Before we get going here it's worth mentioning that the specific claim against Mike Richards here is speculation. That doesn't change the fact that painkiller abuse is rampant in pro sports and even if it turns out that Richards had something else happen this is still worth talking about.
Sources tell Wpg Sun Mike Richards subject of OxyContin investigation. Held at least 4 hrs at Emerson border crossing in Manitoba, June 17.— Paul Friesen (@friesensunmedia) July 1, 2015
As pointed out to me on twitter it's likely that this is actually about OxyCodone due to OxyContin being difficult to get. OxyCodone, if you aren't familiar, is an opioid like heroin but in pill form. How would Mike Richards have acquired these? Let's roll back to Derek Boogaard's death:
Three years before he died of a drug overdose, Derek Boogaard was punched in the mouth during a fight at a Wild game. And broke a tooth.
Within days, Boogaard, the Wild's 6-foot-7 enforcer, was bouncing from one team doctor to another seeking a steady stream of powerful painkillers. He got them — 165 pills in the first four weeks, 432 by the end of the season, according to a lawsuit filed last month by Boogaard's family. - StarTribune
165 pills in the first four weeks mean that an NHL player was prescribed a powerful painkiller to take every 2 hours and 45 minutes if you assume he slept eight hours a night. This isn't to suggest the Kings doctors gave Mike Richards painkillers, it's to show that these types of pills (Boogaard was said to be on hydrocodone, a different painkiller) are given out in large quantity in the NHL.
Here's ex-NFL player Bret Lockett talking about painkiller use in the NFL:
The only time I ever used hardcore drugs was when I had surgery because the pain was that unbearable. But if I could take the pain, then I'm not just popping a Vicodin just to feel good. - HNGN
Really though should we be shocked that an NHL player uses painkillers? The knee jerk reaction is to say he uses them recreationally or that he abuses them, but as a beer league hockey player on the wrong side of 30 it's easy to think about how much worse any of us would feel if instead of one game a week against people who can barely stand up we were asked to play four of them, work out seven days a week, and endure crushing blows from professional hockey players.
Former NFL linebacker Scott Fujita said he still has the pill bottle, nearly the size of a soda can. "It was the craziest big pill bottle you've ever seen," he said. It was given to him by an NFL team physician to treat a single knee injury, yet it contained, he estimates, somewhere between 125 and 150 pills of Percocet, the addictive oxycodone-based painkiller. On another NFL team Fujita played for, he says, an assistant trainer passed out narcotic painkillers in unlabeled small manila envelopes before games to whoever raised a hand. - Washington Post
NHL fans like to pretend that the NHL exists in a bubble far away from the scandals of other North American pro sports, but it's a safe guess that if doctors hand out unprescribed painkillers in the NFL that it happens in the NHL as well.
So as we look at the Kings decision to terminate Mike Richards' contract there's something that doesn't sit well. Is this abnormal? Is Mike Richards really the only guy taking painkillers in the NHL? Patrice Bergeron played a game with a hole in his lung. From this website glorifying NHL players playing through injury here are some other injuries players played through in the 2013 playoffs:
- Defenseman Francois Beauchemin played with a torn ACL for the last month of the Ducks' season.
- Michal Handzus, the oldest player on the Hawks' roster at 36, suffered a broken wrist and torn MCL, yet he logged an average of 16 minutes the last three games of the Cup Final.
- Patrice Bergeron was playing with a broken rib and torn cartilage he sustained during the Final series.
- Nathan Horton, who was injured in overtime in Game 1 of the Cup Final, was also playing with a separated shoulder during the finals.
- Forward Justin Williams was playing with a separated shoulder. No one would ever know as he scored big goal after big goal in the playoffs.
- Jeff Carter needed 20 stitches and damaged some teeth after a high stick to the face from Chicago's Duncan Keith in Game 3.
- Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic played with hairline fracture in his right foot, which he injured during Game 4. The team doctors froze it every game so he could play the remainder of Sharks' season.
Pay no attention to the fact that Carter broke teeth which is what Boogaard needed painkillers for, or Mike Richards' listing in there. We expect this. Most of you reading this list probably thought to yourself "this is normal, comes out at the end of every playoff season".
Think about the culture that playing through injury creates. Real hardmen play through missing joints, little babies sit out because of a broken leg or temporary blindness. While it's fun to think about your favorite player finding courage and strength to suffer through an injury in the playoffs the truth is that they're suffering around the clock for our entertainment and will be publicly chastised for sitting out with injuries that most of us would take time off of our desk jobs to deal with.
Mike Richards deserves the support of his team and the league. He was signed to a contract in good faith by his team and while some will suggest he could have done more to perform at a higher level later in his career his poor performance last season isn't enough to terminate his contract.
This should be dealt with the right way. For example: Jordin Tootoo checked himself in to the NHL's Substance Abuse Program based on a hard fought battle with alcoholism. Here's what the NHLPA press release said:
Tootoo will continue to receive his full salary and benefits and will have no penalty imposed, provided he complies with his prescribed treatment and follow-up care program. - NHLPA
Is it not a double standard to expect NHL players to suck it up and skate at the highest level with a broken foot while simultaneously tut tutting them for painkiller abuse? To be clear it's likely that the charge used to terminate the contract will be that Richards attempted to bring these pills over the border, but one wonders if this would be a big deal if LA didn't want to get out from underneath Mike Richards' contract.