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Before we get to our main business of smelling salts and why hockey players have a thing for them, imagine it's an early morning in the year 1000. Your name is Aslak. That's right, Aslak. There you are, working your stony little garden on the edge of some desolate, northern European coastline. You're dreaming about lunch when screams rise from the nearby beach. You turn to see what's causing the commotion. A throng of crazed men, swords drawn, faces contorted in a rage, appears out of the morning mist. Unfortunately for you, they're running in your direction. You drop your hoe thinking, I never liked vegetables anyway...
Berserkers. Until recently it was generally believed that eating psychedelic mushrooms or consuming huge amounts of alcohol accounted for those warriors' infamous mania. In 1977, however, henbane seeds were discovered in a Viking grave in Denmark. These seeds, when crushed and rubbed into the skin, created numbness and a mild sensation of flying, and are now believed to be at least partly responsible for driving those warriors out of their skulls. While other theories account for the berserker frenzy—self-induced hysteria, epilepsy, mental illness—the use of plants with mind-altering properties was common to many ancient rites, rituals, and superstitions. Henbane? Sounds reasonable.
Fast forward to the NHL of recent decades and we see a similar kind of battle ritual going on: hockey players with an affinity for smelling salts.
Ammonia smelling salts are a colorless-to-white, crystalline compound called ammonium carbonate. Most modern versions exist in solution form, mixed with water or alcohol, and are contained in small glass capsules wrapped in a layer of cotton and netting. When the capsule is crushed, the carbonate salt mixed with water releases carbon dioxide and ammonia gas. Waved under the nose, the smelling salts stimulate the vagus nerve—the "motor nerve" of the heart and bronchi. The ammonia provides the punch and is essentially a gas-powered irritant that jolts the nerves—and the mind—into sharp, sudden wakefulness.
Historically, smelling salts have been used by people feeling faint or to aid those who were passed out. Once popular in the sport of boxing to revive fighters dazed or knocked unconscious, they've since been banned by many competitions. Today, smelling salts are still widely used in the NHL, the NFL, and powerlifting and strongman competitions. They cause a quick burst of adrenaline which athletes believe helps them perform better despite the fact that science suggests the effects of smelling salts are extremely brief. In 2005, football great Michael Strahan estimated that between 70 and 80 percent of all football players used smelling salts during play.
There are many fun gifs of hockey players pulling all kinds of faces after getting a healthy whiff of smelling salts. Some players actually shove capsules up their nostrils before crushing them. That's some deep belief. "I love them," says Devils forward Kyle Palmieri. "They just wake you up." Maybe so. He also notes, "They smell like s***."
And he's not that far off. If you've ever neglected your cat's litter box, the powerful stink letting you know it's time to get out the scoop comes from ammonia. In high concentrations, ammonia gas is toxic, even fatal. Farms use fans designed specifically to expel that rank wind from enclosures, and those who work in them must wear gas masks or risk sudden asphyxiation.
The use of ammonia smelling salts is not a phenomenon exclusive to hockey. Many athletes also seem to share a tendency toward superstition and ritual. After all, the "pre-game ritual" is so common a phrase it's become a cliché.
Some hockey players wrap their sticks the same way or put their pads on in the same order before every game. Some baseball players can't step on the baseline when heading onto the field. They wear titanium-infused rope necklaces—designed by a practitioner of alternative medicine—to supposedly align the body's biological electrical fields. Basketball players put up the precise number of warm-up shots before every game. Heck, even the Boston Celtics mascot is a leprechaun.
Ritual and superstition are a fundamental part of professional sports and the hockey player's use of smelling salts seems to be one of them.
It's no mystery that professional athletes have done a lot of unsavory things to gain an edge over the competition. In the recent past, marquee baseball players like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemens have been associated with performance-enhancing drugs, or PEDs. Steroids were a serious problem in the NFL, leading to the untimely deaths of several players, Lyle Alzado among them. In a business where so much money is at stake, it's no surprise athletes feel the pressure to succeed. Sometimes that pressure results in the decision to take banned substances, and at worst, even to make a practice of it. Smelling salts pale in comparison, of course, to PEDs and are also 100% legal. But the motivation to use them is the same—to outperform the other guy.
Ritual and superstition run deep. Folks toss salt over their shoulder to reverse bad luck. Black cats have a bad reputation. In Turkey and India, you never trim your nails after dark. People do and believe all sorts of dubious things because they think they make a difference. Hockey players believe smelling salts give them a competitive edge even if the actual effect is brief—as in seconds brief. Maybe it does make a difference—who are we to judge? Players claim to have competed more fiercely for an entire shift after inhaling a couple capsules' worth of ammonia smelling salts on the bench. The practice is certainly widespread. Of course, if everyone's doing it one wonders what's the advantage.
But why let reason spoil a perfectly good superstition?