Tom Sestito, a former Flyers left winger and enforcer, supports Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner’s claim that NHL teams inappropriately provided prescription drugs to players.
“It is true that it was easy to get, and there were a lot of guys doing it,” he said in a phone conversation with The Inquirer recently.
Sestito, 34, said he saw no drugs handed out inappropriately when he played for parts of two seasons with the Flyers in 2011-12 and 2012-13. He spent parts of nine seasons in the NHL (154 games), also playing for Columbus, Vancouver, and Pittsburgh before retiring with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies following the 2018-19 season.
He said some of his teams were loose about handing out prescription drugs; he would not name the teams.
Sestito said he supported Lehner on Twitter because he wanted to make young players aware that clubs might readily make drugs available and that they should avoid them unless it is totally necessary.
“You can say they’re adults, but some of these guys are 18, 19 years old, and I just want those guys to be aware of what you’re putting into your body because, in the heat of the moment, you’re going to take whatever they tell you to take,” he said.
“And I’m sure the guys will say, ‘Oh, we know the risk. We know the risk.’ But when you get to be older and you’re out of the game, you’re going to have issues. You’re not going to have the health insurance you once had and you’re not going to have the doctors at your disposal to figure out what the hell is going on.”
Sestito said “there are a lot of things you don’t think of when you’re trying to get your place in the NHL and trying to make a name for yourself. But there’s a lot more to think about.”
He said during his playing days, he became dependent on Toradol, an anti-inflammatory drug that is a painkiller, and Ambien, which is used to treat insomnia.
He said he is fairly healthy now but “has some problems from concussions” that were suffered when he played. “And that’s the thing with Toradol. You can take that and it clears your mind and you don’t have some of the effects that you normally feel. I get migraines a lot [now].”
Sestito said he is now off the drugs.
“I’m not saying it’s anybody’s fault but my own,” he said of his onetime dependency, “but if I was a young kid, I would tell myself not to take that [stuff] again. I want to reiterate that it was my own problem. I don’t want people to think I’m blaming my doctors or my teams. It was my own issue.
“It was easy to get and it was an easier way to sleep, but if you learn how to sleep on your own after games and not take this crap, or not take the Toradol before games, it would have been better for me in the long run.”
Sestito said from what he has been told by the NHL Players’ Association, teams have made it more difficult to get pills since he left the sport. “There are more mandates in the way they monitor it,” he said.
“The Ambien wasn’t the issue I was really worried about. It was more the Toradol,” he said. “… I couldn’t raise my arms above my head for a game, and then you take Toradol and you’re doing jumping jacks in 20 minutes. You know there’s going to be some sort of side effect, but at that point, if I don’t take it, I was being sent down [to the minors]. I didn’t have a job cemented in the NHL.”
“I don’t want to go too deep into it, but I was given Toradol for a few games, and then they just ended up giving me a whole bottle and I was taking it before every game,” Sestito said later.
He said former NHL player Ryan Kesler had a similar experience with Toradol and had “some serious problems” with it, which, Kesler said in a Canadian sports documentary last year, led to chronic digestive problems and ulcerative colitis.
Sestito said he was taking Ambien for close to 2½ years “for every single night. When I got to Pittsburgh [with the Penguins], they basically took everything away from me. They took the Toradol bottle, they didn’t prescribe the Ambien. They wouldn’t give me anything.
“It was living hell for about six months or maybe close to a year, trying to learn how to sleep again. I still to this day thank the doctor in Pittsburgh for helping me get off it.”
Taking painkillers for injuries appears to have played a part in the death of former NHL player Jimmy Hayes, whose younger brother, Kevin, is a member of the Flyers.
Jimmy Hayes, 31, died Aug. 23. He had cocaine and fentanyl in his system, according to the toxicology report, his widow, Kristen, told the Boston Globe.
Hayes’ father, Kevin Sr., said Jimmy Hayes told him he started taking the painkillers because of an injury and he became “hooked.”
Lehner recently implicated Flyers coach Alain Vigneault and NHL teams for handing out prescription drugs without prescriptions. The next day, the goalie clarified that he was only referring to the way Vigneault treated his players and that it was unacceptable. He never played for Vigneault, whom he called a “dinosaur.”
Vigneault adamantly denied Lehner’s original accusation.
“As far as me pushing pills, I don’t need another income,” he said.
Sestito played for Vigneault for part of the 2012-13 season in Vancouver. Vigneault “never once pushed a pill on me,” Sestito said. “I don’t think he liked me as a player, and maybe that rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t see eye-to-eye with him as a coach, so we didn’t get along. But I have nothing bad to say about AV.”
He said he wishes teams “were a little stricter” in the way they dispensed drugs. “When I was playing, yeah, I was happy at the time I was getting it. It was just like going to Rite-Aid. It was pretty easy. I just wish it was a little stricter because of what I went through in Pittsburgh to try to sleep again.”
Sestito teaches a Learn to Skate program for youngsters in upstate New York, where he is active in the community and helps raise his two children, Killian, 5, and Cora, 3.
“I think I learn more from the little kids about skating than I can teach them,” he said with a chuckle.