86 : Policing The NHL Ice w/ Riley Cote

Riley Cote is a former professional ice hockey left winger who played eight seasons in the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers.  During his career, he was known as an enforcer on the ice.  Riley announced his retirement from professional hockey at the age of 28.  Most recently, he was an assistant coach with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the American Hockey League (AHL) for the past 7 seasons.  Riley is currently focusing on his Hemp Heals Foundation, which promotes sustainable agriculture, sustainable health and clean natural medicine, while focusing on a holistic approach to optimum health through the use of hemp.

I immediately felt a connection to Riley because both of us embraced the identity of being a “tough guy” in our respective sports.  Neither of us would think twice before throwing our bodies around to make a big hit, or in Riley’s case starting a fight. Going into this conversation with Riley, I strongly disagreed with fighting in hockey. In my mind, putting a ban on fighting would be an easy way to avoid dangerous and unnecessary hits to the head, without actually altering the essence of the game. However, by the end of our conversation I formed a much different opinion on the role that fighting plays in hockey.

“If you can instill fear into your opponent, and then someone feels dominated by you mentally, you own them.”

So what makes someone an “enforcer” in the NHL? An enforcer in the NHL needs to be fearless, have the ability to sacrifice their bodies and the willingness to fight anyone, no matter what the size. The role of the enforcer is to create energy in the arena, but more importantly to keep the peace out on the ice and keep everyone in check.  Riley says guys like him are few and far between in today’s NHL because the direction of the game is trending towards speed and quickness.  In Riley’s opinion, the lack of policemen out on the ice has actually led to more dangerous hits. A mutual respect exists between NHL “tough guys”, their teams and their opponents, even after getting their ass kicked.  “You can put guys in the penalty box all day long, but you haven’t really addressed the problem.” Rule changes in the NHL have also discouraged players to fight.  Riley explained how it used to be that you could fight anyone on the other team and you would both get 5 minutes for fighting, so there was no power play.  After the introduction of the instigator rule, the fight instigator gets 2 minutes for initiating the fight, 5 minutes for fighting and 10 minutes for misconduct. This puts the instigator out of the game for 17 minutes and their team down a man for 2 minutes.  The structure of this rule incentivizes players to turtle.  This comes into play when an enforcer retaliates for a cheap hit that was dished out by the opponent.  In that case the enforcer might be putting his team in a vulnerable position to serve their role as the policeman. 

“To me, a fight was like a goal”

Riley wasn’t always an enforcer out on the ice. He chose to start playing more aggressively while in juniors due to the fact that he was highly observant and aware of the guys who were getting the call up to the NHL. To make into the NHL, Riley knew he had to be aggressive and had to keep fighting in juniors. When talking about his NHL dreams while growing up, Riley said, “If I wouldn’t have done that [played as an enforcer], I would have maybe been a 3rd line American League Hockey Player.”  He achieved his goal of reaching the NHL, because he embraced the enforcer identity out on the ice.  According to Riley, he was top 3 in fighting in whatever league he was in.  A shift without a fight or a hit was an unproductive shift. Fighting not only caused a lot of wear and tear physically for Riley, but also mentally.  He felt like he was in a constant state of fight or flight.  Every game he had to be mentally prepared to fight someone, which caused a lot of stress and pressure on him, even when there wasn’t a fight. 

Riley has been a cannabis user since he was 15 years old and although he wasn’t always aware of the science based evidence of its benefits; he recognized the relief it gave to his anxiety.  Riley partially credits cannabinoids and cannabidiol (CBD) for his improved health after his playing days.  He also credits his current brain health to the use of cannabis throughout his career.  This experience has fueled the passion behind Riley’s organization called Hemp Heals.  Riley never expected to retire at 28, but he felt that he was always nursing something during every practice.  Looking back, Riley feels that his heavy lifting caused a lot of problems to his physical body.  He recommends that current athletes focus more on bodyweight, plyometric, speed & agility workouts, yoga and healthier eating. Riley noticed a huge difference after transitioning his active lifestyle to this format during his retirement.

In this episode Riley also talks about the huge change in identity he had after his retirement.  Removing the toxic and introducing the healing into his life aided in this transition.  This includes not only people, but food as well.  Riley endorses hemp seeds as a great source of protein.  Athletes need to think of their body as their moneymaker.  Just like how you wouldn’t put regular fuel in a sports car, you shouldn’t put low-grade fuel in your body because eventually, it will break down like a car.  Fortunately, athletes have many more resources today to optimize their health, such as sports performance coaches, wellness coaches, sleep doctors and sports psychologists. However, as a coach, Riley finds that most of the young guys still think they are invincible and don’t take advantage of these resources.  Going back to the car example, you can’t maximize your car’s longevity by only taking it to the mechanic when it is broken.  You need to take the car for its regularly scheduled maintenance to prevent problems down the road (no pun intended… see what I did there?).

During our conversation, I was very curious to learn about what preparation went into a fight, how a fight is started, and how a winner of a fight is determined.  Riley explains these dynamics in detail during the interview.  Although Riley said he wasn’t a technical fighter, he still trained Brazilian Ju Jitsu and Standup Greco-Roman wrestling techniques.  The fights themselves could happen as simply as just asking an opposing player to fight.  It’s not always that easy, though. If the other player refused, Riley would sometimes have to force the fight.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how the fight starts because there will always be the adrenaline factor and an energized atmosphere in the arena.  When it comes to determining a winner there is often a big difference between the crowd and the players take on the outcome. No matter the outcome, no one wants to see each other badly injured.  According to Riley, inflicting injury is not the objective of a hockey fight.  Riley stated that he never wanted to put someone out of a game or even a practice because of a fight but injuries, and sometimes-serious ones do occur.

Some of Riley’s Injuries throughout his career, where he averaged one surgery a year, included:

  • Two knee injuries

  • Two separated shoulders

  • Torn wrist and Finger Tendon

  • Two eye surgeries (I later ask about the stigma associated with eye shields in the NHL)

  • Two nose surgeries

  • Broken foot

Riley described himself as a fringe-roster player, which pressured him to play through many of these injuries because he knew he couldn’t give up his spot.

The one possible regret that Riley has from his hockey career is that he wished he did a little more hockey playing and a little less fighting.  His advice to upcoming NHL “tough guys” is to work on your hockey skills because there is not much room for players like him anymore.  Although it is easy to demonize fighting as it’s seen as “barbaric” when looking at it politically, Riley believes something has to slow the game down to make the game safer. That something used to be fighting.  Fighting in hockey might not be as detrimental to player safety as we might think.  In this quest to improve health & safety in sports, I think it is important to think about ideas such as this to truly make the lasting impact we have set out to accomplish.




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