Tony Gwynn’s tragic death from chewing tobacco is a wakeup call for the NHL and hockey world

Adam Proteau
Tony Gwynn (Photo by Bill Wechter/Getty Images)
Tony Gwynn (Photo by Bill Wechter/Getty Images)

The cancer that took the life of baseball legend Tony Gwynn Monday was attributed – by the Hall-of-Famer himself – to years of chewing tobacco use. That habit is still pervasive in that sport – but also in hockey. And not just in the NHL. From a troublingly early age, hockey players are using chewing tobacco – or “dip” – because of the instant jolt of energy it provides to users. But clearly, there is a huge price to be paid for indulging in it.

And it’s high time hockey, at all levels, made a concerted effort to educate and legislate it out of the sport.

Part of the problem is the optics of chewing tobacco use. If players sat on the bench with cigarettes dangling from the corner of their mouths, they’d be rightfully ridiculed and ostracized. But the picture of a player who has a cheek bulging with chewing tobacco doesn’t have the same stigma. Indeed, it’s been romanticized for decades now and indirectly marketed to children.

So it’s no surprise generations of hockey-playing teenagers continue to use it, get hooked on it, and suffer the consequences later in life. All they know is the short-term buzz, and by the time they make their way through the junior hockey and pro hockey scenes, it’s an established part of their being.

“It makes me feel relaxed and it feels nice to put one up there,” former Leaf and current Red Wings goalie Jonas Gustavsson told The Toronto Star in 2011. “It’s more like a pleasure thing.”

It’s a “pleasure thing” only because more hasn’t been done to show players the long-term effects of the agonizing plagues to which chewing tobacco can lead. They include cancer of the tongue, cheek, mouth, gums, stomach, esophagus and pancreas. If teenaged hockey players were made aware their lives – in terms of duration and quality – could be severely adversely affected simply for a brief period of stimulation, there’s every chance chewing tobacco use can be curtailed and oral cancers prevented.

In 2011, Major League Baseball implemented rules addressing chewing tobacco: the league prohibited teams from providing the substance to players and banned athletes from conducting interviews with it in their mouths. However, baseball players aren’t banned from using it on the field or in their personal lives. The same is true at the NHL level: in the current collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players’ Association, hockey’s top league prohibits the use of tobacco products “while in the presence of fans in any arena or while attending any team function”, but does not stop players from using away from their jobs.

On some level, it’s unfair and unrealistic to ban players from consuming something that’s still a legal product. Alcohol abuse can lead to awful afflictions as well, and there’s no chance that gets added to the NHL’s list of banned substances anytime soon. Personal responsibility is a factor here.

Still, something more must be done to call out the culture of chewing tobacco, because it continues to trickle down to the junior and amateur levels. A recent study by the University of Manitoba revealed a whopping 50 percent of all Manitoba Junior League players regularly use the substance.

That number is simply unacceptable. There’s no good reason teenagers and young adults should be putting themselves at risk of early death the way they currently are.

We all want our hockey idols around as long as possible once their playing days are done, and the longer we accept as normal the prevalence of chewing tobacco in the sport, the more likely it is hockey will have its own terribly sad Tony Gwynn stories in the years to come.