The 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.