Playing professional hockey takes a physical toll on every player. And those who manage to win the Stanley Cup have even more mileage on their bodies. That's why Hall-of-Famer Jeff Friesen - who won the Cup in 2003 with the New Jersey Devils - has turned to medical marijuana to treat the lingering aches and pains stemming from his 13 years in the NHL, including the major injury that shortened his career.
"I had a hernia that I came back too early from, so I had trapped nerves," Friesen told Civilized recently. "I don't know if anyone's dealt with trapped nerves, but it's something that's really no joke. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to reverse that surgery or find any ways to undo the hernia, because the scar tissue had meshed with the muscle, and everything was locked in. I spent years trying to figure out how I could recover correctly from this, or what I could do. Long story short, I discovered cannabis."
"Cannabis was the only thing that could relieve that pain," Friesen said. "It wasn't just the hernia. There were other, multiple injuries, and broken bones, and just the wear and tear of playing for the NHL, but the main problem was the hernia and the trapped nerve pain."
Now he's trying to help other athletes get access to cannabis. Recently, Friesen announced he was partnering with Evolve Formulas - the cannabis brand launched by NanoSphere Health Sciences. The biotech company is making waves after developing the NanoSphere Delivery System - a cutting-edge technology that shrink cannabis molecules to 'nano' size, wraps them in lipid membranes so they can be absorbed through the skin, nasal cavities or the lining of the mouth and delivered directly into the bloodstream.
Friesen says the new tech is the best way to deliver medical marijuana to athletes in need.
"I just feel that this is the organic way to have medication. It's from a plant - a miracle plant. And when you combine that with technology like NanoSphere, you have a serum that can literally guarantee that you will never have to be on any of these pills anymore. That, to me, is great, because you don't have to kill you liver in the process of trying to manage pain or improve sleep, or just have a better quality of life and not have to live in pain."
And he wants his fellow athletes to have the same option.
"You see a lot of guys leaving the game, and a lot of guys struggling. It's not just current players, but former players that are managing a lot of pain. So, I think this is hopefully a quicker way to that day, where athletes and former athletes can use more organic medications that work better, and are a lot safer and healthier for them."
Could you tell us how you ended up trying medical marijuana to treat your sports injuries?
I discovered cannabis at 31 [circa 2007], so it wasn't as advanced as it is today. I'd gone through the pharma world, where I was on Lyrica and all these different medications, and it all ran its course and didn't work, so I turned to cannabis because it was the only thing that could relieve that pain.
I had been on a lot of medications. It was almost like being a guinea pig. And what I discovered is, these are extremely addictive, extremely toxic pills. Everyone said marijuana's bad because it makes you stoned or high. Well, try Xanax or Seroquel or Vicodin. You're beyond high or stoned. You've lost yourself, and for me, I lost myself in the pharmaceutical world.
And you're not the only one. Many athletes have found themselves buried under prescriptions for more and more pills. Can you tell us how that sort of thing happens?
Basically, you're trying to fix one problem, and now you have another one because your blood pressure is off, and your weight gain is up and everything - your whole insides - are upset. You can't sleep because of the pain, so you're taking an Ambien. You're taking Vicodin or Xanax to manage pain. It's just a vicious cycle. Putting synthetic pills in there is toxic to your body. It's not organic like cannabis. Cannabis is a plant. Organic food is the way of the future - with whole foods and the movement to eat healthier - and that's the same with cannabis.
Was there any backlash from friends or family or former teammates when you decided to try cannabis?
Everyone said I was delusional. They'd say, "You're crazy. They'll never prescribe cannabis." My dad really hated it. He'd say, "It's the devil drug." So I never tried it really until 31. I had no idea of its medicinal value or anything about it.
Was that when you were still playing professionally?
It was right at the end of my career. I kind of felt like I was between a rock and a hard place. Long story short, when I left rehab, I was on six medications. Seroquel, Trazodone, Lyrica and so on. With Seroquel, I had gained about 30-40 pounds while playing in Germany [circa 2009]. Every night, you take your medication, and you go on a binge eat. I'm thinking, "This is just ridiculous."
I argued with the doctor from the time I went in to the time I left, but I never was going to persuade him about cannabis and cannabinoids. I was like, "I'm going to be on these medications my whole life. I've already gained 30-40 pounds on Seroquel. And I've already looked into all the weight gain evidence [about the drug] that wasn't released. This is complete BS. It's so wrong, just painfully wrong."
But there was nothing I could do. When I retired [in 2011], I weighed about 230 pounds, so, probably 30-40 pounds over what I should be. When I got back from Germany, I took my son - who was about two at the time - for a walk, and I wasn't feeling healthy because I was on these medications. I was walking with my son and all of the sudden I felt like I was having a major heart attack. I'm thinking, "Holy cow, I think I'm going to die."
After that massive anxiety attack, I thought, "Is this how I'm going to go?" And at that moment, I just said, "Enough. I'm never taking these pills again." And that's when I got my medical marijuana card. And as soon as I got my med card, I didn't need any of those pills. It replaces everything.
Was it difficult to go against the advice of so many team doctors?
Yeah, I always wanted to do it through a doctor. I was playing in the NHL, so I'm going to trust them.
Because you're supposed to. That's what you're told to do, right? That's what the team doctors are there for.
They're all top doctors and I truly wanted to trust them. And I'm not blaming them, I just think the medications we've been using for the last 30 years don't work.
Does it help with anything aside from pain?
Yeah, until I was 31, I had struggled to be able to read at a fluent level. And that's what cannabis did for me.
Is that because of your ADD?
Yeah, I used to really struggle in school and fell behind because I just couldn't piece words together. When I had to read as a kid, it was mortifying. Kids would laugh. I was extremely smart at math. That was just a breeze, but yeah, reading was a hard struggle.
What drew you to NanoSphere?
Well, I was fascinated with nanotechnology, and I'd been following the cannabis sector for a while, looking for something that would be a game-changer. And I heard about NanoSphere and for some reason—it was like God just said, "Okay, you're going to fly to Colorado and see if this really works for your nerve pain," because I've always tried to search for any lotion or crème that would do exactly that. And it did. It gave me goosebumps. The Nano-Serum took the pain away within 10 minutes. It was like, "Oh, wow, this is exactly what I've been searching for for 11 and a half years."
It's not just given me hope but a better quality of life—not having to live at clinics or see doctors over and over for all these different issues that cannabis can treat. And it can benefit people in a positive way and give them a better quality of life. I think people deserve that and that's what I care about. I just feel blessed to have found it.
Was it difficult to go public with your cannabis use? Given how stigmatized marijuana is, it must've been hard - as a Hall of Fame athlete - to become an advocate for medical cannabis.
Yeah, to be honest, but it's the right thing to do. And it will benefit millions of people all around the world. This movement is not going to be reversed. The pharma pills have already run their course over the last 30 years, and cannabis is just scratching the surface.
But, yeah, it was nerve-wracking. I didn't necessarily want to put myself out there. And I can't believe I'm doing this interview now, to be honest. I'm not a public person. Honestly, if it weren't for the NanoSerum—if it didn't work so well—I wouldn't have put myself out there and told my story. You can put a serum on and it can give you a better quality of life. I don't have to be on all these medications, and I can have good sleep, and I don't have live in pain. I thought, well, I have to tell my story and put myself out there, use my voice.
I would've never used my voice if I hadn't discovered something that can benefit so many people and be such an organic, healthy way to manage pain, and improve sleep, or manage anxiety, or cramps. It's endless what you can do with the technology, from what I understand. So I just feel blessed that I'm able to put myself out there with a company like NanoSphere and partner with them, because it's the right thing to do, and it's a great thing.
How did people react to your decision to become a cannabis advocate? I'm thinking in particular of your dad, who was so opposed to cannabis. Were your family members supportive when you decided to take that step?
Yeah, everyone has been supportive. My mom said, "I love that you're so passionate about it." My dad had issues with it at first, but he's actually turned to cannabis too, and now my mom as well. I never thought there'd be a day when she would benefit from it.
Yeah, she must have been very surprised by that, as well.
Yeah, well, it's evolving, but it's still such a sensitive issue. But with Canada really legalizing October 17th, I guess it feels like the time is right to tell my story, and if it can help anyone else, that would be a great thing. But, no, my parents think it's the answer. They've been supportive. But it's been hard to go against the grain on something, even when you know in your heart it's the right thing.
Do you think the NHL might ever take that step, and team doctors actually say, "Maybe you should try something like the NanoSerum?"
Oh, absolutely. I mean, I'm not saying that tomorrow, but one day. They're the top athletes in the world, so it's ridiculous that they aren't using cannabis already in all pro sports. People need to manage pain, and this is the future for pain management. There's no doubt about it. One day, trust me, they'll be like, "Holy cow, you were right, Jeff."
For years, every top doctor I saw said, "There will never be prescriptions for marijuana." Well, you know what, GW's got the Epidiolex. That's just opening up the door for cannabinoids.
I don't know when exactly that day will come, but this is just scratching the surface to a better quality of life for people. That's what people deserve, so there's no question that with hockey - with any sport, there will be a medicine from cannabis, and it's just when that day will come. I can't wait for that day, because there's lives lost in a lot of different areas.
And some are already treating injuries with marijuana. Right now, we hear more and more former athletes saying that when they played in the NBA, 70 to 80 percent of teammates used cannabis. When you were playing, did you get that same sense that you weren't the only one that was keeping it in the dark?
Oh, yeah, no question.
If you were to guess, how many players would you say are using cannabis in the NHL right now?
I know it's a high number. I mean, cannabis is in the dark. Nobody wants to talk about it. I have a hard time talking about it, and I know it works.
One problem for athletes is, you can't travel throughout the US with cannabis. It's really torture. You can treat your pain when you're at home but not when you're on the road.
You mentioned that cannabis helps for lingering injuries as well as everyday aches and pains that come with playing NHL hockey. What hurts the most after playing a professional hockey game?
Everything, to be honest. As a professional athlete, you're always taking a pounding or a beating. When I watched the playoffs last year, I saw a defenseman hurt his hand. I was thinking, "Wow, he could use the NanoSerum and he could keep playing in the playoffs." Because there's nothing available right now that can really treat broken bones, or shoulders, or even back pain and muscle spasms.
I enjoyed every minute of my career. But to play through those injuries, you're on these medications. I don't blame the NHL. I love the NHL. I love the game. But I blame pills that just don't work, and I had to live through that. I know a lot of players would laugh at all these side effects. I didn't really look at the side effects. I thought maybe they were just a precaution at the time, and they weren't really that bad. You don't realize what you're doing to your body, but it definitely took its effect on me and shortened my career.
But it also led me to discovering cannabis. I feel like God had a plan for me, and that's what the plan was.
It must be really hard to watch games, knowing firsthand what these athletes are going through and how medical marijuana can help, but also knowing they can't use it officially.
Yeah, when you see somebody who's injured, it's frustrating. Because if the NanoSerum was available, I know it could help. And I know that's what players want, too. They want to play through the pain, and they want medicine that will help them, because they love the game of hockey.
That's why I played through all the separated shoulders, and knees and wrists. I probably should have had surgeries earlier, but you always play through the pain because you love the game. You're a professional athlete. You always want to play. You love the game. You don't just snap your fingers and play in the NHL, or whatnot. You've got to love it.
But it's also a pounding. You make huge sacrifices for your career, and you want to play. You don't want to be on the sidelines. So, if there's a healthy way to get back, then I think that's a great thing for players. That's why I think the NanoSerum can help athletes all across the world. And if there's something that can help them, it absolutely should be available for them.