259,200 minutes for smuggling

At the Canada-U.S. border, skates and pads aren't the only things hauled in hockey bags

Updated: May 20, 2011, 2:45 PM ET
By Luke Cyphers | ESPN The Magazine

Hockey bag drug bustAnthony Suau for ESPN The MagazinePolice at the border use trained dogs to search dozens of hockey bags each day for illegal drugs.

Note: This story appears in the May 30th issue of ESPN The Magazine.

If you're a hockey player pulled over by the cops near the Canada-U.S. border and they ask to search your equipment bag, remain calm. The officers don't want to pry your skates from your cold, dead hands. They're just making sure you're not a drug mule.

For years, hockey equipment bags have been the luggage of choice for the sophisticated criminal networks that smuggle Canadian marijuana into the U.S. Pot shipments of 100 pounds at a time are "a daily event" in New York's North Country, says Franklin County district attorney Derek Champagne, who estimates that $1 billion worth of weed crosses the border into his remote jurisdiction every year. "The vast, vast majority of the shipments are in hockey bags."

Which means that every now and again, legit pucksters deal with an extra blue line -- the thin blue line that is law enforcement. "We've had times when we've opened bags, and they've had hockey equipment, absolutely," Champagne says. "We've seen a bag transferred at a fast food joint, and it's just some kid getting picked up for a bantam or midget game, and he was catching a ride. That's the thing: Especially in winter, it's not unusual to see people traveling with large hockey bags."

Alas, a great number of those bags belong to people with no connection to hockey, and they're stuffed full of potent hydroponic Canadian pot, a commodity in high demand in the States. Growers up north cultivate most of their marijuana indoors under 24/7 grow lamps and high-tech hydroponic irrigation systems. "They can take it from a seed to full bud in 28 days," says Mike Fleury, who's been busting drug dealers for years as an officer with the Malone, N.Y., police department and recently as an investigator in Champagne's office.

The buds are vacuum-packed into plastic baggies, and the hockey bags take it from there. At the task force's discrete office, Fleury opens a storage closet to reveal two standard hockey bags full of Ziplocs, whose plastic tightly girds the one-pound pot parcels. Like most of the bags that runners use, those in Fleury's closet are generic and black, with only a "Made in China" tag indicating provenance. But occasionally, say Fleury's fellow investigators, they'll find brand name gear bags, with familiar Easton, Warrior or CCM logos on them.

In either case, hockey duffels are perfect for smuggling. Forty to 60 Ziplocs of weed fit easily into a hockey duffel, which is strong enough to keep the green, leafy substance from being crushed but light enough to transfer easily at drop-off points. Even better, two hockey bags, or one 100-pound shipment, pack smartly into the trunk of the rental sedans smugglers prefer.

One U.S. federal source says investigators know of a Canadian drug warehouse with hundreds of hockey bags at the ready. Once packed, the bags often go through Saint Regis Mohawk reservation lands that straddle the Canada-U.S. border, a smuggler's paradise. Seven roads crisscross the border on the Native American land, with no border checks. U.S. cops are not allowed to arrest anyone on the Canadian side, or even give chase, and some members of the Mohawk tribe bristle at U.S. and Canadian officers on their lands. Meanwhile, the St. Lawrence River, which cuts through the reservation near the border, offers easy passage for drug runners driving or snowmobiling across the ice in winter and using speedboats the rest of the year. Although the reservation is lightly populated, plenty of auto traffic shields couriers. One convicted smuggler even slung seven pot-filled hockey bags onto an ATV and led agents on a chase through the woods before being shot and captured in 2008.

The large bags yield big money. A 100-pound load has a street value of about $500,000 in New York City, which helps explain why a mule who picks up a load at the border in northern New York can make $50 a pound for a four-hour drive to Albany; that's $5,000 for two hockey bags -- enough to purchase 5,000 hockey pucks on or one Canadiens season ticket in the Red section, provided you make it through the waiting list. It's a tempting trip for young adults, who are among the most common couriers. But last year, the feds indicted a 68-year-old former Mohawk chief for allegedly moving 95 pounds of pot in two hockey bags; in a separate case, a 57-year-old former Elks Lodge exalted ruler from Malone was arrested after parking a car 50 miles from the border and walking away from two hockey bags holding 119 pounds of pot.

With so much money available, anyone, including pro athletes, can fall prey to the smuggling temptation. Last year, a Boston-based Russian émigré named Andrey Nevsky, who'd posted a 7-0 record as a professional middleweight boxer, was convicted on a conspiracy charge as part of a multimillion-dollar international pot ring. The feds said Nevsky worked as a blocker, driving at the front of a small dope caravan headed north and south on New York's I-87, watching for police and distracting them from the cars carrying pot or drug money.

And law-enforcement officials still talk about the case of Patrick Cote, who was sentenced to $5,000 in fines, 180 days in jail and deported to Canada for having 30 pounds of pot in his trunk in 2002. A second-round NHL draft pick, Cote played an enforcer role in a journeyman career with the Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators and Edmonton Oilers, amassing 377 penalty minutes in 105 career games from 1995 to 2001. Around 3 a.m. on May 17, 2002, police clocked Cote's 2001 Audi doing 65 mph in a 30 mph zone through the Village of Malone. They pulled him over a block and a half from the Franklin County courthouse and later asked to search the trunk of his car. There were no hockey bags, but the cops spotted a pair of boxes and asked what they contained. "It's weed," Cote told them.

About to be sent to the penalty box, the tough guy started crying. This time he could blame it on inferior equipment.

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.