As an NHL hockey player, Ryan VandenBussche had the unique pleasure of being a teammate to four of the greatest hockey players in NHL history: Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier during his time as a New York Ranger, and Sydney Crosby and Mario Lemieux as a Pittsburgh Penguin. Those four legends combined to score a whopping 2,715 goals, but Ryan racked up huge numbers of his own in one category that few players would strive to match: injuries incurred as a result of playing the game.
During his 14 years as a professional hockey player, Ryan suffered over 20 concussions and endured no less than 12 surgeries, the price he paid for his role inflicting pain on others as one of the NHL’s fiercest enforcers. However, it was the ongoing treatments prescribed to deal with his own physical pain that ultimately lead Ryan down the path he’s on today – serving as a medical cannabis advocate as President and founder of his company, New Leaf Canada Inc, and founding sponsor for the newly established Canadian arm of Athletes for CARE (A4C).
Ryan’s evolution from hockey player to medical cannabis business owner was born of necessity. By the time he finally announced his retirement from the game he loved in 2007, Ryan left having played on 17 different teams in seven different leagues. He also brought with him an unexpected memento of his playing days: addiction to prescription painkillers. As was common practice across major league sports during the era, playing through pain was considered a badge of honour; in order to facilitate that warrior mentality, team trainers and doctors were quick to prescribe Ryan opiates to help him perform.
“The trainers and doctors were part of the team, and handing out a lot of opiates and anti-inflammatory medicines was just the way things were done,” said VandenBussche, a Simcoe, Ontario native originally drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs. “You’re young and dumb, and you get introduced to Vicodin and OxyContin and Percocet after a game. Then you go out for a couple of “pops” on top of it. Before you know, you’re dependant.”
In retirement, Ryan did his best to deal with both the physical challenges of his post-hockey addiction and the psychological challenges of transitioning into a normal life after a career as a professional athlete. He took up real estate sales with his wife, all the while struggling hard to kick his addiction and searching for effective medicinal alternatives to help cope with his chronic pain. That search ended in 2009, when Ryan was introduced to the pain-reducing benefits of the cannabidiol (CBD) found in medical cannabis.
“I was always aware of it, although I had always thought of it as a recreational drug. That was until I started doing research on it and discovering how effective it can be in treating pain, especially as an alternative to opioids. I eventually started using it, and by 2010 I had transitioned 100 percent off the opioids. I continue to use cannabis as an alternative medicine.”
Discovering the benefits of medical cannabis inspired Ryan to take the necessary steps required to secure his license to grow, and he soon began producing his own medicine on land shared with four other licensees. It was such a positive experience that Ryan decided to form his own company, and in 2017 he purchased 54 acres of farmland in Norfolk County, Ontario to launch New Leaf Canada Inc. Phase one plans for New Leaf include the imminent construction of a 31,500 square foot medical cannabis research and development facility, with eventual stage two plans including greenhouse production facilities. “We’re starting small and growing the company organically,” says VandenBussche. “Right now we’re gathering together a team of great people. Our goal is to continue our research while educating people on the benefits of cannabis versus opioids.”
In addition to his work with New Leaf Canada Inc, Ryan is teaming up as founding sponsor of the newly-established Canadian arm of Athletes for CAFRE (A4C). Founded by former pro athletes, A4C is an American non-profit organization that unites athletes as one voice to advocate for research, education and compassion when addressing important health issues. Through the exclusive sponsorship provided by New Leaf Canada Inc, Ryan and his team will bring the same passionate voice to supporting Athletes for CARE Canada in a joint effort to improve the health & wellness of millions of people dealing with a multitude of ailments.
With a focus on research and development, education programs and advocacy, Ryan will serve both organizations as a vocal proponent of using alternative pain medications for not only current and former athletes but for all individuals who could benefit directly from the use of medicinal cannabis. As an athlete who experienced first-hand the consequences of traditional treatments for pain, Ryan is excited to be on the leading edge of a new era in alternative medicines.
“Playing hockey was an amazing experience, and it opened a lot of doors for me. I was always a role player, but with New Leaf I have a new role to play. I’m in the healing and recovery game now, and the biggest winners will be the people we can help through our products.”