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Backstrom, the Olympics, & the use of pseudoephedrine in hockey

I’m still pretty floored by the idea that Nick Backstrom was told he couldn’t participate in the gold medal game of the Olympics because he apparently took Zyrtec-D.

The effect Sudafed (which contains the ingredient pseudoephedrine, hence the name) has on a hockey player’s body likely varies, but in my own experience it made me feel zero percent better, faster, or more awake. I still occasionally took them before games because when you’re competing in athletic competition breathing as clear as possible has to help, logically (particularly with recovery), so I figured why not. They weren’t illegal (or maybe they were, who knows, I was never tested in the AHL, ECHL or NCAA), and a lot of guys took them, so sure, toss me a couple of those, will ya doc? If everybody’s popping them pre-game, they must do something?

A quick web search explains how pseudoephedrine operates:

Pseudoephedrine works by acting on alpha receptors that are found in the walls of blood vessels in the linings of the nasal passages and sinuses. It causes these blood vessels to contract and narrow, thereby decreasing blood flow into the linings of the nose and sinuses. This reduces the feeling of congestion and also reduces the production of mucus.

So sure. Maybe they help performance a bit, maybe they don’t, mind as well take the at-worst-placebo and “be at your best.”

The regular distribution of sudafed in a hockey locker rooms would be a real chore for anybody to rein in without outlawing and testing for them for a number of reasons, the foremost is that it’s a sport played in the winter, and guys often legitimately need them. Between changing and showering with 20-plus other people every day, being locked in buses and planes, sharing hotel rooms…you’re just going to get sick, and most doctors are more than willing to help – that’s why they’re milling about the medical room before the game. (That, and for the free tickets.)

I’ve played on a team with a doctor who tried to be careful about how many he gave out, but it became a daily interrogation that wasted his time.

Doc: Are you really sick again?

Player XCan barely breathe. 

Doc: Really tough to call your bluff here.

Player X: Was pretty much banking on that.

Doc: Ah. 

And if that doesn’t work, well then guys will just go to the damn store. If they want ‘em, they can get ‘em.

I think it used to be far more common for players to take something more hardcore than anti-sniffle pills for energy, because guys realized how impossible it made making delicate plays like saucer passes with hands shaking like they’d been on a espresso binge. The game didn’t used to require this level of delicateness with the puck.

I remember a few guys used to take some seriously illegal stuff in junior – pretty sure they were called “yellow jackets,” and they were far more potent, and got passed around pretty casually (I never touched those). I never once saw or heard of a player in a pro locker room taking anything harder then Sudafed for energy, and I had a pulse on guys using steroids.

I’ve seen people debating how many Zyrtecs Backstrom would have to take to get red flagged at the Olympics before the gold medal game, and if I’m being honest, my stance is…I don’t really care. Sudafed, Zyrtec, any of those decongestants are just so common, so familiar in hockey dressing rooms that it seems like a laugh to me that this has become such a big deal, but that’s what happens when you ask a superstar to miss a gold medal game for overusing something 50% of guys use. I’d love to have a more enlightened, how-dare-he attitude, but I just can’t muster it.

If we decide that those are pills we don’t want athletes to be able to take, and Backstrom was made aware of it, and he still tried to cheat the system, then I’ll happily board my high horse and get tsk-tsking.

Maybe he was taking something different, something more hardcore, trying to legitimately cheat. I’ll withhold judgement on that for if we ever hear that was the case. But if it’s true this was about allergy medication while the NHL still allows the use of them, we don’t know any more about what really happened, and the guy getting “caught” for using them resulted in him missing the biggest game of his life in what was to be a contest against other NHLers, I’m baffled this happened. Seems like a situation common sense should’ve overcome, and he should’ve played.

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