NHL Has a Drinking Problem--but There’s No Penalty

Times Staff Writer

Bob Probert, 22, plays left wing for the Detroit Red Wings. He’s one of his team’s toughest enforcers and has a reputation for being aggressive.

He has been arrested three times since April for impaired driving.

He has been convicted of assaulting a police officer in a bar.

He smashed his $20,000 car into a utility pole.


He has been thrown out of an alcohol rehabilitation center, where the director said: “He’s just loafing, going through the motions.”

Some say he is a man with a drinking problem.

Probert’s drinking has led to his being sent to the minors and a suspension by the Red Wings. It has led to the suspension of his driver’s license and to fines by the Windsor, Ontario, courts and by his team.

Does all of this make Probert unusual in the National Hockey League?


Not really. Probert and his problems aren’t exactly typical, but they are not unusual either.

Although NHL officials deny that there is a serious problem, recent alcohol-related incidents indicate otherwise.

For example:

--A week after he was traded to the St. Louis Blues from the New York Rangers May 28, veteran forward Tony McKegney was stopped in Buffalo at 2:20 a.m. for speeding and running a red light. McKegney, 29, was charged with driving while intoxicated after a Breathalyzer test indicated that McKegney’s blood-alcohol level was .13. The legal limit in New York is .10.

--Jamie Macoun of the Calgary Flames may have ended his career with injuries suffered in a car accident May 12. Macoun, a five-year defenseman, lost control of his sports car at 2 a.m. and crossed three lanes, jumped a divider and went head-on into opposing traffic.

His car sideswiped an oncoming vehicle and flipped, pinning Macoun’s left arm under the car. It took 40 minutes to pry Macoun out of his demolished vehicle. He suffered head injuries and severe cuts, and half of his ear had to be sewn back on. The main concern is for his left arm, which was cut so deeply that it is unclear if he will ever regain full use of it.

A blood test taken by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police showed Macoun’s blood-alcohol level at more than .08, the legal limit. Macoun was charged with drunken driving but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of dangerous driving and was fined $1,000. He is 25 years old.

--Miroslav Frycer, 27, of the Toronto Maple Leafs, began last season in a Toronto jail after failing a roadside sobriety check. Found guilty of impaired driving, Frycer, of Czechoslovakia, was sentenced to two weeks in jail and lost his driving privileges for two years.


--In February of 1986, Jim Craig, the goalie for the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team who never quite made it big in the NHL, was arrested for drunken driving and speeding on a highway outside Boston.

--Perhaps the NHL’s best known casualty was the Philadelphia Flyers’ sensational Swedish goaltender, Pelle Lindbergh.

Lindbergh was the best goalie in the NHL in 1985. On a Sunday morning, he and two passengers left an after-hours bar and got into Lindbergh’s sports car. Lindbergh, traveling at more than 80 m.p.h., failed to make a turn and slammed into a concrete wall in front of a school in Somerdale, N.J..

Lindbergh, 26, was pronounced brain dead days later. The blood tests taken after the accident showed that Lindbergh was drunk. His blood-alcohol level was .24, more than twice the legal limit in New Jersey.

--In January of 1984, Craig MacTavish, who was in his fourth season as a center for the Boston Bruins, was involved in an accident in Massachusetts that killed Kim Radley, a 26-year-old antique dealer from Newfield, Me.

MacTavish, 25 at the time, was charged with drunken driving, driving to endanger and operating without a license. He pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and was sentenced to a year in prison, without possibility of parole.

The Bruins released MacTavish while he was in prison and he signed as a free agent with the Edmonton Oilers, where he has played the last two seasons.

--Another Oiler, forward Dave Hunter, was jailed last year after his third conviction in six months for impaired driving. He was sentenced to four months in jail, but the term was reduced to 28 days after an appeal. Hunter served seven days and missed four games.


“What will it take to get (NHL officials’) attention?” asks Derek Sanderson, a nine-year former pro who has gone through drug and alcohol treatment. “It will have to take five guys dying in one car wreck. It’s a time bomb waiting to go off.”

In this day and age of substance abuse in professional sports, the substance most commonly abused in the NHL would seem to be alcohol. The NHL has taken a strong stance against drug use, which has been only an infrequent problem. But it has no policy on alcohol abuse.

Imagine a professional sport that does not have a significant drug problem, and you have stumbled on the NHL. There have been rumors of drug abuse but little evidence to back them up.

“A lot of them (players) come from farms,” King General Manager Rogie Vachon said. “Those kids aren’t exposed to the drugs that maybe basketball players are. I don’t see many farmers buying coke.

“If you live in New York, where you might see drugs all the time, that’s different. If it’s there, you want to try it. I’m not naive, I’m sure it’s in the high schools in Canada. But not like here.”

Although the league has never taken action against any player for alcohol abuse, it has been swift to sanction against drug use. In the 70 years the league has been in existence, three players have been punished for drug use, the latest being Borje Salming of the Toronto Maple Leafs who was suspended for eight games last season.

“If you choose to be involved with illegal drugs, you will not be involved in the NHL,” John Ziegler, president of the NHL said. “To any who now use, or may want to use, illegal drugs, we say this, ‘We do not want you. Get out and stay out of our business.’ ”

But lines become blurred when refering to alcohol. Ziegler and others in the NHL argue that they can’t legislate against something that isn’t illegal.

Glen Sonmor, assistant general manager and former coach of the Minnesota North Stars, wishes the NHL would see it a different way.

Sonmor is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 4 1/2 years.

“Alcohol should be treated exactly as drugs,” he said. “There isn’t any difference. We’re talking about mood-altering substances. It’s chemical abuse.”

Whatever the rationale, a double standard exists. The tacit message from the league is that a little drinking is OK, but no drugs.

The NHL has never shaken questions about its relationship with Canadian breweries.

Two teams are owned by breweries--Carling-O’Keefe is the majority stockholder of the Quebec Nordiques and Molson owns the Montreal Canadiens.

The league receives a great deal of advertising and television revenue from breweries--20% of ESPN’s commercial time during the Stanley Cup finals was in beer advertising. Breweries also sponsor hockey awards, and generally seem to exert a great deal of influence around the league.

Sonmor sees the league’s position as being jammed between two interests, with no place to move.

“I can see where someone makes that case about conflict of interest,” he said. “To come out strongly against alcohol does fly in the face of what (the NHL is) doing. It’s not an easy problem. But it is a problem. To deny it is a problem is not right.”

Again, the league does not agree. Said Ziegler: “I’ve never had anyone in the business come up to me and ask about a conflict. The only time I’ve ever had that question posed is in the press.”

It’s a common practice in hockey, as in many other sports, to provide beer in the locker room after games. Clubs even offer beer in most press rooms for working sportswriters. Vachon said that the Kings stock beer because the players are thirsty and need to replace fluids after a game. This is done despite medical evidence that alcohol does not help to replenish the body with fluids.

“We have very little beer in the dressing room,” Vachon said. “A few cans of beer. The players don’t stay there long enough to have four or five beers.

“Most of the players drink beer. It’s not like most players drink the hard stuff. Drinking beer isn’t as bad. It doesn’t have the same effect on your body to have six or seven beers as four martinis. There’s nothing wrong for your body by having one or two beers after the game.

“It’s not something that will hurt the player. It won’t do any damage. I don’t think it will do as much damage as having four or five Cokes. Coke has sugar.”

According to the American Council on Alcohol, two beers are the equivalent to one martini.

Sonmor says that when he began playing hockey, beer was considered a fine way for young players to put on weight. Beer was a “healthy” drink, packed with carbohydrates.

“It’s tradition,” Sonmor said. “When I first came into the game, it was just done. When we got to training camp, the next minute we were in the bar. We never thought about doing anything else after practice or after games. In my time, there wasn’t anything but beer.

“Hockey players get started in that kind of environment. It is a very macho or masculine camaraderie thing to do. It’s still carried on.

“We were told that beer wouldn’t hurt you, that you’d sweat it out the next day. The hard stuff is bad for your legs. We believed that.”

Sanderson said he began drinking beer in junior hockey with his teammates--other teen-agers.

“Why is there a drinking problem in the NHL? Canadians,” said Sanderson, a Canadian. “The majority of the sport is Canadian. Most players come from small towns. They start (drinking) in juniors. It’s acceptable. It’s the macho ethic. Drugs are for low lifes. Drinking is acceptable.”

Bernie Parent, the Philadelphia Flyers’ goaltending coach, is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.

“Even when I was a young player, drinking was part of the game,” Parent said. “You never drank when you were going into a game, but afterward everyone would say, “Have a few beers, forget about it, we’ll win the next one.’ ”

Although beer remains in most locker rooms, team buses and planes, there are some clubs, touched by tragedy, that have acted:

--The North Stars, largely at Sonmor’s urging, have removed beer from the locker room at home.

--The Red Wings, in deference to Probert, refrained from uncorking champagne as they advanced in the playoffs.

--The Flyers pulled beer out of the locker room after Lindbergh’s death.

But those are the exceptions.

Said Sonmor: “Some hockey people say, ‘I’d rather see them have a few beers here than go out to a public place,’ but (the players) go out to bars anyway. What the players are doing is getting a good start.”

Probert began drinking when he was 16 years old. It was the same year his father died.

He continued drinking through junior and minor league hockey. Since joining the NHL, he has not been ordered to straighten up by league officials, nor has the Players’ Assn. sought to help him.

And when the playoffs and rehabilitation came into conflict, hockey won. The Red Wings, fighting to stay alive in the playoffs, pulled Probert from the Brentwood Rehabilitation Center in Windsor, Ontario, to play.

Now that the season is over, team officials have asked Probert to seek treatment again. He is not sure what he’ll do. He is living with his mother in Windsor. He recently told a Red Wing official that he didn’t want to go back to the rehabilitation center, that he wasn’t convinced he had a problem.

“His problems with alcohol began when he was 15 or 16 years old,” said Detroit Coach Jacque Demers, the NHL’s coach of the year. “It was not something that happened overnight.

“Bobby does have a problem. He has not recognized the problem. We knew there was a problem last year. He continuously got into car wrecks and (had) problems with the law. We sent him to get help. We were still playing him. There was an established bond there, we thought it was better to have him be with people he knew than to be alone.”

The Red Wings assigned assistant coach Colin Campbell to watch Probert, to make sure he went home and not to bars. Team captain Steve Yzerman tasted Probert’s drinks to make sure Probert was drinking nothing stronger than club soda.

It didn’t work. Nothing worked. On Dec. 19 the Red Wings suspended Probert indefinitely after he was charged with drunken driving. On Dec. 23, Probert was reinstated. He had missed two games.

“This is definitely his last chance,” Demers said at the time.

“As a coach, I was criticized for bringing him back,” Demers said recently. “But I saw that there was a good person in him. I lost my father when I was young. I know what can happen. We’re taking him by the hand. We’re going to stick by him, we’re not going to strand him.”

Sanderson said he ran through $4.5 million in his hockey career before he stopped drinking and using drugs. Never, he said, in his nine seasons as he went from team to team, did any player, coach or team official talk to him about his alcohol or drug use. It was ignored.

“If I was sober on the ice, that’s all that mattered to them,” he said. “They just kept trading the problem.

“The only man who helped me was Bobby Orr. He told me I was a drunk. He put me in a hospital to dry out. He said, ‘Derek, you’re an alcoholic. You are addicted to 11 different drugs.’ I don’t remember taking 11 different drugs.

“I went through 13 different detox centers. I’d go in and say, ‘I’m just going to drink wine,’ and, boom, another detox. Then I’d go in and say, ‘I’m just going to drink beer,’ and, boom, another detox. Then I’d go in and say, ‘I’m just going to smoke grass,’ and, boom, another detox. It never stopped.”

Sanderson has offered his experience, without charge, to the NHL. He offered to talk to players about his mistakes.

His offer was refused. “Just get players to talk to me, that’s all I told the NHL to do,” he said. “Get the answers, go talk to Derek, get the information. They didn’t want it. Geez, that’d be admitting that there’s a problem.

“They said they didn’t think there is a problem. They took it to the players’ union and the player reps said there wasn’t a problem. Now, what’s the No. 1 sign of alcoholism? Denial.”

Vachon said: “There are so many players in the NHL, I’m sure some have problems. I wouldn’t say in general there is a problem. When I took over here, I set up a drug program, and it includes alcohol abuse.

“I send letters every year. Players can go (to counseling) and I don’t even have to know about it. If I would find out that a player had a problem, we would have to take steps. If there’s a way to help a player, we want to.”

Ziegler said the league has an alcohol-information program that is available to all teams.

Sonmor, Sanderson and others say that what the league, and society, needs is awareness.

“What I would like to see happen--and I don’t want to seem like I’m preaching--is to understand more about the illness so that they can recognize it in their teammates,” Sonmor said.

But, if the NHL doesn’t recognize alcohol abuse as a problem, is there any hope for such awareness?

“To the extent that there is a societal problem, we are not immune,” Ziegler said. “Certainly, alcohol in minors is a problem because it’s illegal. But I don’t see it as a hockey problem, or a football problem.

“I’m a believer in self-change. I stay away from rules as to how we would like our players to be and how we want them to conduct themselves. I think they know what the National Hockey League wishes. I can’t set a rule that says, ‘Don’t drink.’

“Alcohol abuse is a problem beyond my capability as an individual and as a person to solve.”