Maple Leaf netminder Jonas Gustavsson marvelled this week at a little known statistic about former NHL star Steve Larmer that doesn’t appear in record books: He puffed his way through more than a pack of cigarettes each day of his career.
The topic was athletes and smoking — Wednesday in Toronto, Larmer helped launch a quit-smoking aimed at young athletes — and the genial Gustavsson found it hard to believe after being told the former Chicago Blackhawk and New York Ranger forward performed at such a high level in a 13-year career while being addicted to cigarettes.
“I wouldn’t be able to do that,” said Gustavsson. “I haven’t tried so I don’t know how it feels like. But I guess that would be tough. Your lungs get smaller so I guess it’s tougher to breathe. When you work out, you have to use those lungs. That must have been tough. I wouldn’t try it.”
Larmer certainly wouldn’t recommend it, either.
“It’s probably the most regretful thing I ever started,” he said during an interview at St. Mike’s Arena to promote a website designed to help people stop smoking.
Back in Larmer’s era, the ’80s and early ’90s, there were often a half-dozen smokers on every team. The players lit up on the way to the rink and between periods. Many were stars of the day: Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy, Rick Vaive among others.
“Denis Savard and Larmer were two of the best players I ever played with, but they both smoked liked chimneys,” said former Leafs defenceman Bob McGill, who played, and smoked, with Larmer for four years in Chicago.
Mario Lemieux smoked early in his career. Wayne Gretzky was known to favour a cigar, as did basketball legend Michael Jordan. Many top athletes have been caught on camera having a smoke, including soccer stars like Wayne Rooney and Zinedine Zidane.
On an official Leafs’ fan page on the nhl.com network, you can find a photo of Leafs’ captain Dion Phaneuf with a cigarette in his mouth during his days as a Calgary Flame.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who admits to smoking cigarettes in the NHL these days. Those around the game say some still do it but do it less publicly due to the anti-smoking bylaws and stigma attached to smoking.
Using snuff and chewing tobacco, however, still appears to be popular among many players, including Washington superstar Alex Ovechkin.
“If you look at the tobacco chew, I think that’s still pretty prevalent in hockey,” said Chris Broadhurst, athletic therapist with the Leafs and Phoenix Coyotes for more than 20 years. He now works at the Toronto Athletic Club. “That gets directly into your system. That’s just as alarming a rate as the actual tobacco smokers.”
Gustavsson is among several Leafs who uses snuff or chews tobacco, including Tyler Bozak and GM Brian Burke. Gustavsson is a snuff-user going back to his days in Sweden, where it’s quite popular. He finds taking a pinch of tobacco and putting it under his lip helps him relax.
“I don’t know. It’s weird,” he said. “I don’t do it during the games or during the intermissions. It’s just between the games. It makes me feel relaxed and it feels nice to put one up there. It’s more like a pleasure thing.”
Still, he’s not entirely comfortable with it.
“I guess it’s a bad habit,” Gustavsson said. “When I was younger, guys started to smoke and I felt like I didn’t want to do that, so I tried this instead with lots of other guys. I’m not a saint, but I guess that’s much better and doesn’t affect my hockey career. Maybe I should quit one day, too.”
Under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, players aren’t permitted to endorse or sponsor tobacco products or use them around fans, in the arena or at team functions. There are also annual tours by NHL/NHLPA doctors that warn players of the dangers connected to nicotine, including oral cancer. The NHLPA has medical consultants available to players who are looking for advice on tobacco use.
Major League Baseball is reportedly considering a ban on smokeless tobacco because of growing pressure from U.S. Congress.
Dr. Anil Gupta, a cardiologist at Trillium Health Centre who is part of the quit-smoking campaign launched yesterday, said smokeless tobacco can be addictive and have a negative impact on performance.
“It’s not about nicotine; it’s the 5,000 other chemicals that come in cigarettes and other tobacco-like products,” said Gupta. “If you want to make a comparison, those same products that are in tobacco from cigarettes, from cigars, or other types of products, they’re the same stuff that’s in lighter fluid, oil paints, oils, cleaning solvents, industrial materials. All that stuff has the same material in them. You wouldn’t go around chewing on those things.”
Larmer’s stats are certainly impressive enough and may yet land him in the Hockey Hall of Fame — 441 goals, 1,012 assists, a big part of the 1991 Canada Cup victory and the Rangers’ Stanley Cup in 1994. He was a finely-skilled offensive and defensive player. Heck, he even set the Chicago “iron man” record of 884 consecutive games.
But Larmer believes his smoking held him back.
“I think, without a doubt, it hurt my performance,” he said. “You recover better between shifts, you recover better between periods, you recover better between games if you’re not a smoker. Therefore, your performance would have been better.”
He said he tried to quit “dozen of times” during his career but always failed, returning to smoking as a crutch to deal with daily pressures. He advises that people seek help from a professional, as only five per cent of people can stop on their own.
It was only after he retired in 1995 and got some straight talk from his then 7-year-old daughter Bailey, who was bringing home anti-smoking literature from school, that he was able to quit cold turkey.
“She’d say, ‘You better be around,’ or ‘You’re going to die tomorrow if you don’t stop today,’” recalls Larmer. “They’re things that make you think about it and help motivate you to quit, absolutely.”
By Randy Starkman