More Sports:

June 08, 2016

The Q&A ... with hemp activist (and former Flyers enforcer) Riley Cote

Flyers NHL
060616_Cote-Riley Matt Mullin/PhillyVoice

Former Flyer Riley Cote during a recent interview with PhillyVoice.

Riley Cote is different. Different in the way he thinks. Different in the way he views the world. Different in the lifestyle he chooses to lead. 


In a good way.

As a professional hockey player, Cote fought for a living. Then, at 28-years old, the Winnipeg native retired from playing the game that defined his entire life. And in the six years since, the former Flyers enforcer has taken up a new role -- that of a teacher.

Sure, a large portion of that is tied to his post-NHL career -- he's an assistant coach with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms -- but he also has another teaching goal, one that's much more ambitious. 

Cote, 34, wants to teach the world about the positive uses of hemp.

One of the main ways he hopes to do that is through his Hemp Heals Foundation. Next month, it will be hosting the fifth annual Hemp Heals Music Festival (July 22, Festival Pier at Penn's Landing), featuring performances by 311 and Matisyahu.

"It’s got music, and I think that’s a great way to tie in the message," Cote said in a recent sit-down interview with PhillyVoice. "The demographics seem to be younger, so you’re kind of shaping minds the right way so you don’t need to reprogram them. You’re giving them the truth and guiding them the right way from the start.

"If you walk around to all the tents and the vendors, you’ll see a lot of the different faces of cannabis and hemp. You’ll see hemp clothing, skin and hair products, hemp paper, you’ll see a guy from Lancaster who sells a hemp pretzel. He calls them Hempzels. So it’s also inspiring young entrepreneurial minds and giving them a tool and a resource to use in a different, innovative and eco-friendly way."

The money from the event -- the festival raised $8,000 last year -- goes toward educating people about the uses and benefits of hemp, like the workshop they held last year to teach around 20 local builders how to build with HempCrete, a natural building material.

Eventually, Cote has even bigger aspirations for the foundation.

"We’d like to get into the research side some day," Cote added. "So once we get some grants, that’s the next step. Maybe some CBD stuff. Maybe, possibly with professional athletes or former athletes with the stuff we talked about before, like concussions and CTE." 

Recently, we caught up with the former Flyer for a wide-ranging Q&A about his foundation, the benefits of hemp and cannabis, and, of course, the Flyers.

We'll have more on details on the festival as it gets closer, but for now, here's our Q&A* with a much tamer Cote than the guy in the above video...

*You may have seen some of our previous Q&As, all done by Ryan Lawrence. And that's exactly where the idea for this came from. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Ryan.

THE Q&A ... 

PhillyVoice: What made you want to start the Hemp Heals Foundation?

Riley Cote: I guess I was at a point in my life where I had, I guess you would call it, an awakening. It was basically right after I retired. My physical body was breaking down. Mentally, I was at a crossroads in my life of being able to continue a sport I’ve been playing my whole life or, you know, hang ‘em up and move on with my life and make a transition career-wise. Because my physical body couldn’t really do it anymore.

But I was also on a journey of health and always trying to get that edge as an athlete and changing from different proteins and supplements. And I was doing different reading and transitioning from more of an animal protein type of diet — whey proteins, a lot of animal proteins, a lot of meat — to more of a plant-based lifestyle. And it wound up coming back to hemp protein. Being one of the most digestible proteins — filled with Omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, chlorophyll — everything about that made sense.

And I already knew about recreational cannabis; I already knew about medical cannabis. Growing up, you see stuff like hemp fibers. But as you learn something like this, it forces you to put your head down different rabbit holes and the next thing you know you’re finding out that industrial hemp is naturally high in CBD (Cannabidiol) oil that has medical properties or that Henry Ford built a car out of hemp that ran on hemp. And everything about it just made sense.

You know, for me, I did all kinds of charity work growing up and in juniors, all the way up to the pro level. And a lot of times, you use your hard-earned money or hard-earned time and your just handing over this money and you’re not really seeing any change with cancer research or M.S. research — you know, my sister has M.S. which is another reason why I got introduced to the holistic realm. I just felt like I was wasting my time, so I wanted to create my own version of charity, and it’s helping everyone. It’s not just taking one disease and isolating it. It’s introducing everyone to cannabis and showing them that cannabis, as a whole, whether it’s the clothes, the skin and body care, the food, the CBD — can help increase your quality of life. And on a bigger scale, it can help the environment and the economy.

And that’s the whole vision. It’s bigger than just hemp heals the body. It heals everything. 

That was going to be my next question. I came in thinking really only about the personal healing qualities of hemp, but you seem to be talking about it on a much larger scale. 

"I truly believe [cannabis] is medicine for all people. No one should be playing God and telling us who can and who can’t use it."

It’s a much bigger picture than just healing the physical body. Hemp is grown in Chernobyl as a mop crop to pull the radiation out of the soil. And that can be grown everywhere. So it’s a healing plant in that sense, as well. It pulls contaminants out of the ground and literally heals the earth and rejuvenates the soil. It even helps lower carbon emissions and deliver the same kind of cleaning properties to our air.

It’s the way we were designed to live. It’s the way it was supposed to be. We were living on this planet for eons — or however long you think the planet’s been around — and as long as humans have been living here, they’ve been growing hemp and cannabis. We seemed to be doing just fine until we screwed it up. We complicated it. We introduced synthetics — synthetic fibers, synthetic foods, synthetic medicines, synthetic oils, chemicals.

So you’ve got this vicious cycle of self-polluting with nutrient-deficient conditions and diseases. If you just teach people the right way and let them use eco-friendly things instead. 

It’s a plant. It’s like, why are we playing God anyway?

And how do you think we begin to change that way of thinking? Will it take athletes coming out in support of it more for the medicinal properties rather than recreational?

I truly believe [cannabis] is medicine for all people. No one should be playing God and telling us who can and who can’t use it. Whether you’re an average person with chronic pain or someone going through cancer treatment or if you have M.S. or if you’re an athlete or a veteran, it doesn’t matter in my opinion. Everyone should have access to it. It’s a human right.

But the sports world runs parallel to the medical establishment, so it’s not the sports world’s problem or fault. Once the medical establishment changes their stance on it, then the sports world would roll with that. We already know that it certainly lowers opiate addiction and opiate use in the states where it’s legal. That’s a fact. So in society, if the numbers are lower, it would be the same way in sports. Opiate use and abuse needs to go down. We’ve basically got a heroin problem on our hands here, and then you’ve got a plant that’s sidelined. I mean, it seems a little ridiculous when you break it down. 

And the irony of cannabis is, it’s definitely not a gateway drug, it’s an exit drug. I mean, that’s been debunked a million times, the gateway theory. Actually, people have been using cannabis for thousands of years as an addiction buffer zone. There are guys with alcoholism using cannabis to get off drinking; opiate addiction, same thing. And without withdrawal.

People will argue that you’re just trading one drug for another. Except, they’re not the same. You can’t compare cannabis to opioids. You can’t compare cannabis to alcohol. You’re talking about something completely separate, completely different and completely unique. And it’s an herbal, medicinal alternative.

And we need that. Otherwise, you’re basically creating heroin addicts. And when you do that, you ruin lives. You ruin the soul. You ruin people’s relationships with their family. Everything goes down the tube. 

You can’t tell me that with the resources and knowledge we have now, that we can’t eradicate this poverty globally. Grow hemp. Let every f***ing person grow cannabis. You have your own food and your own medicine right there. I mean, give them that human right.

I imagine when the average person hears stuff like this from you, they’re going to stop on the cannabis talk. Explain some of the differences in what we’re talking about here.

There is some education that goes along with all this stuff. That’s what our major goal is with the foundation, but the government has created a divider in the plant. They’ve created a regulation that to be qualified as industrial hemp, it has to be below .3 percent THC. Anything above that is considered, whatever you want to call it, marijuana. I don’t call it that because that is a slang term the government’s given it. I just say cannabis or medical cannabis. So anything above .3 percent THC, in the eyes of the government, is considered medical cannabis. Anything below that is considered industrial hemp

So it’s obviously grown for different reasons. Much like potatoes and carrots have different varieties and different types, it’s the same thing with cannabis plants. You’ve got one that’s grown for higher THC, more for the medicinal or recreational or spiritual side. And then there’s one for more of the industrial side — even though medicine is industry — to make fibers, textiles, the seed for bio-diesel, for CBD, and the list goes on. So if you want to look at cannabis as a whole, help probably takes up about 80 percent of that circle and medical cannabis takes up the other 20 percent. So when you’re talking about making cars out of hemp composites and having them run on hemp fuel, hemp is energy. And then there’s the whole food side. So hemp takes up much more of the circle because it has so many applications.

There’s all kind of innovation. You can make a phone out of hemp. Any plastics, you can replace with hemp. Composites, they’re making snowboards, skateboards, BMW door panels, with hemp and flax. And they’re all biodegradable. And hemp is a strong durable fiber — it’s stronger than any synthetic like nylon. Once they outlawed cannabis, World War II comes around and they actually forced all farmers to grow at least five percent of their crop as hemp for the war. It was called “Hemp for Victory” campaign. And then once the war was over, they made it illegal again.

Tell me more about your diet, because there’s also the whole stigma of people who use cannabis getting "the munchies," but that doesn’t seem to be the case with you.

I’m extremely active. I do yoga, I lift. But for me, diet is the key to everything. I don’t do dairy. I do limited meat. And my main protein source is hemp seeds, honestly. Blend them up with bananas, cacao and dates, and that’s usually my post-workout smoothie. There’s the saying, ‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food' and that’s the oldest sayings Hippocrates had like 3,000 years ago. But now, we’re in a situation where we’ve industrialized the food so we have high-sugar, denatured, nutrient-deficient food. 

Your body needs nutrients just like a plant needs nutrients, needs water, needs sunlight to grow properly and healthy. Weak plants attract pests, just like a weak body attracts disease.

So it’s much deeper than cannabis. It’s about connecting everything together because that’s the way we were designed to live.

And what was your diet like before you had this awakening?

I don’t know if you saw any pictures of me before or knew what I did before. I fought for a living. I was about 220, 20 pounds heavier than now. So my version of bulking up was eating a ton — it didn’t matter what it was — and lifting heavy. You get big, you get stronger. 

But I’m stronger in different ways now. It’s more functional strength. I’d be a much better hockey player now.

"I was averaging a surgery a year, from knees to wrist to fingers to eyes to nose, shoulder. So it takes its toll, obviously. And the other part was, I kind of saw the writing on the wall ..."

Do you ever think that changing your diet back when you were playing would have helped your career?

I can’t look at my life and say I’d change anything. I wouldn’t have changed a thing. But all the players I talk to, whether they’re young or the pro ones I coach, it’s all about being fast, lean and never sacrificing mobility for size. And that was the decision I made [when I was playing] because I was fighting guys that were 250-260 pounds. So it was thickening up the face to be able to hang with the heavyweights. In UFC, you cut weight and go down a class. I was doing the opposite, putting it on to go up a class. 

But if I would have floated around and played at this weight — I’m 198 pounds now — no way I would have competed against the heavyweights and lasted as long as I did. That was my niche, so I ran with it. I don’t know if I would have been as durable — not that I was that durable retiring at 28 — but something’s got to give. I was outmatched size-wise most times. 

So what was the main reason you decided to retire so young?

It was an accumulation. I was averaging a surgery a year, from knees to wrist to fingers to eyes to nose, shoulder. So it takes its toll, obviously. And the other part was, I kind of saw the writing on the wall. My physical body was breaking down, so my performance dropped. I also saw the direction of where the role I played was going; they’ve almost outlawed fighting. You’re still allowed to, but the actual position or role of enforcer, I don’t think that many teams have that anymore. There’s maybe a couple of teams that have a guy who is an actual heavyweight, whereas 10 years ago, a lot of teams carried two of three of those guys. It’s more emotional fights and spontaneous ones as opposed to self-policing. The game has changed, and the dynamics have changed.

So there were a couple variables besides the physical body, which was the biggest. 

But also the offer from Paul Holmgren, who was the GM at the time, to turn the last year of my contract into a coaching deal. So there were a few elements there that made my decision easier. Obviously, having something to fall back on [was big]. Trust me, if I didn’t have that job opportunity, I wouldn’t have packed it in. I would’ve never been like, ‘Oh, I’m just going to give this up.’ I would’ve been the meathead that I was and continued to grind it out, probably fighting until I was 40 and then been in a wheelchair because I couldn’t move. 

It was definitely a blessing in disguise, because I found myself, I feel. I discovered a lot of things I never knew, and I’ve got my health. I look at all these other guys that I used to play against, fighters, and all these CTE issues. [Stephen Peat, for example] forgets things. He burnt down his house last summer. He had a blowtorch going in his garage and just forgot. There was just a story in the New York Times about him.

This is what a lot of these guys are going through: the post-traumatic and concussion stress; the lack or loss of identity; addiction, whether it’s alcohol or opiate; psychological depression; all kinds of issues. 

I feel like the transition from being an athlete to a former athlete has to be difficult for most guys.

Exactly. Because that’s your identity your whole life, and then you’re suddenly a nobody; you’re working nine-to-five; you’re just a Regular Joe; you’re not up on a pedestal anymore. 

No one knows who you are. No one cares. No one gives a damn anymore. They’re not paying to see you play anymore. They don’t care. Unless you’re, like, a legend and can live off what you’ve done in the past. But most guys haven’t really accomplished that. There’s a lot of guys who have accomplished a whole bunch, but it still fades. 

Just to have an extended pro career is a massive accomplishment. It’s like I tell the [Phantoms players] all the time, the easy part of this process is making it to the NHL and playing one game. The hard part is being consistent enough that they’re going to keep you there, and keep you there, and keep you there until you’ve earned a spot and they send someone else down or trade someone. It’s easy to go there and have one or two good games, but can you do that for 10 games or 20 games or 80 games?

"But that’s who I was. It was the mentality of being so fearless that you think, 'No one is going to stop me.' I’ll fight anybody, I don’t give a s**t."

Was coaching something you always wanted to do, or at least something you expressed interest in while with the Flyers? How did that offer from Holmgren come about?

Not really, no. I never really had that conversation with him. But, I guess, just having a personal relationship with him. He was my boss, but there was also a mutual respect there. He was extremely loyal. The Flyers were extremely loyal to me, and I felt that I was just doing the same in return. But I think he knew me well enough to know — and I knew in my heart — just who I am. I’m a teacher. I’m a coach. I’m a healer. I mean, I love just offering information and trying to help people. 

Whether it’s sports or whatever, I think my story can help these young guys. I was never drafted. I was basically a walk-on with the Phantoms and a walk-on with the Flyers. And now to be in the minor leagues, helping and developing players, it’s cool. I was basically a player that the Phantoms technically developed. 

I tell people all the time, coaching is more managing personalities and characters than it is actual coaching. You’ve got all these guys who come from different backgrounds, they’re in different positions on the depth chart, at different stages of their career, different views of themselves or where they stand. It’s a lot of diffusing egos and bringing people back down to earth. I’m like, ‘You guys haven’t accomplished anything. So don’t think you’re bigger than you are until you break through and make a name for yourself.’

Sticking to hockey, what do you think of the current crop of prospects in Lehigh Valley?

I think the last two drafts, since Hexy’s been here, have been really good. We’re finally, after this year, getting this constant flow of prospects. So this year, we had our first-rounder, Sam Morin, on [the Phantoms]. Tons of potential. Big, strong, powerful body. And he’s wired for hockey. His mentality, his aggressiveness, his character. He’ll find his way.

And then at the end of the season we had Travis Sanheim — and Kubel [Nicolas Aube-Kubel] — come in and they’ll be with us next year, unless they make the Flyers. And then they could always get called up at some point, like Ghost [Shayne Gostisbehere] this past year.

What did you think of his season? That had to be fun to watch. At least it was for us.

So we had Ghost [in Lehigh Valley] last year for about 10 games before he blew out his ACL. And then he played in like 20 games this year before he got called up, and it was supposed to be just a temporary call up. But that goes back to what I was saying earlier. He got called, but he knew at the time it was just temporary while Mark Streit was out and then he was going to come back down. It was never really said, but everyone kind of knew it. 

But he played so well, they couldn’t send him back down. They had to keep him. So I think, after that, they wound up trading Luke Schenn to open up a spot. So he earned his keeps. He could’ve played well for a couple games here and there and they might have said, ‘Well, he’s not consistent enough yet, let’s send him back down.’ But he was so consistent, boom, NHL player. If he keeps that consistency up, he’ll play another 20 years if he stays durable.

He’s a guy that’s got high-end skill, high-end ability. The only thing that’s going to stop him from breaking records and being unbelievably great would be his physical body breaking down. So the key is staying physically and mentally healthy. 

He was certainly a pleasant surprise this season. People were high on him, but even the most optimistic fans had to be somewhat shocked to see so much from him so early in his career.

Oh, man. Big time. He single-handedly turned that team around. The power play, his energy, everything. It was awesome to see.

Given that the Flyers seem to be headed towards a youth movement with all these promising prospects and Hextall’s desire to draft and develop talent, do you think having a guy like Dave Hakstol, coming from the college game, is extra beneficial? Especially given what you said about how coaching at the pro level is more about managing personalities?

Oh, for sure. You’ve got to keep your superstars going at an optimum level and still get production from your fourth line and the guys that don’t play. It’s not about teaching skill, it’s about managing characters and personalities.

And I think, from the little I know about Dave — I went and worked with him for five or six days at training camp last year, and the one thing that stuck out at me was how he communicated. He just explained something so simply and clear, there wasn’t any side angle or anything else to what he was saying, like there are with some coaches. It was just so clear and direct. If the communication isn’t great, like with some coaches I’ve known or heard, a player doesn’t know where he stands. If you explain to him in a non-negative way that this is where you are and if you want to not only be here, but also make the playoffs and be a really good team, you’re going to have to fill this role. 

So you explain the process in a more human fashion as opposed to the old school mentality of coaching that’s just screaming, “Play harder!”

It has to be nice working with some of these young guys, especially given your career path. 

So my first year [with the Phantoms] was 2004-05, the lockout. Not the last one, but the one before that. I signed four, 25-game PTOs, which is a tryout agreement. Basically, the whole year was a tryout, and we won the Calder Cup. From there, I signed an NHL deal, but I spent two more years in the minors and basically just worked my way up and earned a spot with the Flyers. Never drafted or anything like that.

Were there parts during that process where you thought this might be it, time to start looking for a different career?

I was just so driven. With the whole ‘Meatball’ thing, it was kind of like, you live by the sword, you die by the sword. It was kind of my alter-ego and was also probably my downfall. I probably lived just as hard off the ice as I played on the ice. But that’s who I was. It was the mentality of being so fearless that you think, 'No one is going to stop me.' I’ll fight anybody, I don’t give a s**t. That type of mentality. I think that fearless attitude wouldn’t let me believe I wasn’t going to make it. 

But eventually, reality kicks in and nature kicks in and you can’t go that hard all the time without something — something’s got to give, whether it’s physically, mentally, emotionally. 

I mean, just the hype of fighting. I don’t know how many people have really been in a fight. But I was fighting 30-35 times per year. It’s not very natural. And especially in a sport like hockey, even if you don’t fight that night — I’ve never been to war but — I have to imagine that feeling of anxiety where you know something could happen at any time. Like, say I’m playing against Donald Brashear, and I’ve fought him a couple times already. Maybe tonight, I’m not going to fight him, but God knows, one little thing happens on the ice, I have to fight. So I have to be mentally prepared for Donald Brashear. So you don’t go into those games lightly, like you’re just going to take the night off. It’s like this fight or flight mentality. And I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to fight.

It’s [messed up]. So I always tell people that playing the role of enforcer was more mentally draining and exhausting than the physical part. Honestly. I mean, you’re constantly in the fight mode, whether you fight or not.

Was that hard to shut off?

Yeah, because I’m so amped up to fight and play the game, and now you’ve got to go to sleep a couple of hours later. It’s not that easy. And not only that, then you’re thinking about tomorrow’s game and tomorrow’s fight. So your mind never really rests. 

So, anxiety, I guess that’s the best word for it. You’re in a constant state of anxiety and high stress.

And does it ever go away?

You’re so trained to be in that fight mode that it’s there until you can really remove yourself from the things that cause it. And that’s where I’ve been for the last five years. Now I can just relax and breathe and take care of myself and spending time with my wife and daughter. It infects your mind and your psyche a lot more than people think it does. Because it’s not natural to go to war, it’s not natural to fight. It’s really not. 

So, combining that kind of mental anxiety and the obvious physical pain from fighting for a living, is medical cannabis something you’ve thought about using — like, getting a prescription  especially now that it’s been legalized in Pennsylvania?

For sure. Like I said earlier, I think that no matter who you are on this planet, in this state, in this country, I think it’s a fundamental right to have access to it. I don’t think the health board or the state or the government in any country or anywhere needs to be playing God and saying who can and can’t use it, whose pain is or isn’t great enough to have access to this plant. Or whose sleep condition is or isn’t bad enough to use it.

And that has more to do with the fact that it’s a natural plant?

"Most people have probably lived their whole lives with it being illegal. And how many of them have had some sort of suffering in their lives when that cannabis could have helped them?"

I think it should be treated like growing vegetables. We’re all able to grow our own tomatoes and have our own vegetable gardens out back. Most people don’t, mainly because they’re too damn lazy. It takes work. You can’t just throw down a couple hemp or cannabis seeds into the ground and expect this huge, nice grow-op to flourish. It requires some sort of understanding about life, the fundamentals of nutrients and feeding plants and how they grow. And that’s like the human body. We’re so disconnected. So if that were even a possibility, most people wouldn’t do it. 

I can make my own wine and my own beer in my house — I don’t do it, and most people don’t do it because it’s too much work. They’d rather just go to the store and buy it. People should at least have the option to [grow it] if they want. Treat it like that. It could very well be in the same backyard as a tomato. Why not? If I want to garden that, grow that, for my own health and well-being, why not? Right beside my basil and whatnot. Why the hell not? Even if they structured it where you could only have two or three plants. It’s a human right. Just let them have it. Most people won’t even use it or take that right, but at least give it to them.

So going back to your question, I think that everyone should have the ability no matter how much or how little pain they’re in. I guess if it crosses that line, it becomes recreational. But you can come home and have a glass of wine or a beer — you can have 10 glasses of wine or 20 beers. You could drive through McDonald’s drive-thru and grab 10 Big Macs and crush them all and wash it down with 200 grams of sugar, but that’s not controlled or governed. And you want to talk about effect on health?

So if you want to talk about substance vs. substances — you can abuse any substance on the planet. Even Tylenol. And we’re not about to outlaw that.

We just need to normalize it. And make it so normal that it’s just like going to the grocery store and buying lettuce or whatever else. 

But we’ve complicated it.

Right. There’s still very much a stigma around cannabis and, by association, hemp. What do you think needs to happen in order to bring it out of the shadows and give it, I guess, a better approval rating?

I think education is certainly No. 1. There needs to be more research, because everyone craves, in the name of science, studies and more studies. As long as it’s not pseudo-science and it’s actual, unbiased, un-big-pharma-funded-type science that’s actually factual, I’m all for it. And that’s what needs to happen. Unfortunately, we live in a world where most science and everything in society that we live our lives based on is fraudulent and pseudo-science

Again, it’s finding the truth. And it’s taken us 80 years for us to actually convince the government to change it’s stance on prohibition of cannabis. It’s taken 80 years of guys standing in the streets and trying to change people’s minds. That’s a long time. Most people have probably lived their whole lives with it being illegal. And how many of them have had some sort of suffering in their lives when that cannabis could have helped them?

Imagine a 70-year-old. ‘Wait, I’ve been living 70 years and been told that cannabis is a devil’s weed, and now I’m being told it’s medicine? So I’ve suffered for 30 of those 70 years and been stuck on pills?” Like, if you’ve lived that long and then find that out, I’d be pissed off.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin