What do Hockey Players Sniff on the Bench? Smelling Salts

Posted on February 25, 2024 by Dan Kent
hockey smelling salts

Ever wondered, "What exactly are those players sniffing on the bench? Are they doing drugs? Is it even legal? Let's review smelling salts in the NHL and why players use them.

Why do NHL players sniff smelling salts?

The theory is that smelling salts increase alertness, energy levels, extra strength, speed, open nasal passages, elevated heart rate, increased brain activity and blood pressure.

What do smelling salts do for athletes?

Despite the initial discomfort of flared nostrils and watery eyes, proponents of smelling salts say it boosts confidence and enhances performance by inhaling ammonia—the body's reaction to inhaling the ammonia results in improved breathing.

Detractors, on the other hand, say it's nothing but a gimmick. One thing is for sure. The smell is unmistakeably eye-watering.

Where to buy smelling salts

Smelling salts the hockey players use can be easily found on Amazon here and are not very expensive, either.

Smelling salts

Are smelling salts illegal in hockey?

As of right now, smelling salts are still legal in hockey. However, that is not to say that this couldn't change. An example of a sport that used to allow smelling salts before banning them due to their misuse was boxing.

There is little medical evidence that salts improve performance. In boxing, they found the salts could amplify neck injuries and concussion by the body's natural reaction to want to pull away quickly from the smell of the salts.

What exactly are smelling salts 

Smelling salts contain the active compound ammonia carbonate. They are uniquely designed to stimulate the body's nervous system, forcing you to focus on your environment.

Available in various forms, from colorless to white crystalline, smelling salts have become part and parcel of the hockey culture.

Smelling salts are not your regular type of salt. Instead of being part of a process that creates a delightful aroma that keeps you drawing in deep breaths at intervals, unable to get enough, smelling salts have the exact opposite effect.

They jerk you awake rudely, irritate your eyes and nostrils and do not smell nice. They trigger somewhat of an adrenaline rush, one that is extremely short-lived.

How do you use smelling salts?

Players crush smelling salts and wave them under their noses. The reaction is nearly instant, with flared nostrils and watery eyes signalling that the smelling salts have kicked in.

This reaction is due to the strong smell, which triggers certain body functions and makes you instantly more alert.

As part of the pre-game ritual for many ice hockey teams, little packets of smelling salts are handed out by backroom staff.

Do smelling salts actually work?

Advocates for its use and famous hockey players swear by the magic of smelling salts. For them, it gives a buzz and a specific awareness that goes a long way in improving performances and boosting confidence.

Smelling salts trigger the body's fight or flight response, and you briefly feel a sudden release of adrenaline.

Increased energy levels come with extra strength, speed, open nasal passages, elevated heart rate, increased brain activity and blood pressure.

However, the improvement in athletic performance has not been proven.

Do smelling salts affect your health?

The overuse of smelling salts has the potential to damage the nasal passages. However, this would require excessive use. Currently, no evidence supports the fact that they affect your health negatively unless overused.

However, doctors have stated that you should be extra cautious if you have a breathing condition like asthma.

What are the negatives of smelling salts?

Suppose players overuse or over expose themselves to smelling salts. In that case, it can irritate the nostrils, eyes, and lungs, along with headaches. If you are going to use smelling salts, keep them a fair distance away from your nose when inhaling, and don't overuse them.

How long do smelling salts last after inhaling?

Whatever gains from smelling salts fizzle out almost immediately, with players admitting that the kick from a smelling salts session often wears out as soon as they stop. So despite the lengthy list of supposed benefits, smelling salts are no superhuman formula or serum.

Are smelling salts necessary?

Beyond the brief physical stimulation, players continue to use smelling salts for a mental boost. Many players say the moments after are less tense and allow the players to focus on the task. So although they are not necessary, many players do enjoy them.

Smelling salts have become a team tradition

Sniffing salts before a game has become symbolic and personal for many teams and players, a crucial part of the team's fabric.

For trainers and coaches, it is a tradition to bring good luck and create positive vibes ahead of games. For some players, it has become part of a pre-game ritual.

We can all relate to this superstition in sports and our daily lives, from players eating a particular meal before a big game, putting on the gear in a specific order to you carrying certain memorabilia ahead of an interview and walking a special route for good luck.

The list is endless, and all these activities lack scientific knowledge or backing, but we still do them for the feel-good factor and the promise of luck. You will not throw away that lucky coin because no empirical evidence supports its use. Well, neither will hockey players stop sniffing smelling salts.

Smelling salts as a treatment for injury

Before serving as a pre-game boost for hockey games, smelling salts already had a long history of being the go-to resource whenever a person faints with its characteristic smell helping it be a very effective method for reviving someone.

However, as mentioned earlier in the article, its use in such situations has been reduced. It is completely avoided in hockey and other sports, with doctors acknowledging that a sudden head jerk is not the best approach to a potential concussion.

While smelling salts appear to be a no-go area as a treatment option on the ice, it continues to thrive on the bench, bringing a much-needed boost to the beautiful game of hockey.


Because split-second decisions often decide hockey, the mental alertness and increased physical stimulation that smelling salts bring are welcomed by players.

The jury is still out on whether these salts indeed hold any real benefits. Still, some NHL players are convinced they are the secret to outperformance. 

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada, Stocktrades.ca.

Looking for more hockey content? Have a look at these articles