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Only the few that have had the privilege of sitting in the premium seats at the Air Canada Centre for a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game would have been treated to an up-close-and-personal view of the fluorescent green (in honour of the colours of the minor hockey team he played for in Brick, New Jersey) shine that exuberates from the mouthguard of left-winger James van Riemsdyk.  delightfully hanging just off the edge of his mouth. In the National Hockey League (NHL), it is not mandatory to wear a mouthguard, yet about 90 per cent of players do wear them.

Crossing the divide between professional sports in North America that involve oral protection, a point-guard for the Golden State Warriors in the National Basketball Association (NBA) has garnered much attention for the antics he displays with his guard. Steph Curry infamously chews his mouthguard while on the bench, when taking a free throw, sometimes even while jogging up and down the hardwood. Curry has essentially taken mouthguard chewing to a whole other level. In 2013, he signed an endorsement deal to wear “MoGo” mouthguards that are flavoured with various tastes ranging from bubblegum to fruit punch.

This action of munching and chomping one’s molars onto that faithful mouthguard has become a trend in the NBA, sparsely in the NHL, but is most prevalent at the youth level. Kids who grow up watching those mouthguards dangle on the lips of their idols want to recreate that on the ice or court. But is this a health risk?

As is with all thinking in sports-related injuries, the first thought is does this lead to concussions? The short and long answer is no. Mouthguards have been around since the nineteenth century and the models used today in the NHL are pretty much comparable to the exact same types used over six decades ago following the Second World War.

Dr. Tom Long, team dentist for the Carolina Hurricanes, warns that, “teeth are not supposed to touch. And when your teeth come together, when you get hit in the chin, bad things happen.”

Originally designed for boxers, the role of a mouthguard became multivalent as various sports became more physical, more violent, and  more dangerous. Anytime there is risk of injury, the best option is to have a properly-fitting mouthguard lodged in between your upper palate and lower jaw.

There is a right time and a wrong time to chew a mouthguard. Research and testimonials have shown that the repetitive and robotic motion can have positive effects on the psyche of an athlete. Dr. William Wiener, a sports psychologist from New York, has stated that, “there’s probably something very soothing about [chewing mouthguards]. It’s like an athletic way of twiddling your thumbs.” Steph Curry notes that he “just chews on it like crazy. It … calms me down, especially when I’m at the free throw line, so I can get into my rhythm.”

So while chewing the mouthguard can be a healthy stress relief technique for moments like taking a free thrown or sitting in the penalty box, in the action, it can make oneself vulnerable to serious injury. The act can be viewed as akin to wearing a helmet but not doing up the straps. It does little for the actual safety of a player if the equipment is used improperly. It can be exhilarating to rush down the ice on a breakaway with the goalie’s terrified eyes staring at the piece of chewy material sticking out from your mouth, but it is not as fun to go back to the locker room and have your trainer pull out five teeth and stick in cotton.

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