The High Times Interview: Hockey Pro And Cannabis Advocate Darren McCarty

Former NHL player Darren McCarty tells High Times how cannabis saved his life as he nearly succumbed to alcohol and drug addiction.
The High Times Interview: Darren McCarty
Darren McCarty/

After a successful career in the National Hockey League that included four championships with the Detroit Red Wings, Darren McCarty took on the fight of his life as he confronted his alcohol and pill addictions. He credits cannabis with saving his life, and now he’s on a mission to spread the word.

It’s not often we get to chat with a legitimate hockey legend. And as a four-time Stanley Cup winner with the Detroit Red Wings, you certainly qualify. But of course your battle with substance abuse and your use of cannabis to overcome some of these issues impresses us even more. Could you give our readers a bit of your background?

My story in the Detroit area is very public as far as my fight with alcoholism and pills—and this is post-career. It’s a lot of things that you get into with PTSD and CTE. [But] I got to a point almost four years ago, it was November 11, 2015, where I had to quit drinking or I was going to die. It was at the point where I got sick when I didn’t drink, not when I drank. It had a total lock on my body.

Luckily, at the time, I had positioned myself with some of the greatest people in my life, to this day, that took me and pretty much said, “All right. You’re done. This is called Rick Simpson’s Oil, and we’re going to [dose] you on this for a week to get [rid of] that addiction.” And that’s what they did. Every waking hour for about five days, they just shoved grams of it [into me]—I think I was doing four grams for the first couple days. And I understood why they used that to help cancer patients and how it’s done amazing things.

Did you have a relationship with cannabis before this?

So my journey… I didn’t smoke until an older age. I was of the generation that you’re either a jock or a stoner. Now, I had all stoner friends. You know, I was always in the culture, the community. I loved the essence of it. I always had this relationship with nature and the plant without having to use it, or being able to use it because I didn’t know the truth. So fast-forward, I got surgeries. After winning a couple [Stanley] Cups, I had hernia surgery. The Vicodin and the Percocet and all the stuff they fill you with… You know, I tell everybody the addiction is like the walking dead. In your body, you feel a lot like you’re there, but you can’t get out, and it’s the worst thing. As an exit strategy, back to this plant, it has enabled me to be free of the addiction. So I read and read and read the truth, and reset my beliefs, because, you know, I come from an age, I was born in ’72, so we grew up believing what we were told until [we were given] a reason not to. We didn’t question it or anything. [It’s different] now. I seek the truth every day, and this plant is [the] truth. That’s why I’m such a proponent. Not only did it save my life, but I treat it like one of my hockey teammates, and I stick up for it.

But, you know, what I tell people is that you have to build that relationship, and I think through High Times is one way that I’ve had this relationship, so it’s just letting people know the bottom line is just freedom of choice. It’s all about choice, and that choice is out there, and I live it.

So when you were detoxing from alcohol, you weren’t thinking, necessarily, about cannabis, but you had friends that were aware?

Well, they had told me that it was the answer, and the guys, my caregiver, Brian Hoss, who’s called Big Hoss, of Fenton Hydroponics, was the one that really [got it started]. And my wife’s a nurse, [so she helped] explain it. And because I was so far into beginning liver failure and sickness, they just said, “We got to do this.” When I say this too shall pass or just get to the [next] day, you’ve got to find those people around you. So it was through the community that I got healthy. The way that I feel now is that I was lied to [about cannabis for] so long. But now, instead of being angry about it, I’ve just got to make sure that people know to look into it. I just want to show them the direction. And the best part about this to me, and I was having a conversation earlier, is that, as an addict, you’re giving me something that I can mess around with and I can’t kill myself. But I find that if I use it properly and listen and learn, I can use it and actually help myself. As a human being, [we all have an] endocannabinoid system. It operates and needs it and processes it. And people are tired of being lied to. They’re learning the truth that it’s okay to he happy. In this community and in this culture, when the intentions are pure, it’s about everybody rising to that level and pushing themselves [collectively].

And it’s so important for people like you to advocate for cannabis. What’s interesting with your situation is that you’re approaching cannabis use both for treating addiction to alcohol and pills, but also for recovery from traumatic brain injury from your time on the ice. So it’s a really unique perspective and a unique voice that you have. And other hockey players are speaking out as well, like Riley Cote.

Yeah, Riley is one of the founding members of the Athletes for Care, which I belong to. [Former NFL player] Eugene Monroe is also a founding member. It’s pretty much athletes from different sports, whether it’s football, hockey, etc. But Riley told me that every day I wake up, I’ve got to challenge my belief system, because of what I’ve been told. So that’s one of the things that I go on. But what this plant also gives you when you go on your journey is your spirituality, which is very important. To me, all that shiny stuff, the fights and the Cup-winning goal, the four Stanley Cups, that’s all window dressing for now. What my purpose is, and I am so proud to have it, is to be an advocate, a voice. I just speak my truth. That’s the glory of it. I’m an open book. With that, the ups and downs, you keep getting back up. That’s what the important thing is. To me, without cannabis in my life, in certain ways, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be dead. I really would. So I owe this plant my life.

Going back to the period before you found cannabis, was drinking just a big part of the NHL lifestyle when you were a player?

Well, I think it’s a part of the Canadian lifestyle. I grew up across the border and, you know, it wasn’t [pot then], but it was drinking. I mean, you would be drinking at weddings… You’re stealing drinks when you’re 9, 10 with your cousins. Then I remember the first time I got hammered. I think I was, like, 14. But it’s something that, yeah, you go anywhere as an athlete and it’s so easy to get caught up. But you grow up that way. You get drunk, and you’re drinking, and then even when you’re a teenager, it’s acceptable. It’s acceptable because it’s just the way it is. So you grow into that, and even though you know your family [has a] history of alcoholism [you think you’re fine]. If you want me to be a certain way on the ice, it’s tough to turn it on and off, so I was the type that gave you all I got, but you had to look the other way on a few indiscretions off the ice, right? You know, the drinking and the gallivanting and whatever else it was, the bottom line is, when the puck dropped, I did my job. And that’s sort of the culture. Now, times have changed. We didn’t have internet, thank God, back then, or Twitter or Facebook or all that stuff. Because I would have [done] something stupid that would have got caught on tape. But anyway, drinking is one of those things that you don’t learn [to change]. Then when I did smoke pot, I just knew.

I knew the first time I smoked pot that it was a connection. Ricky Williams, the NFL running back who’s a part of Athletes for Care as well, told me that he had an ulcer because of all the Tylenol and stuff he’d taken in college at Texas, and got a hole in his stomach. He started smoking pot and he realized it was bigger—it was about life and it was bigger than football, that’s why he stepped away, to go on that journey to find himself. Then he was able to come back and do it his way.

But booze is [specific to] hockey. You put hockey and booze together just like, you know, rock’n’roll and weed, or rap and weed, you know? Like, that shit’s just hand in hand, right? It’s easy to get caught up in it, but it’s something that I think nowadays is changing with education. That’s where Riley was smart. He was ahead of the curve.

Do you feel like it would have aided your career, perhaps even extended it, if you were able to legally use cannabis to recover from injuries?

See, that’s interesting. Yeah, I think it would have helped my body… But it would have changed me as a person [and a player] a little bit. At the time, I needed to be the way that I was. You know? It’s like the Jekyll-and-Hyde thing. So I wouldn’t change it, just [because of] the accomplishments. We won four Cups and I’m sitting here right now with you guys. But I do wish for future generations, that they have the knowledge so they don’t have to go through the hell that I went through. I just want you to have the knowledge that you have an option, whether you use it or not. I don’t care what you do.

At this point, are you primarily smoking flower? Do you like concentrates?

My preference is smoking flower. I prefer to smoke blunts. But I carry a vape pen. I like concentrates. To me, doing dabs and stuff like that is like doing shots, and smoking’s like drinking beer. I have tried all different things… I like everything, but I am absolutely, I am adamant about knowing where you’re getting it or who you’re getting it through. And when you’re going to play the edible game, bro, that’s a whole different thing, even for guys like me that smoke a half ounce a day. It’s a game you’ve got to tiptoe into. All these stories that I hear, it’s because people don’t respect the plant. I think that people can fall out of love with this plant if you have a bad edible [experience]. You’ll never do it again. It’s like a bad acid trip, I’ve heard. I’ve never done acid, but that’s what I’ve heard. So when you’re doing edibles, do it with people you trust, and ease into it. It’s not a race. One of the things I’m waiting for is the High Times Olympics, because then everybody can show how fast they smoke and how many grams they can blow off and what team can smoke the most. Until then, let’s find out where your happy zone is, and God bless you if it’s two puffs and you’re there, because you know how much money you can save? Right? But it’s about you finding your place.

What is your advice for someone who might now be in the grips of alcohol abuse or a pill addiction?

If you’re there, it’s important to ask for help or to reach out. Get answers. You know, you have to admit that you’re defeated and you want help and you want the direction and you want options. You have to first be willing to reach out, because in this community, people are so open and people are willing to help and at least give you direction. That’s the first thing. And no matter what it is, you have to listen. You have to respect what you’re being told by the people around you. You’ve got to listen, and you’ll get to a point where then you can ask questions and you can get educated. But I’m always trying to get educated and I’m always trying to get smarter, and really, it’s not me. I’m just a vessel of this plant.

You’re helping to spread the word, and that’s incredibly important. It also sounds like you personally had an excellent support system around you, which I’m sure helped a great deal. You said that you would be dead if it wasn’t for this plant, and I think it’s staggering for people to hear that. You’re alive. You’re healthy. You’re vibrant. You’re not obliterated by pills. You’re not incoherent from alcohol. And here’s an alternative herb that you can grow in your garden. And it can save lives.

All I try to do is get the product into the machine. My body’s the machine. I’ll let the endocannabinoid system do what it does. You tell me it’s going to work on my joints and pain. I need that. Boom. I’m putting that in there. I know where it’s coming from. I let my body do the rest, and that’s the trick. I’m healing myself—mind, body and soul.

Thank you for using your voice to spread the word, and helping lead people to this option. It’s up to them if they want to take it but the knowledge is there and you’re helping provide it and shining that light.

That’s the kicker here. If you want to argue with me, you can do it. I’m real. It’s not a story. I live it. That’s the power that my story has. It’s the power that I have. And it’s because of this plant.

Originally published in the November, 2019 issue of High Times magazine. Subscribe right here.

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