Rope-A-Dope: NHL Drug Testing Embarrassing

Jennie LuptakCorrespondent IApril 22, 2009

PITTSBURGH - APRIL 15:  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman addresses the media during game one of the 2009 Eastern Conference quarterfinals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers at Mellon Arena on April 15, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The National Hockey League does not have a doping problem. Just ask.

Everyone from Gary Bettman to the Columbus Blue Jackets locker room stands firmly behind the notion that the NHL is untouched by syringe and steroid. In fact, they are so confident that for five months of the year, not a single player can be subjected to an drug test.

Say what?

That's right—from the day the puck drops on the postseason to the opening of training camp, players are free from fear of drug testing. Article 47.5 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement covers testing procedures for performance enhancing substances. It reads:

“Every NHL Player…will be subject to up to two (2) no-notice tests during the period from the start of Training Camp through the end of the Regular Season.”

One might think it an oversight on the part of the League, a poorly-worded, inadvertent loophole.

It’s not.

The National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) had the clause written in to protect its players from “potential distraction” in the post-season, a notion with which Sidney Crosby agrees. In turn, the players are on honors system for five months of the year.

In the four years since the NHL/NHLPA policy has been enacted, only one player—former defenseman Sean Hill—has tested positive for banned substances.

Two years previous, Blue Jackets defenseman Brian Berard tested positive for anabolic steroids. He was issued a two-year ban from international competition, but the NHL took no action.

The test was administered by the United States Anti-Doping Agency in preparation for Olympic team suggestion, not the NHL, so there was no carry-over.

One  player caught in four years of active policy is an almost spotless record. It’s still a chicken-or-egg question: is the record clean because players aren’t cheating or because the system is insufficient?

According to Rick Nash, it’s the former. “I’d say we’re that clean,” the Blue Jacket’s captain told Tom Reed of The Columbus Dispatch.

Nash isn’t the only one who thinks hockey’s remarkably unblemished doping record is normal. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly claims there isn’t a steroid issue in his league. “We’ve never had the same problem” as baseball, he said. “Hockey players have been tested for many years in international play. It’s simply not in their culture.”

What Daly forgets is that—at one time, no matter how far back—doping wasn’t a part of baseball culture, either. There was a time when America’s pastime was pure and untainted by speculation on who was and was not using.

Daly also believes “there is no need for an independent inquiry into” hockey, something akin to a Mitchell Report on Ice.

But, as Rick Reilly asked of then-Chicago Cub Sammy Sossa, why wait?

“Why wait to see what the players’ association will do,” Reilly suggested. “Why not step up right now and be tested? You show everybody you’re clean. It’ll lift a cloud off you and a cloud off the game.”

Such a cloud, so many claim, simply does not exist in hockey.

The NHL’s doping standards have been called into question by the former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, Dick Pound, who called the policy “very seriously flawed,” and once predicted one-third of NHL players were taking performance-enhancing substances.

Daly, for his part, thinks year-round testing would be beneficial. “The league would be supportive of enhancing the scope of the policy,” he told Reed.

The common three-month cycle that performance-enhancing drugs need to flush from the system, Daly says, does not give players “a long period of” benefit. “Our players are great role models,” he continued, “and they have a great reputation for their integrity, and I would hate to see that get affected.”

In layman’s term? Politics. The NHLPA and the NHL have a very precarious, push/pull relationship, and doping is not a topic the NHL wants to push.

The playoffs, the very time testing stops, is the most important in terms of recovery and rehabilitation. With only one day off between series games, and series often running the full seven-game stretch, cutting down on the grueling rehabilitation process would give players an edge.

That would drive players away from anabolic steroids—which add bulk and strength—and toward stimulants. The bigger concern, writes Reed, is “the possible use of blood doping.”

Blood doping is essentially boosting the body’s production of red blood cells, which “helps produce more oxygen and internal fuel to the muscles that give an athlete more endurance.”

Furthermore, blood doping is fast-acting—sometimes as soon as a few days—and can flush from the system within a week and a half. 

Alexei Cherepanov, a New York Rangers prospect who died in October of last year, had been blood doping. He never played a game in the NHL, but why would he have stopped once he made it to The Show? 

Right now, the NHL does not have “the same problem” as baseball. Waiting for the hail of needles, though, is naïve and ill-advised. The time of “not dignifying” doping allegations “with responses” is over. It’s time for the NHL and NHLPA to take a proactive approach.

Adopt a more stringent drug testing policy. Pee in the cup, and pee in it year round.