What do Hockey Players Sniff on the Bench? Smelling Salts

by Simon | Updated On: June 1st, 2022
hockey smelling salts

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Ever wondered, “what exactly are those players sniffing on the bench? Are they doing drugs or what? It’s got to be legal… right? (It sure is).

Those players are sniffing ammonia laced smelling salts. The theory is that they give increased alertness, energy levels, extra strength, speed, open nasal passages, elevated heart rate, increased brain activity and blood pressure.

Despite the initial discomfort of flared nostrils and watery eyes, proponents of smelling salts say it boost confidence and enhance performances. Detractors say its nothing but a gimmick. One thing for sure, the smell is unmistakeably eye-watering

Smelling Salts Ritual

Hockey is one of the most intense sports in the world. The rink is lit up by the dizzying moves of skillful players on ice, the flying puck dares your eyes to keep track and bodies lose control and slam against boards.

But before all this, there is an unusual stillness in which a ritual of some sorts ensues, players in total concentration on the bench stretch out their hands for small packets of an unknown substance. In the split seconds after they sniff this substance, their faces contort in the most amusing ways and the silence is broken, the once quiet band of players are ready for war.

NHL hockey players doing smelling salts | compilation

What exactly are smelling salts 

Smelling salts are definitely 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.

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They jerk you awake rudely, irritate your eyes and nostrils and obviously do not smell nice.  Why then do hockey players brave these less than pleasant effects from one game to the next?

The answer is in the composition and effect of smelling salts which contain the active compound, ammonia carbonate, and is uniquely designed to stimulate the body’s nervous system, forcing you to focus on your present environment.

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

Beer Leaguers Try Smelling Salts

How do they work 

Smelling salts at work produce some of the funniest scenes. As part of the pre-game ritual for many ice hockey teams, little packets of smelling salts are handed out by backroom staff.

Players crush these packets and wave it under their noses. The reaction is nearly instant with flared nostrils and watery eyes signaling that the smelling salts has kicked in.

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

Is there a science to it? 

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

Smelling salts trigger the body’s fight response and for a brief moment you feel a surge of adrenaline like you are being chased down the street by a dog or caught up in a street fight

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

How long does it last? 

Despite the lengthy list of benefits, smelling salts is no super human formula or serum. Whatever gains from its use fizzle out almost immediately with players admitting that the kick from a smelling salts session often wears out as soon as they leave 

Beyond the brief physical stimulation, players continue to liberally use smelling salts for the mental boost. The moments after a good sniff are less tense and allow for focus and belief that the team would have a great game and they would in turn produce spectacular individual performances.

Indeed, it appears that the placebo effect of smelling salts and the mere idea of what it stands for is what keeps countless hockey players using it rather than actual sustained physical benefits.

Why does this ritual continue?

Sniffing salts before a game has grown into something so symbolic and personal for many teams and players, a key part of the fabric that holds the team.

For trainers and coaches, it is a tradition that is supposed to bring good luck and create positive vibes ahead of games. For some players, it has become part of a pre-game ritual which must not be tweaked to avoid a string of bad results.

This superstition is something we can all relate to in sports and our daily lives. From players eating a particular meal before a big game, putting on gear in a specific order to you carrying certain memorabilia ahead of an interview and walking a particular route for good luck.

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The list is endless and what all these activities share is a lack of scientific knowledge or backing but we still do them for the feel good factor and the promise of luck. You are absolutely not going to throw away that lucky coin because there is no empirical evidence to support its use, well neither will hockey players stop sniffing smelling salts.

Where do you draw the line? 

Prior to 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 fainted with its characteristic smell helping it to be a very effective method.

However, it’s use in such situations has been reduced and is completely avoided in hockey and other sports with doctors acknowledging that a sudden jerk of the head 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 field, it continues to thrive on the bench, bringing the much needed boost to the beautiful game of hockey.

Where to get them

Smelling salts like the hockey players use can be easily found pretty inexpensively on Amazon.

hockey smelling salts
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While hockey is often decided by split-second decisions, the mental alertness and increased physical stimulation that smelling salts bring is welcomed by players.

The jury is still out on whether these salts truly hold any enhancing abilities but for those who light up our screens with live hockey action, it is a game changer and for some reason, we choose to believe them.

Simon, the founder of Brave Stick Hockey, started playing hockey in 2003. He launched this website in 2018 to help new hockey players and fans learn more about the game and have more fun while learning.

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