By Jim Diamond
A day after former baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn passed away as a result of an oral cancer he believed to have developed from years of using smokeless tobacco, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile was asked about use among the players on his team.
Unlike baseball players mostly of years past, hockey players don’t ply their trade with a gigantic wad of tobacco stuffed into one of their cheeks, as would a squirrel gathering nuts and seeds in preparation for a long cold winter.
For many of the NHL’s players, the first thing they do after coming off of the ice following practice or a game is to grab for a small round tin of chewing tobacco sitting on the shelf in their locker stall and throw a pinch between their lip and gum.
“We talk about it, absolutely,” Poile said. “I’ve actually got that down where we ask every year for guys not to do that. I don’t get it since I don’t do it, but not good, not good.”
The reality is that most players who use smokeless tobacco developed the habit or addiction long before they reached the game’s highest level, so getting them to stop after years of use is not easy.
Some use it to satiate a nicotine addiction developed from smoking cigarettes. Players today are smart enough to realize that being seen smoking would not reflect very well on them, but the same stigma is not attached to the use of smokeless tobacco. Well, not yet anyway.
Randy Turner of the Winnipeg Free Press did an extensive feature on the subject in late December of 2013. His piece detailing use among players in Manitoba illustrated the fact that a lot of them started using in their early to mid teens. It also pointed to the facts that coaches and administrators of leagues differed on exactly when use among players begins.
No matter the age that the players began using smokeless tobacco, their reasons for starting mirror those given for any other adolescent who picks up bad habits: boredom, peer pressure, and trying to fit in with an older crowd.
Turner quoted Mike Gordichuk, head coach and GM of the MMJHL’s Transcona Railer Express, as saying:
“When they see an NHL player do it and it’s accepted by the NHL, they’re going to do it. If you could clean it up at the NHL level it would filter down. There’s such a high respect from these kids, that’s what they’re aspiring to be, and they see guys like (Winnipeg Jets defenseman) Dustin Byfuglien do it, to them that’s OK.”
Gwynn’s public battle with cancer should speak volumes to those who may think that smokeless tobacco is a safe alternative to smoking. The American Cancer Society outlines the number of cancers and oral diseases that can result from smokeless tobacco use.
The number of players who do it would probably surprise most fans, but there is not a whole lot NHL teams can do about it. The league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NHLPA mentions tobacco just twice.
Article 25.1 states: “No Player shall be involved in any endorsement or sponsorship of alcoholic beverages (excluding malt-based beverages such as beer) and/or tobacco products.”
Exhibit 14 states: “The use of tobacco products while in the presence of fans in any arena or while attending any team function is prohibited.”
All Poile can do is make the request of his players, and that is exactly what he plans to do.
“Am I going to ask our players to not do it?” Poile said. “Yes. Absolutely.”