Commentary

Debate over NHL's drug-testing policy rages on

Updated: August 6, 2007, 8:30 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

In less than two full seasons, almost 3,000 random drug tests were carried out on National Hockey League players. One, New York Islanders defenseman Sean Hill, tested positive.

Exactly what that says about the state of the game, and the role of performance-enhancing drugs in it, is up for vigorous debate.

If you're the league and its players, the results reinforce the commonly held belief in hockey circles that the NHL did not and does not have a problem with performance-enhancing drugs.

"The NHLPA knew that we did not have a problem in our sport, and that has been confirmed by the test results. We are pleased with the strong educational component of the program," Ian Penny, associate counsel for the players' association, told ESPN.com.

Sean Hill
Len Redkoles/Getty ImagesBack in April, then-Islander Sean Hill received a 20-game suspension for violating the NHL's drug policy. Hill signed with the Wild this offseason.

If you're among the group that believes the league's policy is like Swiss cheese in the number of loopholes it provides, the results mean nothing.

"It's a sham," Dick Pound, the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, told ESPN.com last week, reiterating his previous criticisms of the NHL's drug-testing policy that made him public enemy No. 1 among NHL types, from deputy commissioner Bill Daly to famed Canadian TV analyst Don Cherry.

Those NHL types still question Pound's agenda and what they believe is his lack of understanding of NHL policies.

"We could really care less what Dick Pound has to say," Daly told ESPN.com. "He has no idea what our program is or what it provides for, so by definition, he's speaking from ignorance. Just as importantly, he has no credibility left. Not a single person I know, either inside and outside the Olympic community, has any respect for what he has to say anymore."

The NHL's performance-enhancing drug-testing program came out of the collective-bargaining agreement that put an end to the lockout that scuttled the 2004-05 season. Daly said the players "were in lockstep" with the league on the need for a program that had two strong elements: an educational component on performance-enhancing drugs and a punitive component to eliminate any cheating that was going on.

"We didn't think we had a problem," Daly said.

Although the NHL had never had a drug-testing policy before the lockout, hundreds of NHL players had been tested repeatedly at international competitions such as the World Cup of Hockey, World Championships and the Olympics. There had not been a positive test involving an NHL player at any of those events.

Both the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation, which oversees international competitions, use the WADA list of banned substances. The league and its players believe that because the game's best players have not run afoul of international testing, that reinforces its stand that there is not a significant drug problem.

The players' union also had undertaken its own testing, without the league's knowledge, before the new collective-bargaining agreement. The results, kept private by the players, gave the union valuable information when it came to drafting the league's first drug-testing policy, but these results also seemed to indicate there wasn't a problem with performance-enhancing drugs in the sport.

During the first postlockout season in 2005-06, each NHL player was eligible to be tested twice. Testing began in January 2006, and there were no positive results. Defenseman Bryan Berard and goalie Jose Theodore tested positive in pre-Olympic testing before the Torino Games. Neither was suspended by the NHL because those were not league tests. Berard, who tested for the anabolic steroid 19-norandrosterone, received a two-year suspension from international play.

Last summer, the union and the league met again to discuss some of the concerns raised by the U.S. Congress regarding shortcomings in the NHL's testing policy.

Do you want your sport to be drug-free or not? It's that simple.

WADA chief Dick Pound on the NHL's testing policy

There were concerns about whether players who had undergone each of their two tests for the season would feel tempted to use performance-enhancing drugs afterward. There was also the issue of players who were being called up from the AHL periodically during the NHL season and whether they might fall through the testing cracks. Those players were often enforcer types who were deemed more likely to be bulking up through the use of steroids.

The CBA originally called for players to take a class on performance-enhancing drugs before they could be tested; but that later was amended to make players eligible to be tested as soon as they were called up, provided they were supplied educational materials.

This past season, the NHL and the players' association expanded the parameters of the drug-testing policy to include a third test for one-third of the NHL's 700-plus players. For the sake of expedience, the league was broken into three groups of 10 teams. One-third of the players were tested once, one-third were tested twice and one-third were tested three times.

"You have no idea in which group you're going to fall," Daly said.

But one of the major areas of criticism leveled by Pound and others is the time frame of the tests. Most are done on off days, although Daly said players can be tested before and/or after games. Most contentious is the fact NHL players are not tested during the offseason, and critics claim players can bulk up illegally, then appear clean for testing once training camp starts.

Players have been reluctant to agree to offseason testing because they believe that the offseason is so short (three months for teams that go deep into the playoffs) and that such testing is an undue violation of their privacy. They also have argued the offseason is too short to create a dangerous gap in the testing program. If players were juicing during the summer, they'd be caught in training camp -- when the testing begins -- the theory goes.

"I don't think we're missing anything," Daly said.

But Pound insisted the offseason contains plenty of time to complete a human growth hormone or steroid program and appear clean before training camp. As for the regular-season testing, if a player tests positive, "It's a failure of intelligence as much as it is a doping test," Pound said.

To close any gaps that might exist, the union and league continue to look at whether testing could be continued later into the playoffs.

Whatever the strength of the NHL's drug-testing policy, or lack thereof, it was at least a unified force. That unity appears to have been jeopardized with the removal of former union executive director Ted Saskin, who was forced from his position after Toronto police investigated complaints that he and other NHLPA execs accessed e-mail accounts of players who challenged his hiring.

Penny has temporarily replaced Saskin on the four-person drug-testing committee as the union undergoes a dramatic restructuring. As a result, there has been a fundamental change in the committee's tenor. Daly said a conference call involving members of the committee at the end of the season "raised a number of issues that were met with resistance" from the players' association. Penny insisted his role as a top union official and member of the drug-testing committee is not a conflict of interest.

Dick Pound
Dick Pound has been one of the NHL testing policy's biggest critics in recent years.

"There is no conflict of interest whatsoever," Penny said. "Union representatives have a fiduciary duty toward every member. We would not suggest that Bill Daly has a conflict of interest in his dual capacity as a committee member and advocate for club and league interests."

Another source of contention is the timing of an appeal if a player tests positive. The current process has an independent arbitrator rule on the appeal in a timely fashion. In the case of Hill, who tested positive for the anabolic steroid boldenone, the process went longer than the league would have liked. But the union balked when asked about defining more specifically the period of time for an appeal.

"Sean Hill could have been a lot worse than it was," Daly said. "Would I have liked it to go faster? Yes."

Hill, who has denied knowingly ingesting the banned substance, signed a one-year deal with the Minnesota Wild this summer, but he will not be eligible to play for the first 19 games of the upcoming season as he serves the balance of his 20-game suspension as a first-time offender.

"The NHLPA supports finding ways to improve the [drug-testing] program; in fact, it was the NHLPA that first suggested taking a look at the timelines last April. However, in considering changes to the program, the league and the NHLPA need to ensure that there is no adverse impact on a player's right to due process," Penny said.

In hockey, masking agents aren't as much of a concern as they are in other sports. However, there is an issue with human growth hormone, which is not detected by the tests administered by the NHL. A blood test is needed to detect human growth hormone.

"And we're a ways away from asking players for a blood sample," Daly said.

Both Daly and Penny say they are working to stay ahead of the curve on new performance-enhancing drugs that might appear on the sports landscape.

Ultimately, Pound would like to see all pro sports leagues implement a system in which players are eligible for testing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. He would like to see leagues be able to target potential problem athletes by testing players as often as they want. That's something unions are certain to reject as they try to balance their players' privacy and individual rights against the desire to have a clean league.

"Do you want your sport to be drug-free or not? It's that simple," Pound said.

The reality, however, is it doesn't appear to be that simple at all.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.