TAMPA — Lightning captain Steven Stamkos doesn’t even try to describe the sensation that smelling salts produce.
“Why don’t you try one?” he offers. “I’ll get one for you right now.”
He darts out of the Lightning dressing room in his socks, not even bothering to take off his sweat-soaked practice pants. Moments later, he returns, grinning, with two white caplets the size of candy in his hands. He keeps one and hands over the other.
Crush the red plastic inside, he directs. Then, take a whiff.
That’s all it takes. Ammonia invades the nostrils, then floods a nasal cavity that feels more open than ever. The sinuses clear while the burning sensation produces a jolt of energy. It’s not as much a scent as it is a feeling.
An unforgettable feeling that multiple Lightning players welcome moments before every game. It’s a staple on the Lightning bench, mainly because of superstitions. All it takes is one sniff prior to a great game for a player to view smelling salts as important to game preparation as strapping on skates.
“I don’t know if there is any scientific data behind smelling salts and if it actually going to wake you up and give you more energy and all the stuff that is out there about them,” Stamkos said. “But I think for a lot of us, it is more a routine in terms of, ‘Okay, did I do this before last game? If I did, let’s do it again because things are going well.’ ”
Stamkos, an All-Star for the sixth time this season, certainly is not alone.
It’s go time for head athletic trainer Tom Mulligan every time the national anthem concludes. He reaches into the medical pouch on his hip to pull out caplets for anyone who wants one. Center Cedric Paquette almost always does. After Paquette signals to the trainer, Mulligan flings one in his direction. The center places the caplet in front of him on the blue top of the boards and smashes it with a fist in a hammer-like motion followed by a sniff.
The puck drops moments later.
It’s something Paquette never tried in juniors. He took his first sniff as an NHL player. And that’s all it took.
“It’s just a ritual I tried once and I played good,” Paquette said. “I just kept doing it.”
That’s how Alex Killorn started. He sniffs one before every game. Ondrej Palat also frequently takes part in the ritual. So do rookie Mathieu Joseph and veteran Ryan Callahan.
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It’s catching. Most Lightning players who integrate smelling salts into their pre-game routine start by watching others take part in the ritual, piquing their curiosity, Mulligan said.
The Lightning doesn’t push it on any players or make specific recommendations, though. Mulligan just has it ready in his medical pouch as he stands behind the bench.
The relationship trainers have with smelling salts has evolved. There was a time years ago when trainers used them for more drastic measures such as waking up unconscious players.
Phil Esposito, whose Hall of Fame career spanned from 1963-81, said smelling salts were all over the place. He didn’t partake in them as a pregame ritual, but a trainer gave him one once when he came to the bench wobbly after a hit on the ice.
“The medical field quickly learned that it’s not the smartest thing if a player is unconscious and they do smell that and they quickly jerk; you don’t know if they have a neck injury,” Mulligan said. “That is something we would definitely never use in that situation now.”
Some players avoid smelling salts completely.
Don’t expect defenseman Braydon Coburn to take a whiff before a game.
Coburn, who made his NHL debut in 2005, doesn’t like smelling salts, made up of 15 percent ammonia and 35 percent alcohol as the two main ingredients
But in the name of superstition, even Coburn once made an exception.
When he played with Mike Knuble on the Flyers, Coburn once caught a smelling salt that Knuble tossed over his head after using it. Coburn sniffed it, then played well. They repeated the ritual the rest of the season.
Unlike Coburn, Killorn has not stopped, even though he can’t justify the reason outside of habit.
“It probably doesn’t help your game at all,” he said. “It is maybe more of a mental thing.”
Yet the ritual persists.
Here’s one more to sniff around: In Mulligan’s 17 seasons with the Lightning, he has never seen more players sniff smelling salts before a game than on this team. It’s the same Lightning team that set a franchise record for points in the first half of the season.
Maybe, just maybe, that little white caplet’s impact is not so small after all.