Positive tests will never be rampant in hockey

Updated: January 20, 2006, 10:38 AM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

The NHL is seriously joining an in-season drug testing landscape that in other sports often seems to involve:

(a) 27 strikes and you're out -- and such belated implementation that records should be divided into "juiced" and "non-juiced" eras;

(b) unions fighting, not just clause by clause but also specimen by specimen;

(c) about as much desire to catch the users of some quasi-legal recreational drugs -- marijuana, for example -- as there is to call traveling;

(d) a belief that everyone on the medal stand in certain Olympic sports beat the system because beating the system is the only way to make the medal stand.

But that's only part of the multifaceted explanation for why the implementation of NHL drug testing has, for the most part, triggered either yawns or no reaction at all. At least on paper, the NHL's policy is tough. It really does say three violations lead to a lifetime ban, and a lifetime ban at least seems to mean something other than all is forgiven after 18 months.

The sport doesn't have a drug problem, at least not within the parameters of modern definition.

For many, that's one of the NHL's selling points. The NHL doesn't need to sweep it under the rug but instead should have implemented testing long ago to emphasize that it has so little to hide.

Granted, maybe that's naive.

At some point, many of us also believed that Milli Vanilli really sang, that "A Million Little Pieces" indeed deserved to be displayed in the nonfiction section of the bookstore, and maybe even that illegal sticks were extremely exceptional, not commonplace.

But it's our story and we're sticking to it, Bryan Berard notwithstanding.

Until a time when, or if, we're proved wrong.

Hockey's relatively clean, with some catches.

At least one national chain store has taken cold medicines containing ephedrine off the shelves and is asking buyers to take little display cards containing product information to the pharmacy counter, show ID and sign a form that somewhere in the fine print presumably contains a promise that there isn't a methamphetamine lab in the basement.

(Haven't encountered that yet? I won't mention the store, for several reasons, but I will say I was hoping the medicine was on-Target in attacking my symptoms.)

That's reflective of the major problem on the league's performance-enhancing drug front. For some, cold medicine becomes not just a means of battling the sniffles, but of providing a speedlike edge -- including, perhaps most important, in the mind.

Unlike the International Olympic Committee (which is why Torino-bound players have to be careful what they take and take with them), the NHL won't be policing the use of ephedrine in the new policy, but it's hard to muster significant outrage over that.

Why?

If that's the worst of the NHL's drug problems, it isn't a big deal. When World Anti-Doping Agency czar Dick Pound, a former Canadian Olympic swimmer, charged that as many as one-third of NHL players used performance-enhancing drugs and that commissioner Gary Bettman was burying his head in the sand, his backward skating in the wake of the incredulous and angry reaction was comical. Of course, we were told, he meant by strict Olympic-sport standards, which attempt to catch the cheaters by specifying a laundry list of substances and masking agents that makes you wonder whether Olympic-bound athletes need to steer clear of Starbucks for six months before a competition.

Make no mistake: It wouldn't be shocking to hear that an NHL enforcer or two or five, whether in the past or the present, used steroids or human growth hormone in attempting to get bigger and stronger. And some other NHL skaters probably gave them a shot, whether in major junior or otherwise, or still are doing so and are hoping they won't get caught. If you're a teenager riding a bus from Kamloops to Prince George, and you're draft-eligible, know scouts are taking notes and realize you're not going to get to the NHL on your good looks and goal-scoring ability, the temptation is there.

But widespread use in the NHL and its feeder system?

No way. Not in this sport.

For one thing, taking to the ice with a juiced-up body isn't a significant advantage -- or any advantage at all -- for the most part, and it even can be counterproductive, given the strain skating puts on the muscles.

The NFL didn't find religion on the steroids issue until it discovered steroids often made players who relied on them brittle and -- literally -- bad investments. That's also one of several underlying reasons for baseball's awakening, because broken-down sluggers with guaranteed contracts are devastating to the bottom line.

Of course, steroid use didn't hurt the careers of professional wrestlers or bodybuilders or even football players, who parlayed their use into prominent starring roles in the ring, in movies or even in politics. College football programs that bragged about the size of their weight rooms also were winking about what could be done to make those weight programs, ahem, efficient.

One of the NFL's biggest jokes was the knowledge that "gearing up" for the testing at the Indianapolis scouting combine was one sure way for a player to enhance his draft stock, and if he broke down later, he had the bonus money, at least one big contract and maybe even a future in television.

We've seen the light, primarily because we were so offended by the bloated statistics produced in the most numbers-conscious of sports, baseball. Yes, the mounting evidence of the long-term health risks involved in chemical enhancement has contributed to that revolution.

All that said, hockey -- like basketball -- has never been a major part of that charade of disgrace and hypocrisy.

Hockey's problems have been more reflective of society at large. They have been along the same lines of problems found in accounting offices and law firms and newsrooms and steel plants and street corners.

Personally, I'm a lot more concerned about whether the airline pilot is sober and straight when he steps into the cockpit than whether, say, the left wing snorts cocaine. And I've always found it curious that we talk about athletes being role models for our children, about how they have let down the young people when they are caught, yet we don't dispense the same scorn to popular musicians and actors and writers who either flaunt their drug use or write it off as part of their muse.

That's not necessarily illogical, because, come on -- just because David Crosby ruined his liver, did that mean we felt the need or had an excuse to emulate his lifestyle because we liked the classic album "Déjà Vu"? (For those of you in your 30s or younger, an "album" was a vinyl disc. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young was a group that was scared, um, witless, at Woodstock. And isn't it their turn next year at the Super Bowl?)

Traditionally, of course, the NHL's major problem was alcohol. Skier Bode Miller could have played in the old NHL because players did take to the ice hungover -- or worse. The game-morning skate began in part as a roll call and hangover check. You drank on the Pullman cars between cities; you drank after games; and you might even clink bottles with the guy you just fought in the third period.

In the 1980s, when cocaine was even more of a quasi-legal substance, especially among the affluent, it wasn't as if Bob Probert's misadventure -- getting caught attempting to smuggle cocaine across the U.S.-Canadian border in his underwear -- made him the lone NHL player doing lines.

Now?

There's too much money at stake. NHL players are generally in vastly better condition than their counterparts of 25 years ago. They have strength and conditioning coaches and personal trainers and have been brought up in that culture. Yes, part of that modern atmosphere is the guy at the neighborhood gym who has access to all kinds of stuff, and maybe part is even spotting syringes in the garbage cans, but that hasn't been injected into hockey fashion much.

Even charter plane travel, which limits the postgame winding-down opportunities on the road, has contributed to the change in NHL lifestyle. Although there still can be frat party or happy-hour elements in the sport, that aspect is nowhere near what it used to be.

Bottom line: Test away.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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