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On heels of Canada legalizing marijuana, Brooks Orpik, Capitals keeping an open mind

Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin (71) and Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik (44) chase the puck in overtime at PPG PAINTS Arena. The Penguins won 7-6 in overtime. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

VANCOUVER, B.C. - Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik thinks that if it were five years ago, he would have shaken his head and walked the other way at the discussion of legal cannabis use. He would have paid no attention to it, most likely not giving it a second thought in analyzing methods for healing and pain.

But five weeks ago, Orpik found himself investing money in Aurora Cannabis, a producer and distributor of the plant based in Edmonton, Alberta. And the 38-year-old's outlook has changed.

On Wednesday, Oct. 17, Canada fully decriminalized recreational cannabis, becoming the largest country in the world to do so. Marijuana is also now legal in 12 other NHL cities, including seven in Canada. With the laws changing in other countries and more in the United States, the stigma behind the use of marijuana among NHL players is evolving as well.

"I think definitely the league and society as a whole are looking at it in a much different light," Orpik said.

The NHL's stance on cannabis use is the most lenient of all professional North American sports leagues. The NHL does test for marijuana, but even if a significantly high amount of the drug is found in the testing, it does not suspend players. Instead, NHLers are referred to a behavioral heath program doctor.

Meanwhile, the NFL and the NBA can suspend players after multiple cannabis infractions and the MLB can issue fines. Marijuana is also banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

The NHL recently sent Washington - as well as all the other teams in the league -- a memo meant to educate players and team officials on pot legalization and safety. Even with the legalization in Canada, there has been no substantive change to the league's policy.

"They were worried about guys misinterpreting the law, you know," Orpik said of the memo. "I think they were nervous about guys bringing it across the border because it's still illegal and the big CBD oil without the THC in it is getting big, especially among athletes for pain management and sleep and stuff."

CBD, or cannabidiol, is a cannabis extract. Unlike THC, another marijuana compound, it does not make you high or intoxicated.

After the Capitals practice Sunday ahead of their game against the Vancouver Canucks on Monday night, forward Brett Connolly said the team has yet to have a formal meeting on Canada's legalization, but since it's new, that conversation likely would come organically.

"I think just in everyday life I think it has kind of changed," Connolly said of the overall view of cannabis. "It is one of those things where, if you are using it properly, I think it could maybe benefit and I think there are studies for that. It will be interesting to see where that goes with that whole situation."

Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid told the Associated Press last week that people would be "stupid not to at least look into it" and that if all the boxes were checked in terms of safety and legality, that he would "maybe hear them out."

"When your body's sore like it is sometimes, you don't want to be taking pain stuff and taking Advil all the time," McDavid told AP. "There's obviously better ways to do it . . . You're seeing a lot of smart guys look into it. You're seeing a lot of really smart doctors look into it."

Orpik started to pay attention to how marijuana might be used when he saw a couple of former NHLers pushing the benefits of CBD oil and marijuana in general for sleep recovery and pain relief. He said it's his personal belief that more legalization is coming due to studies and doctors who have unearthed the medical benefits. According to Orpik, multiple players on the Capitals have also invested some money the way he has.

"People would mention marijuana in the same sentence as cocaine and heroin," Orpik said. " . . . Especially the CBD oil, which takes all the THC out . . . That is the big issue for me. If that can help guys that are addicted to opioids or maybe going down that avenue, then I am all for it."

 This article was written by Samantha Pell, a reporter for The Washington Post.