In its 106th season, the NHL is making history in allowing on-uniform gambling advertising with new 3′ by 3.5-inch patches on the upper right crest of their beloved sweaters. Though many lament the decision to enable on-uniform advertising and sports betting, cannabis circles should be optimistic that they may soon get some ice time, even if the latest policy may suggest otherwise. In a short time—about as long as one power play, perhaps—the league has done a complete 180 on its policies with gambling advertising. Cannabis should follow.
Unlike the NBA, NFL, or MLB, the NHL does not take a punitive approach to cannabis. The league is only testing players for cannabis within the context of trying across the board and providing health and wellness services. They aren’t suspending, fining, or mandatorily sending players to treatment for a positive cannabis test—all the other leagues are doing some combination. In 2018 just as Canada legalized cannabis, Edmonton Oilers team captain and star player Connor McDavid, one of the league’s brightest and best, voiced his own support of cannabis.
“I say this more talking about the CBD side of it, obviously: You’d be stupid not to at least look into it,” the Oilers captain said. “When your body’s sore like it is sometimes, you don’t want to take pain stuff and Advil all the time. There are better ways to do it. … You’re seeing many smart guys look into it. You’re seeing a lot of really smart doctors look into it. If all the boxes are checked there, and it’s safe and everything like that, then I think you may hear them out.”
McDavid’s comments, even five years down the line, still track. Hockey is a rough sport, and it’s no secret that players are putting themselves at serious risk every time they lace up their skates. An anecdotal insider’s report for SportsNet.ca estimated that 60-70% of players are likely consuming cannabis in some form—and who can blame them? Brett Hull certainly wouldn’t. Along with fellow former St. Louis Blues players Barrett Jackman and Kelly Chase, Hull recently opened a medical marijuana dispensary in Missouri and his strain, “Brett Hull #16.”
With Hull bringing an authentic passion to cannabis, the NHL is not short of cannabis connectors. “Everybody else, from (Chase) with his lesion on his brain, and Todd Ewen, and people getting their hips and knee replaced and having chronic problems, guys who can’t even play golf because their backs are so screwed up. You look at that and the facts that have come out that CBD, along with THC, in cannabis can alleviate pain. If you can have something like that that alleviates the pain without taking opioids, it is worthwhile to keep studying it and moving forward,” Hull said.
And like Ewen, Ex-Detroit Red Wings captain Bob Probert died at age 45—a brain scan revealed his CTE. Players dying from CTE-related complications is not a strict hockey problem, but it’s bad for business. Cannabis might not be a cure for CTE, but at least there’s reason to think about it.
Simply put, hockey takes a toll on a player’s body, and the NHL could be doing more to ensure players know the correct information about cannabis. Players are often wholly worn out physically by the time their playing careers end. In addition, ex-NHLers are not uncommon to develop various other health issues, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Though CTE continues to be a contentious and uncomfortable topic for athletes and sports administrators, it must be dealt with. It’s hard to argue how cannabis wouldn’t have helped these ex-players in their physical recoveries and, by extension, the quality of their lives. “For each year a person played hockey, there was an associated 15% increased chance for progressing one CTE stage.” The NHL has a beautiful sport they steward. They can do the right thing by modeling cannabis responsibly.
Stanley Cup champion Darren McCarty spoke to High Times in 2019, citing his public battle with pills and alcoholism as the catalyst for his cannabis connection.
“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 that addiction is like the walking dead. You feel a lot like you’re there in your body, but you can’t get out, and it’s the worst thing. As an exit strategy, going back to this plant, has enabled me to be free of the addiction…. that’s why I’m such a proponent. Not only did it save my life, but I treated it like one of my hockey teammates, and I stuck up for it.”
Both Hull’s and McCarty’s stories are unique in their details but universal in how relatable they are. Cannabis is the medical remedy the NHL needs to embrace should they be serious about protecting their players’ health—especially in light of the newly added yet undefined variable of sports betting—but again, maybe they just need the right partners.
Power Play Partners
The NHL’s new ESPN+ package is the NHL Power Play. It’s a snazzier attempt to sell the sport, one year after the league re-joined the fold at ESPN and TNT to record success. The NHL clearly has a fantastic product that, when packaged correctly, does numbers. In a seven-figure deal, NHL premier insider Elliotte Friedman detailed, “Ottawa became the first team to put a gambling company (Bet99) on their helmet ads. The Senators won’t be the last after the NHL opened this door. It’s not surprising Ottawa would be unafraid to take this leap. Several years ago, at a league business meeting, owner Eugene Melnyk passionately argued he was allowed to sell marijuana/CBD oil advertising after it was legalized. The NHL wasn’t ready for that.”
The NHL has a distinct advantage: over 90% of the league’s 32 clubs are in places with legal or medicinal marijuana policies. Moreover, given their position on sports betting, they can’t reasonably disallow cannabis on any moral grounds. One looks at the mediascape of any chosen sport today, and it’s impossible to avoid an advertisement for sports betting. The gambling and sports betting industry was exiled, having been cleaned back into society through the guise of daily fantasy sports, games of skill, and even the gambling tied in with sports video games.
The NHL can’t say at this point that cannabis is more of a threat to society than gambling. Eugene Melynk knew it, and others have to know it now too. Sports fans are no longer conditioned to just root for their favorite local clubs. Still, they are cultivated and groomed into a culture of addiction with ongoing parlay promotions and sign-ups for daily fantasy sports wagering.
In a recent Q&A with The Athletic‘s Michael Russo and Sean Gentile, NHL Deputy Commissioner explained their reasoning for the new gambling-friendly sweater policy:
“We think it’s a very valuable opportunity. It’s obviously one that we had been resistant to taking this step for a long time. I think the pandemic, and ways of driving revenue and retaining revenue, became paramount when we didn’t have fans in the building and weren’t generating any revenues. So it became a much more viable option at that point in time, and something our owners embraced when we opened that door. And I think it’s obviously going to be a significant driver of revenue.”
Is this not a double standard? Understandably, the NHL may want to avoid having specific brand names on their sweaters, but the world of cannabis is global and diverse; the NHL could use more of that.
Smoke & Mirrors
So, is the NHL putting out some smoke and mirrors to the cannabis world? Probably not, but it’s worth keeping in mind this is the same league that, in one year after introducing a no-gambling on helmet advertising policy, has completely shifted the opposite way. Perhaps then, at least on a superficial level, the NHL’s new policy and decision to have its partnership czar be a spokesman via the league’s primary media partner, ESPN, feels pointed. Is cannabis coming? Not this season, at least. Keith Wachtel, NHL’s chief business officer and executive vice president of global partnerships, told ESPN’s Greg Wyshinski:
“The NHL prohibits any jersey patches that advertise alcohol — spirits and beer — tobacco and marijuana products, or anything that’s of a sexual nature. The league also won’t allow consumer product licensing ads that might conflict with a partner like Fanatics.”
The good thing for cannabis companies is that even with Wachtel’s statements, hockey is clearly moving forward with marijuana so long as they find the right partners. For example, the PHPA became the first-ever athlete union with a cannabis partner. Although they are not the NHLPA, the PHPA represents the NHL’s minor league players and indicates a sport that recognizes the benefits cannabis can offer. So perhaps a Los Angeles Kings and LA Kush collab isn’t as far off as we think. Maybe before cannabis ends up on an official team uniform, it’ll be on the league’s new digital “dasherboards.”
The NHL can no longer morally grandstand about cannabis when actively promoting and profiting from sports betting. Indeed, active players and franchises can legally consume cannabis and happily accept the permissible checks generated by their name, image, and likeness—be it hockey, sports betting, and, one day soon, hopefully, join the fight for equitable, legal cannabis too.
Crash The Net
At this point, sports leagues can no longer ignore the gambling revenue—and they don’t. In June 2021, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said no uniform advertising in 2022. What happened? Exactly the opposite. In September of 2021, the Washington Capitals announced a multi-year agreement with Caesar’s Entertainment for a patch of advertising on their home sweaters set to start in the fall of 2022. That’s a literal three-month turnaround, and now, the Vegas Golden Knights dealt with Circa Sports, and the Arizona Coyotes did the same with Gila River Casino. Players are signing deals with gambling companies, too—McDavid signed with BetMGM, just as Auston Matthews did with Bet99.
If in the year 2022, a time in which multi-state operating, international sportsbooks, casinos, and gambling corporations are permitted to buy significant league sports uniform advertising, there is no reason to believe cannabis won’t soon follow suit. MLB just did a deal with Charlotte’s Web too. For now, cannabis might still be a bit stuck in the penalty box, but a power play has to be coming.