NHL Must Be A Leader in PED Prevention.

The final draft of the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement is expected to contain a more comprehensive policy for detecting and preventing the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

Drug testing was part of the previous NHL CBA, ensuring every NHL player was subjected to two “no-notice” tests every year, at any time, with at least one test conducted on a team-wide basis.

This testing screened for banned substances as listed back in 2006 by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). The policy also provided a list of punishments for offenders, ranging from a 20-game suspension without pay to a lifetime ban for a third-time abuser.

Under the league’s program, only one player – former defenseman Sean Hill – was caught using PEDs, receiving a twenty-game suspension in 2007. Hill, at the time nearing the end of his NHL career, claimed he unknowingly used the anabolic steroid boldenone. Following his suspension, Hill played one more season in the NHL before moving on to Switzerland and eventual retirement.

Goaltender Jose Theodore and former NHL defenseman Bryan Berard also failed pre-Olympic drug screening in November 2005, but weren’t suspended by the league because the failed tests occurred prior to the implementation of its new drug policy.

The NHL has prided itself on its drug testing and the low number of its players caught for PED usage. In 2008, league commissioner Gary Bettman stated the NHL didn’t have a steroid problem, claiming the alleged benefits – “significantly large muscle development” – wouldn’t work for athletes playing hockey at the highest level.

A year late, Bettman said he was in favor of expanding both the testing process and the list of banned substances.

The NHL’s drug screening programme was not without its critics.

In 2005, former IOC executive Dick Pound claimed as many as a third of NHL players used PEDs in some form. He based his claim on what he called anecdotal evidence gleaned conversations with players, coaches and team doctors. His lack of hard evidence, however,  earned Pound condemnation from around the NHL.

He raised the issue again in 2011 after former NHL enforcer George Laraque claimed in his autobiography he knew players who used steroids and stimulants during his playing days.

Pound believed there was “a gaping hole” in the NHL’s policy because it didn’t test for drugs in the off-season. He also chided the league for doing its own testing, rather than having it done by an independent source.

Though anabolic steroids used for strength and muscle mass might not, as Bettman claimed, be of practical use for elite hockey players, there are other types of PEDs which could be.

The saga of disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstrong demonstrates how there are other kinds of PEDs – Human growth hormone, Erythropoietin, blood doping, testosterone, coticosteroids and saline/plasma infusions – which could benefit pro athletes in high endurance sports like hockey.

The NHL didn’t test for human growth hormone under its previous policy. It’s believed that will be included in the new policy, but there’s no indication yet how broadly the league will expand its drug screening.

As an NHL fan, I want to believe the league when it says it doesn’t have a PED problem. I want to believe its players are clean. That being said,  it would be naive to believe PEDs haven’t been used by more NHL players than the trio who failed drug tests since 2005. The sad case of John Kordic was a prime example of how steroids were used by some players dating back to the late-1980s.

Pound may base his suspicions on anecdotal information, but he had a lengthy career in international sports, including a number of years with the WADA. On the subject of PED testing, he knows what he’s talking about. At the very least, his suspicions should be enough to prompt the NHL toward becoming a leader in the detection and prevention of PEDs.

For now, all we know is the NHL and NHLPA have agreed to implement drug testing through the year, including playoffs and the off-season. It has yet to be determined if the list of banned substances has been increased, or if testing will be done by an independent third party.

The NHL has been fortunate to avoid the kind of PED scandals which have plagued pro baseball and football. That may well be due to the drug detection standards already in place.

Still, if the league is to silence its critics, avoid complacency and decrease the temptation for drug cheats, it must be more proactive on this issue.