Article by Sam Riches, Growth Op
Ryan Vandenbussche wasn’t supposed to make it to the Ontario Hockey League, let alone the NHL.
The soft-spoken, undersized winger wasn’t drafted into the OHL until the 14th round, when the Cornwall Royals took a chance on him. Players selected that late rarely make it past training camp, but Vandenbussche wasn’t like most players. He knew if he could find a way to stand out to Marc Crawford, the Royals’ head coach, he had a shot at making the final roster. He just needed to make an impact first.
When Owen Nolan came chugging across the blue line during a Royals’ scrimmage, Vandenbussche knew he had his moment. Unlike Vandenbussche, Nolan was a high profile player, and at the beginning of a professional career that would peak with multiple NHL All-Star appearances. Vandenbussche blew up the burly forward with a clean hit — a check so ferocious that it gave Nolan a concussion, delaying his NHL debut. Suddenly, Vandenbussche’s role with the Royals was clear; the team had their new enforcer.
“I wasn’t supposed to make the team,” Vandenbussche tells The GrowthOp. “But through my style of play, Marc Crawford saw something that he liked and he kept me. And that’s kind of how it all evolved.”
Vandenbussche became a fan favourite in Cornwall. He was never the biggest guy on the ice, but he played like he was; forechecking, crashing the net, digging the puck out of the corners, and never backing down from a fight. That grit would take him to the NHL, where he played for Chicago, New York and Pittsburgh and alongside some of the game’s greats like Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux. He played 310 games in the NHL, fought over 100 times, and registered more than 700 penalty minutes.
He also developed a dependency on the painkillers and opioids that, during that era of hockey, were doled out without hesitation.
He dabbled in cannabis during his playing days, he says, but didn’t consume it regularly. It was illegal and he was a fringe player. He didn’t want to give a team any reason to cut him loose.
“The first thing they do at training camp is take your blood and I didn’t want to give them any excuses so I was pretty good at staying away from it,” he says. “But during the season, the odd time it would come around and I would experiment and use it as a recreational thing. I liked the way it felt, but it was hard for us because of the fact that it was in your system for 30 days. And it was very stigmatized.”
He retired from hockey in 2007, having spent much of his career fighting heavyweights. His playing days resulted in 12 surgeries and north of 20 concussions. In retirement, he started to read up on the medical benefits of cannabis and in 2010, he received a licence to grow it for medical purposes. By 2011, he was no longer reliant on opioids and had transitioned to plant-based medicine. It was a life-changing moment, he says.
“It moved me to go out and purchase a 64-acre farm and grow my own business. And that’s where we are today.”
From hockey to hemp
Just north of Port Dover, in a southwest Ontario region known as the province’s garden for its vegetable production, he tends to hemp. He is the president of New Leaf Canada Inc., a medical cannabis company, which completed its first harvest in 2019 — a one-acre experiment, that yielded nearly 3,000 pounds of hemp biomass.
He’s also working with a collective of farmers in the area to learn from their expertise and partner on grows. Last year, between 10 farmers, they grew a combined 50 acres of hemp. This year, they are aiming for somewhere between 200 and 250 acres. “That’s our goal for the 2020 season,” he says.
Like most of the industry, Vandenbussche has experienced some growing pains. It’s taken years to navigate all of the licensing regulations with Health Canada, but he’s hopeful his company will have a processing licence by next fall. If not, they’ll sell the biomass to licensed companies that can use it to extract CBD, CBG and terpenes.
Vandenbussche sees a parallel between the team of farmers he’s working with now and former NHL teammates like Sidney Crosby, renowned for his tireless approach to the game.
“He was such a workhorse that his pregame warm-up was tougher than my postgame workout,” Vandenbussche says. “He played 27 minutes a game and I was lucky to get seven, so it’s just a work ethic that is second to none. And it’s no different with these farmers that we’re dealing with. They just don’t stop. They’re laser-focused on what they want to accomplish.”
A natural alternative
Vandenbussche also leans on the support and knowledge of some fellow ex-NHL enforcers who are working in the cannabis industry, like Daniel Carcillo and Riley Cote. Many former high-impact athletes are working in the sector because cannabis is a natural alternative to painkillers, he says.
His teammate for seven years and his roommate for four years on the road, Bob Probert, was one of the toughest players to ever take to NHL ice. He was also known for his problems with drugs off of the ice, which included a three-month jail sentence after he crossed the Windsor-Detroit border with 14 grams of cocaine in his underwear. He died suddenly in 2010, of a heart attack.
“People that are living in that world know the dangers of drugs,” Vandenbussche says. “The synthetic opioids are deadly because they work so well but they’re not very sustainable. If you do them for a long period of time, you’re going to become an addict, and if you can’t shake the habit it’s going to take you down eventually. It’s just a matter of time.”
Vandenbussche believes that, had it been allowed in his playing days, CBD would have aided himself and other enforcers of his ilk.
“It’s a natural anti-inflammatory,” he says. “It’s also a neuroprotectant for your brain. So I think everyone in the league should be taking CBD.”
That passion led him to Athletes for Care, a collective of former athletes that raises awareness about the health challenges faced by athletes and advocates for plant-based medicines and alternative forms of therapy. Cote is one of the founding members of the organization, and Vandenbussche’s company was one of the first Canadian sponsors.