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Riley Cote

NHL Enforcer Turned Yoga Teacher Riley Cote: “I Wish I Could Have Played Hockey With This Mindset”

Thanks to cannabis and other plant-based medicines, Riley Cote has come a long way from the professional hockey player that used to beat up his opponents for a living. 

It may not have been public knowledge, but the former Philadelphia Flyer used cannabis throughout his professional hockey career. Today, he says it wasn’t until he retired in 2010 that he began to have a new appreciation for the plant, which has had a profound impact on his life ever since.

Looking Back at the NHL

While cannabis use has never been encouraged in the NHL, Cote remembers a handful of other players on his team also being open about their consumption, and says it wasn’t until later in his career that he realized he’d been using it to medicate for pain and stress. In the league, the use of alcohol and prescription drugs was arguably encouraged, and far more prominent. 

“Cannabis has always remained an ally, even though I did get swallowed up in some substance abuse. I wouldn’t call myself an alcoholic, but I was definitely over-engaged in the party lifestyle,” he says, pointing to alcohol and sometimes anti-inflammatory medication, which was always readily available if he needed it.

Cote recalls getting in fights with players on the rink and then spending time in the bar with them afterwards, “getting wasted and looking for whatever other party drugs were available.” Consuming a neurotoxin and sometimes other drugs after repeated blows to the head, he says, was common, but not wise.

“I’ve done a lot to make it to where I’m at, but I’ve also done a lot of things wrong, things that didn’t exactly exude ‘elite athlete’ or ‘mental wellness’ or ‘optimum performance,’” he says. “Being dehydrated from booze doesn’t exactly lead to great performance the next day. I took full accountability, and that’s why I had to reel in my health.”

From Hockey to Advocacy

After retiring, Cote made his whole life about the cannabis plant. He is a founding member of two different advocacy organizations including Athletes For Care, a platform offering retired athletes a place to speak out about their health and wellness, and the Hemp Heals Foundation, which advocates for more sustainable living through the use of hemp-based products. 

Riley Cote
Photo by Jim Trocchio

“The whole plant has been a huge part of healing. I mean, I’m wearing hemp clothes right now,” he says with a laugh. For Cote, wearing hemp is just one way he votes with his dollar for more sustainable practices. Even with legalization in much of the United States and Canada, the true potential of the hemp plant for products such as fibre and building supplies has yet to be fully realized, he says. 

“The mushroom world is similar to the cannabis space, where mushrooms are more than just psilocybin mushrooms or nutraceutical mushrooms,” he says. Like cannabis, he points out that there are also industrial applications for fungi.

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Like cannabis, fungi has also been a major tool for Cote, who says psilocybin mushrooms have been integral to helping him overcome the “identity crisis” that comes with retiring from professional sports. He’s recently taken on advisory role with Wake, a psychedelics company focused on mental health and traumatic brain injury. 

“There’s so much ego in sport, and so much focus on you as an individual that you begin to look at yourself as ‘the’ athlete,” he says. The hockey world in particular, he says, can be “barbaric and kind of old school.”

Riley Cote: Eleven Years Later

Today, Cote is a man transformed: physically, he says he’s in the best shape in his life. He’s 30 pounds lighter than he was as a pro hockey player, and says he’s a more functional athlete with better mobility and a stronger mindset, thanks to things like yoga, breathwork, and meditation. 

“I wish I could have played with this mindset. As far as mental and spiritual wellness, I have never felt better,” he says. Cote is currently finishing up a yoga teacher training course and says ever since he retired, he’s felt called to “use the physical body as a vehicle” to improve his health.

Riley Cote
Riley Cote and his daughter after a skating lesson.

“I went from lifting heavy weights and being this ultra-masculine fighter to doing yoga and mindful movement,” he says. He’s also cut out alcohol.

Of the practices that have helped shape his new reality, Cote says: “The ancient fundamental mindful exercise of yoga, and breathing and meditation are things that, had I known about them, just outside the rink, let alone on the ice, I’d have been a more efficient athlete and a more efficient human.”

(Main photo credit: Fred Trolio)