Leafs’ Ashton to pay steep price for failed test

The Prime Time Sports crew talk about Carter Ashton’s 20-game suspension.

The use of Clenbuterol cost Alberto Contador a Tour de France title and Guillermo Mota the chance to win a second World Series with the San Francisco Giants.

Now it might keep Carter Ashton from continuing his NHL career.

Officially, the Toronto Maple Leafs winger was hit with a 20-game suspension for a positive test of the banned substance, but the ultimate penalty will likely end up being quite a bit steeper than that.

Fairly or not, Ashton is now going to be labelled as a user of performance-enhancing drugs. That the 23-year-old claims he accidentally ingested the fat-burning stimulant through a friend’s asthma inhaler won’t change much in the court of public opinion.

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The Leafs certainly didn't rush to his defence in a 39-word statement issued from president Brendan Shanahan on Thursday afternoon which stated that the organization supports the NHL's decision.

The earliest Ashton can return to action is a game against Philadelphia on Dec. 20. By that point there might not be a roster spot waiting for him.

His standing with the team was already quite tenuous. If anything, it was Ashton's strong physical attributes -- he is six-foot-three and in fantastic shape -- that kept the Leafs from subjecting him to waivers for the purpose of sending him to the American Hockey League last month.

He was a healthy scratch for three straight weeks in October and has just three assists to show for 50 career NHL games -- virtually all of them in a fourth-line role.

History doesn't offer many cases to try and gauge exactly where things go from here. Sean Hill was nearing the end of a long career when he tested positive for boldenone in 2007 and appeared in just 40 more games after serving his suspension.

Zenon Konopka, the only other NHLer to turn up a positive test, has remained a free agent since that occurred in May.

The one thing that separates Ashton from those men is his young age -- which translates to promise -- so it would seem premature to suggest that the Saskatoon native's career will be completely submarined by the suspension. However, it's also difficult to imagine the Leafs or anyone else continuing to give him much benefit of the doubt.

Right now Ashton is a former first-round draft pick that hasn't quite lived up to his promise. He dominated the AHL with 16 goals in 24 games last year, but hasn't made any impact at the NHL level until now, when he broke the rules.

We live in a cynical time when it comes to the use of PEDs. There have been too many athletes, with too many excuses, that have eroded the public's ability to believe that the games are being played completely clean.

On Thursday, Ashton presented a plausible-enough story for how Clenbuterol ended up in his system and expressed remorse about it happening.

"As a professional hockey player, I recognize that I am responsible for what I put into my body, and I will not appeal my suspension," he said in a statement released by the NHLPA. "While I am extremely disappointed that I have let my teammates, our fans and the Maple Leafs organization down, I will work very hard during my suspension to stay in game shape so that I can help out the team when I am able to return."

Clenbuterol is a drug designed to help treat chronic respiratory issues, but has been completely banned in North America. It is known to speed up the metabolism and has produced positive drug tests from cyclists, boxers, weightlifters, soccer players and baseball players.

And Ashton.

The Leafs forward claims that he suffered an asthma attack during a training session in late August and was given an inhaler from another athlete.

"I kept this inhaler and used it a second time early in training camp upon experiencing another asthma episode," he said. "Unfortunately, I incorrectly assumed that there were no problems associated with the use of this inhaler and I used it without checking to see whether its contents were permissible."

Assuming he's telling the truth, this is an extremely costly mistake for a young man to make.

The 20-game suspension will see Ashton forfeit nearly $170,000 in salary and that's not even the worst thing of all: It might also leave a stain on his career that he can't get out.