Beer debate brewing

(Denise Brown Hodgson/Sun Media)

(Denise Brown Hodgson/Sun Media)

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 1:36 PM ET

Flip through any National Hockey League team media guide or game-night program and you will find a beer plug, often an attractive colour ad near the front cover.

On game night, there are billboard-sized beer signs throughout the arena, not to mention rinkside, while concession men bellow "cold beer here!" as they balance a rack of drinks over their head. Just about every young male fan who gets his five seconds of fame on the scoreboard toasts the crowd with a foamy plastic cup.

During the course of a game, the players can't help but see all the good times roll around them, as well as hear about it (the St. Louis Arena organist used to pump out the Budweiser theme every second whistle) and even wear the beverage in question on occasion when leaving the ice at a boisterous visiting rink.

BECOMING TABOO

But getting to taste it post-game is becoming taboo for those in uniform. Even before the death of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock in a car crash caused by a post-game binge April 29, attitudes toward post-game libations in pro sports had changed.

Reporters are far more likely to see a blender than a beer in an NHL home team's room, while the visitors won't crack open anything alcoholic until they're at least on the team bus or in the air. Even then, some clubs will hold them to one beer, especially if their car is parked at the airport

"Yeah, things have changed," Maple Leafs defenceman Wade Belak said. "I came into the league hearing tales of guys who got hammered all the time after a game, some because they were too scared to fly (during the expansion years, when trains became planes).

"Myself, I listened to the great drinking stories of people my dad's age. I've been on teams where there's a big keg in the room.

"I think everyone still enjoys a nice, cold beer after a game, but now you have to weigh that against the risk to your career, a DUI charge and the chance you'll really hurt someone."

Baseball isn't alone in that regard.

NHLers Tim Horton, in 1974, and Steve Chiasson, in 1999, died in alcohol-related crashes, while Dany Heatley had consumed some alcohol, but wasn't intoxicated, when he crashed his car, leading to the death of Dan Snyder in 2003.

The Cardinals put the lock on the clubhouse cooler after the Hancock incident, even though it's not clear how many, if any beers he had drank in the room that afternoon before proceeding to more drinks at a St. Louis restaurant. His blood-alcohol level was found to be 0.157, nearly twice the legal limit in the state of Missouri, when his vehicle hit the back of a tow truck, killing Hancock instantly.

The beer ban, which the Cardinals extended to their charter flights, angered many players. Baseball clubs such as the New York Yankees followed suit, though the Blue Jays said this week they had never had a problem in 30 years and they would continue treating the players "like men" according to general manager J.P. Ricciardi.

Cardinals president Mark Lamping, a former executive at Anheuser-Busch brewery, said the no-beer edict would hit home with his players.

"It reminds them what can happen if you exercise very poor judgment," Lamping told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Our eyes and ears need to be more in tune and aware as to what is going on around us and if there is a problem that needs to be addressed. If there were early warning signs as it relates to Josh and we missed them, then shame on us."

FEAR OF LITIGATION

Fear of litigation has prompted action by many teams the past few years where free beer is concerned.

"It's the same as having an open bar at your Christmas party," one lawyer said of the legal risks the teams run if their generosity turns a player into a danger on the road.

Belak said most hockey players have realized that commitment to fitness to protect their contracts includes a lot of personal discipline where drinking is concerned. He says being in a Canadian city means walking an even straighter line, because any adverse behaviour involving drink will be water cooler talk the next day, notoriety a fourth-line forward with the Columbus Blue Jackets might escape.

The Leafs have made alcohol and substance abuse a big part of their annual prospects camp and continually reinforce it in their rookie NHL years.

"They're still underage and often subject to different laws outside of Canada," Leafs development coach Paul Dennis said. "We try to keep them aware of a few things: How alcohol affects the brain, impairs performance, and makes driving dangerous for you and a bystander. There is also a professionalism expected of you on the ice.

"Unfortunately, we would have to use the Hancock example as an extreme, not so much for shock treatment, but as a teaching aid. The last thing you would expect is for that to happen to a fine athlete, but people make mistakes. People react to alcohol in different ways."

Dennis, who holds a PhD in sports psychology and is an adjunct professor at York University, says the stress on a pro hockey player can be similar to other aspects of the workforce in a go-go world.

"The easiest thing for anyone is drinking to relieve stress, but there are other ways," Dennis said. "After a home game, we encourage our guys to stick together and look out for each other, which is where a guy such as (team captain) Mats Sundin is there to ensure it happens. That leadership is one of our biggest deterrents."

In recent years, the NHL Players' Association has stepped in to give its membership better direction in this area. There is a joint program with Dr. Brian Shaw representing the union and Dr. Dave Lewis the NHL. They meet each of the 30 teams once a season and cover a broad range of medical concerns, including drugs and alcohol. Shaw makes another presentation during the players' summer meetings and is available for consultation throughout the season.


Photos