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Rick Westhead

TSN Senior Correspondent

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Canadian cannabis company Canopy Growth is buying a majority 72 per cent stake of BioSteel Sports Nutrition Inc., a 10-year-old Toronto company that supplies hydration drinks, protein powders and other products to athletes and teams throughout the world of professional sports.

The deal paves the way for Canopy to begin offering CBD-infused sports drinks as soon as next year, Canopy Growth chief executive officer Mark Zekulin said in an interview with TSN on Tuesday.

With its purchase, Smiths Falls, Ont.-based Canopy obtains a company that has built a loyal consumer base, thanks largely to a high-performance sports drink that is endorsed by athletes like Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid, pro golfer Brooke Henderson and Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Zekulin declined to say how much Canopy paid for its majority stake of BioSteel. The takeover is expected to be announced later today. BioSteel will continue to exist as a brand after the deal closes.

“We already are the largest cannabis company,” Zekulin said. “We have the scale. We have CBD hemp growing in the United States and growing in Canada, but there will be lots of players coming in with CBD offerings, so the question for us is how do we differentiate what we are doing? The answer is [buying a majority stake in] a company like BioSteel. This is a company with an established, natural product that speaks for itself.”

CBD is a non-psychoactive extract which can be found in both the cannabis and hemp plant. It’s one of the most common compounds or cannabinoids but is non-intoxicating, unlike THC, the other most commonly found compound in the cannabis plant, which is an intoxicating property that produces a “high” when ingested.

Its supporters say CBD treats health-related problems including inflammation, pain, anxiety, insomnia, depression and post-traumatic stress.

BioSteel’s products were created by Matt Nichol, a former Toronto Maple Leafs strength and conditioning coach who struggled to find supplements that were certified drug-free after the NHL introduced a more rigorous drug-testing program in 2005. 

BioSteel was founded in 2009 by Nichol, sports marketer John Celenza, and Mike Cammalleri, a former NHL star who was then playing with the Calgary Flames.

Cammalleri, who retired from the NHL after playing the 2017-18 season with the Edmonton Oilers, becomes BioSteel’s co-chief executive with the sale.

He said he is on a mission to help the company develop a line of CBD products and that his own personal story is a testament to CBD’s healing powers.

With about 10 games remaining in his final NHL season, Cammalleri re-injured a disc in his upper back and went on a hunt for relief from the chronic pain. He wanted to avoid addictive opioids or other painkillers and so his younger Oilers teammates suggested he try cannabis. 

After a team doctor referred him to a local cannabis physician, Cammalleri was given a prescription for CBD.

“I wish I had found CBD way sooner in my career,” Cammalleri said in an interview on Tuesday. “The demands of playing in the NHL can be tough. It’s commonplace to see guys taking stimulants to play and then they need something else to get to bed and settle down at 2 or 3 a.m. I had one teammate who would take an oxycodone, a Vicodin and an Ambien, dropping all three into a beer and calling it ‘The Perfect Storm.’ I thought there had to be a healthier, more sustainable way. I believe now that CBD is that better way.”

Cammalleri said the use of CBD within the NHL is now widespread, although he declined to say how many players he thought are using the product.

“It’s commonplace now,” he said. “There’s no stigma. It’s not even a thing anymore.”

Canopy Growth last year signed an agreement with the NHL Alumni Association to pay for one or more studies of retired NHL players. The company and NHLAA want to understand whether cannabinoids might help wean former players off of opioids. The study is awaiting regulatory approval.