Current drug policy isn't strong enough

Updated: March 24, 2004, 12:12 PM ET
By Adam Proteau | The Hockey News

Anabolic steroids, the great unequalizer of modern athletics, the seething, snowballing morass of pride and pressure, finally hit the mainstream sports industry this year and is currently chewing through major league baseball's credibility like a bonus-round Pac-Man.

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Consequently, baseball players are sweating like Dom DeLuise under a bright light inside the media's de facto interrogation room, their records now looked on with a raised brow, their superstars taken out at the knees by the specter of one of sports' last surviving taboos.

Sucks to be them. But the suckage factor would be equally as high if the NHL chose not to include mandatory anabolic steroid drug-testing for its players in its next labor agreement. And not simply because the game would be left open to similar accusations, but also because a lack of leadership will lay the groundwork for events that could irrevocably alter the lives of the players the league sells as heroes and the members the NHLPA claims to serve.

Simply and plainly, anabolic steroids are poison. If you want to know what their long-term effects entail, just google-search the names of some popular 80s-era pro wrestlers, guys such as Rick Rude, Davey Boy Smith and Hercules Hernandez. (They're dead, though -- each one passing away around age 40, each one succumbing to heart problems -- so they won't be offering any more testimonials about the benefits of clean living.) Even if steroids don't kill you, get a load of some of the other side effects: high blood pressure, impotence, liver and/or kidney problems, behavioral changes and immune system deficiencies. And those are just the ones science has been able to identify.

The NFL and NBA are well-aware of what anabolic steroids are all about. They each have steroid policies that include mandatory testing and suspensions. The scandal has forced baseball to fall in line, so Bud Selig & Co. will begin mandatory testing of their players this summer, leaving the NHL as the only league with no testing procedure for performance-enhancing drugs. Maybe hockey isn't clear on what it's dealing with.

What it's dealing with is the seediest snake oil this side of Jonestown. This is not a magic potion to help enhance the body's natural capabilities. This is a stone-cold life-shortener. Vanity gone rudderless. Irony in full effect. A destroyer masquerading as a self-help tool.

And this is a matter that needs debating? A surefire threat to the well-being of a corporation's chief asset, an obstacle that could prevent society's most celebrated competitors from living to see their grandchildren -- this is something to turn our backs on in favor of trivial debates about personal liberties?

No, this is something that should be agreed upon by the NHL and NHLPA before they come within a country mile of the rest of the new collective bargaining agreement. The adversarial nature that pervades the majority of owner-player exchanges has no place in the steroid discussion. When it comes to anabolic steroids, lines in the sand are the last thing hockey needs.

You're probably thinking to yourself, "Hey, that Proteau knob is on his high horse again. Nobody in the NHL is on the juice, so what does he care?"

Well, he cares because he sees baseball's overstuffed home run kings and he understands how the whole ugly cycle starts. And he can see the same thing happening to pro hockey very easily.

All it really takes is one or two guys weighing the odds and choosing to shoot up. Over time, they see their bodies grow at the same pace as their impact on the game. Then other guys see the results and hear the whispers. They see the salaries associated with the results, so they get with the program. Then it escalates, gremlins-and-water-style, and becomes a case of keeping up with the Joneses, only the Joneses are headed on a direct course off a cliff.

I think the nature of so-called performance enhancing drugs may require a different type of league response and mandatory testing may be a part of that. It may very well be in all of our interests to develop a program that will eliminate all doubt.
Bill Daly, NHL chief legal officer
That, seemingly, is what baseball has come to. Do you think they thought themselves immune to what was once only associated with East German weightlifters and Lyle Alzado's medicine cabinet? Do you suppose they imagined a day when the very integrity of their sport would be shaken to its core?

Sure they didn't. Then again, reaction is always the easier of the two actions, isn't it? The "I'll-cross-that-bridge-when-I-come-to-it" mentality stonewalls the pro-active response before it has a chance to start, and instantly, the small sore has a place to fester.

There is good news, though. The NHL and its players' union can stop the problem before it starts. At least on the league's end, it seems like they're ready to do so.

"I think the nature of so-called performance enhancing drugs may require a different type of league response and mandatory testing may be a part of that," NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly told The Hockey News senior writer Mark Brender. "It may very well be in all of our interests to develop a program that will eliminate all doubt. This is not something we have yet discussed with the Players' Association, but I do expect that it will be discussed in the context of our ongoing collective bargaining negotiations."

Now the bad news: the NHLPA believes the situation can be dealt with under the league's current substance abuse program.

"The steroid issue has successfully and thoroughly been dealt with through the NHLPA/NHL's joint Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program," NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin told Brender. "To the extent that more education and awareness needs to be provided, this will be addressed through the existing program."

Oh, you mean the one where a player has to voluntarily admit he has a problem before he gets help?

Hogwash. When it comes to steroids, the lives of players -- you know, the guys whose dues pay NHLPA salaries -- are at stake. Sitting back and waiting for a player with a steroid problem to jump into your lap (a) will never happen, and (b) is tantamount to making NHLers guinea pigs. Only we already know what happens to steroid users. They die before they're supposed to.

The time to prevent that from happening to hockey players is right now. Dithering and debating only keeps the door open for the problem to escalate. And if, sometime in the future, hockey players find themselves dealing with the same backlash baseball players are facing now, if a certain number of NHLers start bulking up at the same time their genitals start shrinking, they'll know a similar malady was behind their union's failure to protect them.

E-mail Adam Proteau at aproteau@thehockeynews.com.

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