A Clean Sheet of Ice

Cup'pa JoeThe time seems right to make plain my belief system as it relates to the integrity of our game; which is to say, how it is that I’ve come to believe that hockey, in its totality, with perhaps but a few lone wolf exceptions, competes with its athletes’ integrity intact, steroid-free.

I am far more concerned by the competency and integrity of hockey’s on-ice officials than I am with the chemical composition of its players’ bloodstreams.

A spectacular season by the Washington Capitals  — their best ever, in terms of points accumulated — has this week been slandered by a single felon’s utterings to a single newspaper. It’s time to go Brashear on the “Everybody [in pro sports] does it” crowd when the topic is steroids. Our sport always has been, and still is, commendably, refreshingly different from the rampant chemical cheating on the other playing fields. And it’s not by luck or accident.

The NHL’s privileged perch in this matter is attributable to the very top of its leadership. I am no Gary Bettman fan, and would, had I been instilled with the power to do so, have replaced him 10 years ago, but on the matter of performance-enhancing drugs he has been an unwavering, unyielding, unequivocating, pioneering commissioner. Summed up best with: Not on my watch

I have been an audience to him at the National Press Club addressing this matter, I have seen him reiterate the league’s intolerance for juice on television perhaps 100 times over the years. The best part about this is that it’s been a message that hasn’t needed to be sent, but he keeps sending it. He’s been vigilant over a population of athletes not needing such vigilance. More on that later.

Bettman couldn’t enjoy the success he has with this imperative initiative were it not for a 100 percent cooperative players union — one which has changed leadership over the years, it bears mentioning. And this is what truly distinguishes hockey from its major professional sports peers. What’s the more likely achievement this century —  Bud Selig and Donald Fehr  mutually pledging, and enforcing, achievable, substantive substance testing reform in baseball, or world peace?

The main reason the NHL had no league-and-union instituted drug testing policy in place prior to 2005 was it didn’t need one. And yet the very first one established in 2005’s collective bargaining agreement just happens to be the most stringent in all of North American pro sports. Hockey, without having a problem, took a powerful step toward ensuring it never could.

From my vantage, there are five core tenets undergirding hockey’s resistance to the plague that has consumed professional baseball and, to a lesser degree, football.

(5) An Enduring Code/Culture of Sport-Preserving Honor and Self-Policing. “Code” is a far-reaching, often intangible, but nonetheless resolute and sacred concept in hockey. I don’t know of a “code” associated with pro basketball or football. Or even baseball. Baseball teams have no captains — perhaps they should. Captains in hockey hold sacred designations, and those leadership roles are almost always transferred seamlessly, without trendy alterations or evolutions in their meaning. Meaning: the leadership role Steve Yzerman maintained with the Wings wasn’t tangibly different from that Gordie held 50 years earlier with the same organization. Every captain in hockey understands that he not only leads his teammates into battle each night but that he’s uniquely responsible for preserving the honor and integrity of the club crest. That means something; it confers an accountability. Even today.

When an individual player in hockey runs afoul of the code, of the ethic that has nurtured and preserved hockey’s unique culture, the team’s fans and media may draw attention to it, but the gravest verdict will be rendered quietly and internally, by the offender’s teammates. In recent years incidents of self policing among hockey teams — retributive hazing, for instance — have drawn unprecedented media notice thanks largely to the prevalence of electronic and social media detailing, to a degree, the behind-the-scenes enforcement activity. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe it’s not. The larger point is that though the generations of players change the code within the sport does not.

A matter such as the one that confronted the Capitals this week is one requiring the leadership of the team’s player rep to the union. It was most telling to me that within 24 hours of the story breaking Brooks Laich had surveyed every member of the team, though they were dispersed rater widely about the planet, and reported back his conviction that the allegation was bunk.     

(4) Hockey’s All-Time Greats Carried Off Their Careers with Exemplary Integrity. I really believe it means something when the very elite in a sport uniformly perform with competitive integrity — let’s say their names are Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman, Crosby (or anyone else you want to name), for instance — while in another sport many of the elite performers — let’s say their names are Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Palmiero, Rodriguez — achieved statistical acclaim shrouded and sullied by substance-use discredit. If the very cream of the crop in a sport carry off their careers with a blatant disregard for ethics and integrity, how can’t the rest of the sport be adversely impacted?

(3) Rigid Enforcement Policies. The mutually agreed upon enforcement regime for banned substance use the NHL and its players union enacted in 2005 illustrates a sacred regard for the greater good of the game. Washington Capitals players, we learned yesterday from Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, were drug tested in unannounced fashion three times each of the past two seasons. As were 29 other NHL clubs. How could any culture of corruption take hold under such scrutiny?

(2) Hockey’s Nexus with International Competition and Its Substance Intolerance.      
NHL players, Scott Burnside noted back in 2005, “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.” It is positively staggering to consider the sheer volume of hockey players — pros on this continent and in Europe — who’ve competed internationally over decades, necessarily been tested by the mandates of the governing bodies organizing those events, without so much as a trickle of trouble. It wouldn’t seem to make much sense for a hockey player to ‘roid it up in July or August so as to try and win hockey games in November or December. He’d want the enhancing effects in place for the rigors of spring — but that’s when hockey’s World Championships are contested, annually, and offenders couldn’t pass the IIHF testing. Like the NHL, the IIHF conducts random testing of its athletes — it caught Mattias Ohlund in Salt Lake City in 2002, ultimately ruling his circumstances weren’t sanctionable.

(1) The Essence of Our Sport Offers No Welcome Mat for Steroids. Hockey is I think fortunate that its essence, its nature, doesn’t seem to offer the direct tangible rewards for using performance enhancing substances as with other sports. The essence of competition in hockey calls for forwards to jump over the boards and skate their guts our for 40 seconds, defensemen a bit longer, at the end of which they’re sucking wind. ‘Roiding up can help you hit a baseball further (plainly), and it can make the taker in football block more effectively, more powerfully (plain
ly), but anyone who’s skated a single Herbie knows there’s no chemical shortcut to success in that endeavor. Just which steroid or substance would be attributable — hypothetically speaking — for Alexander Semin’s magic work with the puck on his blade? Or Alexei Kovalev’s agility with his edges? Which chemical aids with accuracy on the backhand?

There was a time some 25 or 30 years ago when the NHL employed unskilled goons on every roster, “players” who clearly would have benefitted from juicing for their jobs. They don’t exist anymore.

To be clear, I do not take the position that pro hockey exists blemish-free in this matter, that there aren’t exceptions to what plainly appears to be a clean sheet of competitive ice. The larger and more important questions are, does hockey foster a culture cultivating a compromise of its integrity, and do its curators offer doublespeak when it comes to instituting safeguards? Hockey’s policies, enforcement protocols, and most especially its history suggest, I think, no way.                            

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16 Responses to A Clean Sheet of Ice

  1. Flying Cloud says:

    Yesterday, I took everything quite badly. My apologies for my somewhat caustic comments on the previous article.
    The steroids allegation is suspect for another reason — athletes who train for speed as well as endurance are not generally attracted to steroids because they tend to slow one down, which is not acceptable in hockey; however, there are thus-far undetectable drugs, such as erythopoietin, which are far more effective for that type of sport. I believe Scientific American had an informative article on the “new” drugs last year or earlier this year. It focused on bicycling, how drug testers are confounded by teams engaging in the practice, and what it would take to clean up the sport — as I recall, that amounted to extremely stiff penalties that outweighed the risk of being caught. Which the NHL has already instituted.

  2. Flying Cloud says:

    I should have added that tests are being developed for those substances.

  3. Jeremy says:

    “The main reason the NHL had no league-and-union instituted drug testing policy in place prior to 2005 was it didn’t need one.”
    John Kordic may beg to differ. Not that I entirely disagree, but I’m just saying.
    Here is a good article I read yesterday on the subject: http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1004135/1/index.htm

  4. Jeremy says:

    Just to give credit, I found that article from a post on Caps Insider by “GusDaMan.” So thanks to him for finding a good read.

  5. Jimmy Jazz says:

    A bang on summation and analysis. I’d be shocked if any of our star players are doping; there’s too much to risk, no real precedent, and not enough to gain. Having said this, if God hates Caps fans as much as He pretends to and we have players in the club cheating, may the hammer fall hard and decisively on their pathetic shoulders. Any records, trophies, or achievements should be stripped from them and burned… An unlikely scenario to be sure, but it’s something that has to be said.

  6. tripp says:

    While for the most part, I would agree with your steroid argument, I also thought that many athletes used steroids (or HGH) because they felt it helped them heal faster. In this manner, steroids could be a great advantage – especially for hockey players, who always have bangs and bruises, probably more-so than any other sport (except possibly, and only possibly, football).

  7. pucksandbooks says:

    Jeremy — Kordic I’d have put in that ‘Can’t do anything but fight camp,’ which I suggested would have been the one category of player likely to dabble with juice. No surprise. But obviously, the league investigated not only his circumstances but broader ones contemporary to them, and judged the climate pretty clean.
    I thought about the “faster healing” line of reasoning, but it just seems to me that in general, NHLers whose injuries we learn of seem to be sidelined for about the time you’d generally expect. So Feds for instance misses 15 games for a high ankle sprain. Crosby even more last year for the same injury. You could go on and on. And of course there’s a longstanding badge of honor for playing injured, particularly in the playoffs.
    FWIW, late this morning, well after I published this, someone sent me a note alleging that Brett Hull once claimed that not a single NHLer used steroids as best as he could tell. Quite a claim. It’s just one guy’s stance, of course, but it’s damned interesting. If I can find a link to a file containing his thoughts, I’ll post it here.

  8. Flying Cloud says:

    Faster healing would be an advantage! Hadn’t heard that. I thought they were only used to build muscle. Adding to my earlier comment, there is a test for the injected hormone, erythropoietin (EPO), but it’s relatively easy to circumvent. The article I referred to was in the April 2008 issue of SciAm. My last word on this horrid subject!

  9. DCPensFan says:

    I’m curious as to the extent of the problem — if it exists — in the junior leagues. Seems every so often you hear of high school football or baseball players juicing. I’ve never heard of it being an issue in the junior leagues. Maybe it’s as simple as if it isn’t part of the culture at the junior level, if it isn’t part of the culture in the pros. Or, if it isn’t a problem in the pros, perhaps it doesn’t trickle down the the juniors.
    I also think it’s worth noting that the weight lifting and off-ice training are realitively new to the NHL. I mean, Lemieux smoked during the early part of his career, and if I recall correctly didn’t really work out until after his bout with cancer.

  10. JS in France says:

    This post illustrates one reason we love hockey. These are also reasons why new fans will love the game.
    I’m living in France and had a great experience today at the international school where I teach. A kid showed up this morning in an Ovechkin t-shirt. In France? They no nothing about hockey here. Gee, could it have been my influence (native DCer and die-hard Caps fan). The full story is at http://www.frenchforawhile.blogspot.com. I’m trying to convert France into Capitals fans…one kid at a time.

  11. D'ohboy says:

    Let me preface this by saying that as a Caps fan, I’m praying all this turns out to be a big lie, or that the guy sold some stuff to a nothing player who has long since left the organization. Furthermore, I generally enjoy your blog and appreciate the viewpoint and enthusiasm for hockey that you bring.
    That being said, not a single one of your points holds water under closer scrutiny.
    5)Enduring Code/Self-Policing: While true, this generally pertains to on-ice behavior. If a player were to suddenly and inexplicably improve his on-ice performance during the off-season, I doubt that his Captain would chastise him for it, but rather congratulate him. Unless the Captain/team suspected the player was on PEDs, there’s nothing to suggest that the self-correction mechanism would work.
    The responses of Laich and Clark mean nothing – of course they would deny there is a problem. First, it’s unlikely they’d ever see someone injecting. Second, this is their livelihood at stake. Cyclists had (and many still have) the same reaction to PED accusations despite years’ worth of evidence to the contrary because they feared the consequences of admitting how deep the problems really were.
    4) The Integrity of the All-Time Greats: Without casting aspersions toward any player in particular, it is widely acknowledged by many that ice wasn’t the only white substance the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s played on. Similarly, the use of amphetamines/greenies (and later their cheap, legal cousin Sudafed) was rampant in hockey throughout the 60s and 70s, and persists to this day. How else do you think AHL players get up for the Sunday game of Friday-Saturday-Sunday back-to-back-to-back games? With black coffee?
    Furthermore, given that baseball’s “all-time greats” such as Ruth, Aaron, Mays, Mantle, Williams and Dimaggio are generally thought of as “clean,” why then did McGwire, Sosa and Bonds choose to juice?
    3) Rigid Enforcement Policies: The NHL’s testing and enforcement regime pale in comparison to that of international track and field or the International Cycling Union (UCI for you francophiles), and yet PEDs still plague those two sports. If you told a professional cyclist he was only going to get 3 unannounced tests per year, he’d just laugh at you. If you don’t believe me, check out Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer or Dave Zabriskie’s Twitter feeds. Moreover, 3 unannounced tests are the MAXIMUM a player can receive.
    2)International Play: Given the cyclical and predictable timing of international competitions, along with the very small subset of NHL players who compete in them, this testing presents no significant deterrent to PED use, except for rank amateurs who don’t understand how to avoid testing positive through cycling, cleansing, masking or simply taking something that isn’t yet tested for.
    1)PEDs Don’t Offer Direct Tangible Benefits in Hockey the Way They Do in Other Sports: I think this is probably the weakest part of your argument. PEDs aren’t just about packing on beef. Drugs and artificial hormones can do all sorts of things to an athlete beyond building muscle. For example, type “kelli white modafinil” into google and see what you find. How many college students take drugs for ADHD, not because they have any particular psychological problem, but because they want to focus? As someone who has struggled with asthma in my life, I might not be alive if it weren’t for certain steroids, but taken by a healthy person, my inhalers would give them (temporarily at least) greater lung capacity.
    You cite the example of skating “Herbies” (we used to call them “suicides” but they’re all the same). I can cite four different chemical pathways to pharmaceutically improve your ability to skate Herbies. (Btw, for all you biochem folks, I’m grossly simplifying here.) 1) Stimulants such as amphetamines, or if you’re not that courageous, just crush a couple of Sudafed and an aspirin into a can of Red Bull and chug it. This will raise your heart rate, allowing you to pump more blood and exert yourself harder. 2) Using targeted drugs, or something as innocuous as a tablespoon or two of baking soda right beforehand, you can combat the lactic acid buildup that comes with prolonged anaerobic work. 3) Take steroids or HGH to build muscle – including your heart muscle. The greater your power/weight ratio, the easier it will be to skate the Herbies faster, even if your skating technique isn’t perfect. The stronger your heart, the faster your body will circulate blood, providing oxygen and glycogen to your muscles while clearing waste products. 4) Take a red blood cell booster such as EPO. This might not help as much for the first few Herbies, but if you keep doing them, suddenly you’ll notice that everyone around you is sucking wind and you’re not all that winded. Alternatively, you could just take a few puffs of my albuterol inhaler.
    Yes, hockey, as opposed to say football, is a sport founded more on skill than on raw physical strength, but then, so is baseball. All the muscles in the world can’t help your eyes pick the differential of spin between a slider and a fastball. They also can’t help you put the bat head in the right place at the right time at the right angle – that’s all hand-eye coordination. (However, there are drugs to help with some of that, and once genetic PEDs come in – good night.) Despite the emphasis on skill and hand-eye coordination, baseball clearly has a pretty big problem with PEDs (although not as big a problem, I would argue, as the NFL, despite their lack of positive tests).
    There is simply too much money riding on players’ performance, too many ways of enhancing that performance, and too few effective ways of preventing them from doing so to ever offer even the remotest chance of deterring the use of PEDs or catching most of those who use them.
    By the way, lest you think this is a relatively new problem, I suggest you read this excellent article on PEDs from the June 23, 1969 edition of Sports Illustrated: http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1082543/1/index.htm.
    They even mention a hockey player! (Bobby Baun – for his use of injected painkillers in the Cup Finals)

  12. Victor says:

    @d’ohboy: I’ll take your word for most of what you relate, but I can safely say the “take some baking soda to reduce lactic acid” argument is an urban legend. The baking soda will reduce the acid in your stomach, not the lactic acid building up in your legs (or arms or back). Still, I’m sure some athletes believe it, but any result they get is a placebo effect…and the lactic acid still builds up.
    Still, I have to disagree with part of P&B’s argument. Just eleven years ago, The Code was one of silence, after members of the US Olympic team trashed their hotel rooms in Japan after being elimnated. Coach Ron Wilson, Brett Hull, and others called for the guilty players to come forward, but no one ever did, nor did any of the players on the team come forth and officially state who was guilty of room trashage.
    Given that, who’s not to say The Code is causing today’s players to clam up?

  13. dmg says:

    I think that, as a whole, you’ve put hockey players on far too high a pedestal, making the crux of your arguments to a large extent “hockey players are better than other athletes”. That might be true to a certain extent – certainly the NHL does not have the legal issue of the NFL or NBA – but the guys are only human.
    For example, hockey might have some sort of code of honor, but that’s not going to hold up when you’re talking about the stakes involved. Will some guys be willing to take less money, player shorter careers, or even, in the case of marginal NHL players, be forced out of the game because they’re afraid of defaming the sport of hockey? Sure. But when you’re talking about someone’s livelihood and millions of dollars, it’s pretty difficult to believe that no hockey player would every take steroids simply because they respect the game too much. It doesn’t make them evil – it makes them human.
    The same kind of logic applies to the second argument, that there have been many greats in the NHL who have carried themselves with grace and class. That’s nice for the NHL but to think a guy’s going to think “Gee I want that new contract and those extra hundreds of thousands of dollars and I’m willing to take steroids to do it, but Steve Yzerman was such a nice guy I’ll forgo it” isn’t very realistic.
    Points two and three make some sense, but it’s important to note (along with D’ohboy’s points) that players aren’t tested in the offseason.
    Finally, to think that hockey players wouldn’t benefit from steroids is silly. Steroids aren’t some sort of magical skill-targeting drugs that will let you get more strength behind swinging a baseball bat but not taking a slap shot. They allow the body to recover more quickly and allow guys to do more reps at more weights and add more muscle. To say drugs that help a player add muscle don’t help hockey players is to say that adding muscle doesn’t help hockey players and, despite how success Alexander Semin has been in the NHL even though he’s skinny as a rail, that’s just not true.
    What you’ve done is address a very select set of hockey skills and say “steroids don’t help here, ergo there’s no reason to take steroids if you’re a hockey player”. Taking steroids (or bulking up naturally for that matter) won’t give you Crosby’s vision or Semin’s hands, but it will help you win pucks in the corners, battle for position in front of the net, stand up opponents, get more on your wrist shot, and dig harder into the ice. An analogous argument could (and has) been made for baseball, i.e. that juicing up won’t help guys identify pitches, give them better hand-eye coordination, or give them more nimble hands when it comes to picking ground balls off the dirt.
    Ultimately I think most of what you’ve written come from an idealized notion of the sport: “Our sport always has been, and still is, commendably, refreshingly different from the rampant chemical cheating on the other playing fields”; “The main reason the NHL had no league-and-union instituted drug testing policy in place prior to 2005 was it didn’t need one”; “How could any culture of corruption take hold under such scrutiny?”, throwing in digs at Major League Baseball along the way.
    Look, I love hockey as much as anyone else on the planet but the reality is that these guys are still human and the stakes, both personal and professional, are high enough that it’s naive to think NHL players don’t have the incentive to use performance enhancing drugs or that they’re going to reject the incentive purely because of some notion that the game itself is so sacrosanct to dishonor it in any way would be a mortal sin.

  14. Doug says:

    Another nicely styled piece. Thanks for taking the time to write this thought provoking article.

  15. D'ohboy says:

    Victor,
    I had thought it was an urban legend as well, but some recent research that I read in a cycling journal suggested that it actually CAN work, but only if you take it mixed with liquid RIGHT before the anaerobic exercise.
    Personally, I was/am a little dubious myself and I’ve never tried it, but it was primarily meant as an example more than anything else. The larger point is that there are TONS of different pathways that PEDs can work, beyond the mere addition of beef, or the “recovery effect.”
    D’oh

  16. D'ohboy says:

    Victor,
    Just another example of the dark side of the Code – the Graham James scandal:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graham_James_(hockey)

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