When the NHL lit lamps and smokes
At a time when many athletes smoked, the NHL may have had the most puffers
Former coach Mike Keenan was shocked to find ashtrays in the dressing room
Many all-time greats lit up, but few players do now or discuss their old habit
When Mike Keenan arrived to coach the Blackhawks in 1988, he noticed something disturbing in his team's dressing room at Chicago Stadium: ashtrays. Not just the squiggly-squared, amber-colored glass trays that populated most public places, but tall, regal-looking stands. Finished butts, dozens of them, had been given proper state funerals, or so it looked.
Keenan, no saint but never a smoker, was shocked.
"I had just come from Philadelphia, where there really weren't a lot of guys who smoked," he says. "But I walk in and see those ashtrays everywhere, and the first thing I told the guys was: 'OK, no more smoking in the dressing room. If you gotta smoke, do it out in the hallway.' So I'm coaching my first exhibition game and I go into the dressing room after the first period to talk, and there's no one in there. I'm wondering what in hell is going on, and take a walk out to the other side of the hallway and the whole team is out there, smoking cigarettes."
If you're under the age of 30, you probably find it hard to believe that people used to be able to smoke in restaurants, bars, sporting arenas and even planes, trains and buses. You might be just as shocked by the fact that a lot of athletes and coaches once regularly puffed away -- even during games -- and pitched tobacco products.
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New York Yankees greats Joe DiMaggio (Chesterfield) and Mickey Mantle (Camel and Viceroy) appeared in cigarette ads. Arnold Palmer, who was no John Daly, smoked all the time between shots in golf tournaments. Former San Diego Chargers coach Tommy Prothro sucked in three packs of Camels a day, regularly lighting up on the sidelines. Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver had a closer he nicknamed "Full Pack" after the number of gaspers Weaver would fire up in the dugout while Don Stanhouse was pitching out of late-inning jams.
Even broadcasters were smokin' in those days. Legendary Boston Celtics radio man Johnny Most's neglected Kool once set his pants on fire while he was on the air during a game.
Hard data has largely gone up in smoke, but hockey might very well have had a higher concentration of puffers than any other sport. And not just the plumbers lit up. Many of the game's all-time greats were heavy smokers.
If you ever saw the Montreal Canadiens' Hall of Fame winger Guy Lafleur away from a rink, chances are he had a cigarette between his right thumb and forefinger.
Mike Bossy, the Hall of Fame sniper who helped the New York Islanders win four straight Stanley Cups, smoked while answering postgame questions from reporters, as E.M. Swift's Sports Illustrated story from May 1983 documents.
Pittsburgh Penguins great Mario Lemieux smoked well into his brilliant career, but finally gave it up, perhaps due to his scary bout with Hodgkin's Disease.
Chicago's Denis Savard scored 473 goals during his 18-year Hall of Fame career despite a habit that was estimated to be at least a pack a day. His Blackhawks linemates, Steve Larmer and Al Secord, also were said to be big smokers, which contributed to their nickname of "The Party Line" although Secord recently told SI.com that he never lit up.
Keenan tried to get Savard to stop, and did for a while. "But his play went way down. He was going through withdrawal. He went back on them," the ex-coach says.
Darren Pang, a goalie for the Blackhawks in the 1980s, recalls driving to practice one day with Savard, who filled the car with a tobacco cloud. "When the ride was over, about a half hour later, I thought I was going to die," says Pang.
One of the most openly notorious NHL smokers of all was Al "Planet" Iafrate, a defenseman known for his big slap shot and bigger appetite for nicotine.
"I remember my first NHL exhibition game as an assistant with Philly (in 1990)," says Ken Hitchcock, who now coaches the St. Louis Blues. "We were in Washington, and I went to give the lineup to the referees and you had to walk by the Washington dressing room. And Al Iafrate was lighting up with a blowtorch for bending sticks. Coming from junior hockey, I found that rather unique."
Anyone who covered the NHL when Iafrate played from 1984 until his retirement in 1998 as a San Jose Shark probably saw him sitting on a chair outside the dressing room with his shirt (and sometimes pants) off, puffing away. Legend has it that Iafrate once bummed a cigarette off an Ottawa reporter between periods, lighting it up in his customary blowtorch blaze of glory.
But while such tales were once commonplace, they have largely disappeared from hockey. Pictures are out there on the internet, supposedly of some current players with cigarettes in their mouths. Goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff said in a statement sent to SI.com by the Calgary Flames, "I tried it, but didn't like it and I don't smoke anymore. It's not good for you." Toronto defenseman Dion Phaneuf vehemently denied that a photo in question is of him, and the Maple Leafs backed his insistence that he has never smoked and never will. Alex Semin of the Capitals supposedly sparked a bit of an uproar in his native Russia when he was reportedly spotted having a puff during the 2010 World Championships. But hockey people today are hard-pressed to name anyone who regularly inhales.
Longtime agent Don Meehan, whose Ontario-based Newport Sports handles more NHL players than any other agency, says "I can't think of a single client who smokes. And I can't think of anyone else in the game who smokes. Times have changed."
Hockey was once the home of smokers for two big reasons: Canada, particularly Quebec, and Europe.
"In the Province of Quebec, I used to go see some junior games a lot, and you couldn't see the ice. The whole rink was covered in smoke, it was amazing," says Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman, who coached the Canadiens from 1971 to 1978. "The French, they just smoked more, and when they came to Canada they took that with them. It was just the culture."
Guy Lafleur was one of the greatest players of his generation despite his pack-or-two-a-day habit, say some who played with him. Bowman says that Lafleur regularly smoked a cigarette between periods.
"He'd smoke in the (hotel) room, but always in the bathroom," says former Colorado Avalanche great Joe Sakic, who shared hotel quarters with Lafleur on the road when the two were teammates on the Quebec Nordiques during the final two seasons (1989-91) of The Flower's career. "I told him he didn't have to do that. I mean, I was in awe of him. He could have done whatever he wanted. But he always insisted."
When the influx of Russian and Eastern European players to the NHL started in earnest in the late 1980s, they brought their countries' smoking cultures with them. Many Russians, particularly, were heavy smokers. Among the heaviest was longtime defenseman Sergei Zubov, who won the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers (1994) and Dallas Stars (1999).
Rates are down substantially in North America from previous decades. Statistics Canada says the percentage of adults who smoke in that country has fallen to 17 percent from 35.1 percent (39.6 in Quebec) in 1985, when such numbers were first regularly charted by the government. In the U.S., the rate for adults last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was 19.3 percent. Russia, however, maintains stunningly high numbers.
According to data provided by the Moscow Health Department in 2009, 60 percent of the Russian adult population smoked regularly. More than 70 percent of Russian teenagers admitting to having a cigarette at least once. And the World Health Organization says the rate in many European countries nearly doubles or even surpasses North America. Some examples: Czech Republic (36.6), Finland (31.8), Germany (37.4) and Latvia (54.4).
Although teams do not write it into contracts that smoking is forbidden, today's players probably don't need the warning. Even the French-Canadians and Eastern Europeans have dropped the habit.
"I can't think of anyone (who smokes)," Avalanche defenseman Ryan O'Byrne replied when asked if any players fire up now. "Definitely, you don't see it during the season or during games or anything. It's just like the rest of society probably -- you just don't have as many people who smoke. Today's game would be tough for a chain-smoker I'm sure."
Whether the players of yesteryear -- even the great ones -- would have been better had they not smoked may not be as clear as it seems. As bad as the habit surely was on their lungs and bodies, pro athletes have always had fitness levels that might better withstand the dangers of tobacco smoke. There's no doubt that lighting up was embraced as way to relieve the stress that came from pro sports' immense pressure.
"Nobody thought about it. It wasn't an issue back then," says Scotty Bowman. "They didn't talk about cancer in those days. (Warnings on cigarette packs first appeared in the U.S. in 1966, with a stronger caveat from the Surgeon General appearing in 1970.) If they did, they probably would have stopped. But it was almost like a style."
Says Mike Keenan: "I don't know if it directly affected them in a negative way or not when they were younger and in great shape. But it probably did hurt the longevity of a lot of careers."
Ex-Blackhawk Steve Larmer, who says he smoked almost every day during his lengthy NHL career with Chicago and the Rangers, agrees. "I think, without a doubt, it hurt my (playing) performance," he told the Toronto Star in 2011. "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."
It is clear that many of the players who once smoked heavily aren't especially interested in talking about it now. Whether because of embarrassment or something else, repeated messages from SI.com to several notable smokers of yesteryear were not returned. Savard, say some of his friends and former teammates, does not like discussing the subject.
Larmer, who played with Savard and has worked on behalf of an anti-smoking organization with a website called Itscanadastime.ca, is trying to curb the habit of Canadian smokers, especially young people, before they start. He quit cold turkey in 1995 when his seven-year-old daughter, Bailey, hit him with some tough love.
"She'd say, 'You better be around,' or 'You're going to die tomorrow if you don't stop today,'" Larmer recounted for the Toronto Star. "They're things that make you think about it and help motivate you to quit, absolutely."
There is perhaps only one occasion now when smoking in an NHL dressing room would be looked upon favorably by a player or coach such as Keenan:
"I'd like to light up a victory cigar from winning a Stanley Cup," says Ryan O'Byrne.