ended the career of defenceman Vladimir Konstantinov.

Away from the rink, the current crop of do-right players can easily be mistaken for white-collar professionals. They are so focused on keeping their jobs and earning their millions that many don't drink at all, or they drink sparingly.

One of the happy byproducts of the NHL's new sobriety is that the latest generation of players tend to make fewer mistakes with alcohol than their counterparts did a generation ago.

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The Dany Heatley case is an excellent example. Say what you will about Heatley's recklessness behind the wheel of his Ferrari -- too much speed led to the death of his passenger, Atlanta Thrashers teammate Dan Snyder -- but alcohol was not a factor in the crash.

Unhappily, just as you cannot make accurate generalizations about the conduct of lawyers, doctors and politicians, not every NHL player is sober and aware all the time. But chances are, if you told the story of the drunk-driving player and his circuitous taxi ride today, the response wouldn't be hearty laughter, but puzzled bewilderment.

One has to believe that is a good thing.

eduhatschek@globeandmail.ca

Drinking and driving

Current or former NHL players involved in car accidents while driving impaired:

2003: Former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Rob Ramage is charged with impaired driving causing death after former player Keith Magnuson is killed in a crash. Chicago Blackhawks captain Alexei Zhamnov is placed on court supervision for one year and performs community service after pleading guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol.

2002: Peter Worrell of the Florida Panthers is sentenced to 10 days in jail and his licence is suspended for five years for driving under the influence.

2001: Sergei Fedorov of the Detroit Red Wings is placed under court supervision for one year and ordered to do community service for an impaired driving conviction. Former player Eddie Shack is fined $1,000 for driving while impaired after a charity golf event.

1999: Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Steve Chiasson is killed when he crashes his truck on the way home from a team party after a season-ending playoff loss. His blood-alcohol level is more than three times the legal limit.

1995: Dominik Hasek of the Buffalo Sabres is fined $850 (U.S.) and told to perform community service after an impaired driving conviction in Amherst, N.Y.

1994: Chris Pronger of the Hartford Whalers gets three days in jail and a $483 (U.S.) fine for drunk driving in Ohio. Former player Bobby Hull is fined $1,000 and has his licence suspended for one year for impaired driving. Hartford coach Paul Holmgren receives a six-month suspended sentence and one-year probation for drunk driving.

1993: Dave Hunter of the Edmonton Oilers serves seven days in jail and misses four games after his third impaired driving conviction in six months. Lyndon Byers of the Boston Bruins has his licence suspended for six months after a drunk-driving conviction.

1990: Chicago coach Mike Keenan is fined $550 (U.S.) and given a year of court supervision after being convicted of drunk driving.

1989: Detroit forward Petr Klima spends 35 days in jail for drunk driving.

1987: Jamie Macoun of the Calgary Flames suffers serious injuries after losing control of his car. He is charged with drunk driving, but pleads guilty to dangerous driving and is fined $1,000.

1986: Miroslav Frycer of the Maple Leafs receives 14 days in jail for his second impaired-driving conviction

1986-94: Bob Probert is arrested five times for impaired driving. He spends several months in jail and in rehabilitation, but continues to play in the NHL.

1985: Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Pelle Lindbergh dies of injuries suffered when he drove his car into a wall. He had been drinking at a team event.

1984: Craig MacTavish of the Boston Bruins pleads guilty to vehicular manslaughter and serves one year in jail after leaving a nightclub intoxicated and killing a woman.

1974: Tim Horton of the Buffalo Sabres, who is drunk, dies as a result of a car accident after a game in Toronto.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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