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Beer-pressure culture firmly entrenched in NHL

Jimmy Devellano doesn’t want anyone to think of him as a saint.

In 1988-89, when he was general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, Devellano accompanied at least six players – a third of his roster – to Alcoholics Anonymous or drug counselling meetings.

He’s never heard of another GM who’s done that, especially during the offseason, which is when he escorted a young Sheldon Kennedy to AA meetings.

“I needed that like I needed a hole in the head,” said Devellano, now the Red Wings’ senior vice-president. “Spending your summer with recovering alcoholics is no picnic when you don’t have a drinking problem yourself.”

Nor was he particularly happy to make sure Bob Probert, Petr Klima, Steve Chiasson, Joey Kocur and one or two other problem players made it to their meetings.

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But Devellano said he did it because he was being paid to win hockey games, and sober and straight players gave him a better chance to achieve that.

“I could pat myself on the back and say I did it because they were great kids and I wanted them to have good lives,” he said.

“Those things are true, but mainly I wanted them to be great hockey players. I’m coming clean here.”

Devellano recounted the story to underline how far he believes hockey, professional and junior, has progressed in its dealings with alcohol and drug abuse during the past two decades. But he’s not naïve. He knows drinking, in particular, remains a centrepiece of hockey culture. On the road, it’s a rare player – and especially a rare young player – who doesn’t head out for drinks with teammates after a game. And Devellano knows players have the money and opportunity to use drugs like cocaine.

The unsavoury byproduct of mixing hockey and drinking made headlines again this summer with the cases of Patrick Kane and Benoît Pouliot, two emerging young National Hockey League stars.

Kane, a Chicago Blackhawks forward, was charged with attacking a Buffalo cab driver who couldn’t come up with 20 cents in change to give to him and his cousin. The early August altercation occurred after a long night of drinking in the city’s downtown nightclub district. Kane pleaded guilty, and was ordered to apologize to the driver and pay a $125 fine.

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Pouliot’s case was more serious. The Minnesota Wild winger, a native of the Ottawa area, lost his licence for a year and was fined $2,000 after he was found guilty of drunk-driving charges in a court in L’Orignal, Ont., 100 kilometres east of Ottawa. In a Breathalyzer test administered after the August 2006 incident, Pouliot was found to have nearly twice the legal limit of alcohol in his blood.

While the two cases are far from unique, Devellano said he can no longer imagine one team with six or seven problem players, nor the NHL standing by for very long if that was the case.

“The stakes are just so much higher today than they were even 15 years ago,” he says. “The money is so good, the conditioning levels are so high, there is so much more education for players and coaches. And the league wants to present a good image.”