Chewing tobacco is deeply ingrained in the game... and users are getting younger
The young man, just 20, uses a tin of tobacco a day. At night, he plays in the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League.
He’s being asked about the effects of a habit he first picked up at age 15 and has progressed ever since. He answer comes in the form of a visual.
"My tongue goes down to here now," he says, showing how much further he can burrow down inside his front lip — about halfway to his chin — due to gum erosion from tobacco use.
Right now, the hockey player is sitting on the bench while his teammates fly about the ice during a recent practice. He doesn’t want his name used, which is fair enough. After all, none of the several Winnipeg Jets who use smokeless tobacco wanted to speak on the record for this story, either.
"You’re surrounded by it so much," the player explains. "You walk into a room and all the guys are doing it. So you think, ‘Why not?’ It’s just part of my lifestyle, I guess. But it is a drug, pretty much like alcohol."
You can’t see it, most times. You can’t smell it. And it’s very difficult to quantify. But hockey has a tobacco problem that has seeped into the culture of the sport — from kids as young as 13 to grizzled NHL professionals.
Although tobacco has been a part of hockey for years, there is a fear among experts, coaches and administrators that the age of introduction is dropping — unbeknownst to many unsuspecting parents.
After all, you enrol your kids in hockey to keep them away from hanging out smoking at the Sev, right? Get them involved with a healthy, active lifestyle. And that’s mostly true.
But here’s the ironic part: The better the young player, the higher he rises in the hockey food chain through minor to AAA to junior, and the more likely he (or she, for that matter) will be exposed to a pinch of this or a chew of that. In the pros, they like to use "snus," which is basically a tea bag full of tobacco that is a little cleaner but less of a hit. Or just a straight gum-full of Copenhagen or Skoal.
Most parents, and most fans, wouldn’t realize not only does a star Jets player like Dustin Byfuglien partake in smokeless tobacco, but so do half of the players in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. So do up to 40 per cent of the University of Manitoba Bisons. So do about half of the Transcona Railer Express — who are no better or worse for numbers than any MMJHL team.
"It’s alarming," says Peter Woods, executive director of Hockey Manitoba. "It seems to be a substitute for cigarettes. Kids are taking this and not recognizing the dangers. It’s very addictive. It’s very difficult to get off."
Back on the bench, the 20-year-old who began with a pinch and now consumes a tin of Skoal a day admits the loss of gum under his front lip is concerning. So he started putting the tobacco in his left cheek. Yes, it did give him pause to quit.
"But I couldn’t just quit like that," he adds. "Slowly. I’ve thought of it (quitting) for sure. Lately? No."
Then he’s over the boards and onto the ice. Gone, like a puff of smoke.
Updated on Saturday, December 28, 2013 at 2:23 PM CST: Corrects typos
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