NHL, NHLPA agree on steroids

Originally Published: April 1, 2005
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

There seems little doubt the National Hockey League has fewer steroid skeletons in its closet than professional baseball and football do.

What remains to be seen is whether the NHL can stay ahead of the scandal curve. The task will require the implementation of the league's first comprehensive drug-testing policy and a commitment to dealing with problems that stretch down to the junior hockey level.

"It's got to start in the NHL because they've got to raise the awareness," said personal trainer and nutritionist Phil Zullo, who has worked extensively with NHL players for the past 15 years.

Congress has yet to formally contact the NHL in a sportwide effort to determine the level of performance-enhancing drug use. But a league source said Friday that the NHL will "of course" cooperate with the government's fact-finding mission.

The NHL does not currently test for performance-enhancing drugs, but league officials along with officials of the National Hockey League Players Association insisted Friday that a strong anti-doping policy will be part of a new collective-bargaining agreement -- whenever such an agreement is forged. Talks between the two sides will resume Monday.

"The National Hockey League advocates a zero-tolerance policy with respect to the use of performance-enhancing drugs in our sport," executive vice president and chief legal officer Bill Daly said in a statement.

Zullo, who owns four Toronto-area health centers, said teenage hockey players -- and even their parents -- have approached him about obtaining steroids in an effort to bulk up and make themselves look more attractive to NHL scouts.

"These kids don't know how bad it is for them," Zullo said.

Lew Mongelluzzo, longtime NHL scout and a top talent evaluator for USA Hockey, agrees the focus must be on the next generation of players, not at the NHL level, where the problem is modest.

"Is it happening [in the NHL]? Yes. Is it happening at any great length? Absolutely not. I just don't see it," said Mongelluzzo, a member of the Ottawa Senators' scouting staff. "Everybody should be focusing on the 14-, 15-, 16-year-old kids. Let's straighten that out."

The NHLPA endorses a drug-free NHL and its Dec. 9 proposal to the NHL included plans for a jointly administered program that would test for and prohibit performance-enhancing drugs, senior director Ted Saskin said Friday in a statement.

Saskin also noted that the NHL/NHLPA's jointly operated substance-abuse program has, since 1996, "been providing effective education to players regarding performance-enhancing drugs. We expect to continue our current program in the future."

The fact NHL players don't have a history of running afoul of international doping regulations in international events like the Olympics, World Championships or the World Cup of Hockey, reinforces the league's belief that "use of these drugs is not prevalent in our industry," Daly said.

"We nonetheless believe in the need to have a policy that deals effectively and comprehensively with this issue," Daly added.

In the absence of an existing drug-testing policy, evidence of use among NHL players is almost exclusively anecdotal.

Former hockey tough guy Dave "Moose" Morissette's recent book, "Memoirs of an Enforcer," detailed his use of steroids. But he played only 11 NHL games.

In general, the perception surrounding the steroid use in hockey is that the skill set required to excel doesn't lend itself to the use of human growth hormone or anabolic steroids except for fighters. Even now, the number of players who suddenly add 20 or 25 pounds of mass in a short period of time is relatively small.

"I just don't think [steroids have] infiltrated the game," former Carolina Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said.

When Maurice was coach of the Hurricanes, his training staff refused to prescribe creatine to players. The amino acid supplement is believed to be widely used throughout the NHL as a way for players to increase energy and facilitate the addition of muscle mass.

Veteran NHL defenseman Stephane Quintal caused a stir in the wake of Morissette's book launch last month when he suggested to La Presse newspaper in Quebec that 40 percent of players he knew used stimulants to get an edge for games.

Quintal told the paper he'd used over-the-counter stimulants like ephedrine and loaded up on coffee before games to make himself feel more aggressive. The long-term effects of using such stimulants aren't known, although kidney damage is believed to be among the side effects.

Late last year, former NHLer Gilles Lupien, now an agent, said roughly half the players in the Quebec Major Junior League were regularly using steroids or stimulants or both. He suggested reducing travel and cutting down on the junior schedule as a way of helping combat the problem.

Former Vancouver general manager Brian Burke, a Harvard alumnus and former senior vice president and director of hockey operations for the league, believes there is modest use of steroids at both the NHL and the junior levels. He said the only way to know for sure is to test.

"I don't see that it's a widespread problem," said Burke, who is a part-owner of the Tri-City Americans of the major junior Western Hockey League. "But having a hunch or having a feeling, that's not really a scientific basis to do anything. I would love to be sure of that."

"It's more a health issue to me [than an issue of the game's integrity]," said Burke, who applauds the federal government's involvement in the steroid debate.

Dave Branch, president of the Canadian Hockey League, which governs the three major junior leagues in North America, said junior hockey has been helping to educate young players about the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs for a number of years. The league is now awaiting results from this year's pilot drug testing program in the Quebec Major Junior League and will decide whether to implement the testing across the board.

"Clearly, the matter of drug education has been on our radar screen for a number of years," Branch said. "We will continue to challenge ourselves in the future."

One clear signal that steroid use in the NHL is isolated is the willingness of the union and league to agree, at least in principle, to a harsh drug-testing policy. These are two sides, after all, that can rarely agree on what transpired at simple meetings – let alone save an entire season from being canceled.

If steroids were widely used, it's unlikely the union would willingly endorse a policy that would put a large number of its members at risk of punishment.

"As a sport, this might be one thing where we're in a pretty good position," Maurice said. "It's better for our game to be ahead of the changes than behind them."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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