Hobey Baker winner Dryden McKay discusses suspension for banned substance

Minnesota State goaltender Dryden McKay makes a save. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Dryden McKay remembers that moment. It would be impossible to forget.

“Shock. Four years was staring me in the face. My career might be over,” he said, during an interview last Friday.  “A 30-second phone call. ‘Hey, you tested positive, and it’s a four-year ban, potentially.’”

McKay did not get a four-year penalty. On Monday, the United States Anti-Doping Agency announced a six-month suspension for a positive test of the banned substance Ostarine. The Minnesota State goalie and Hobey Baker winner as NCAA men’s hockey’s top player received a much-smaller punishment because he proved the source was a wrongly-marked supplement. 

“If we didn’t figure out where (the Ostarine) came from, he was going to get four years,” said lawyer Paul Greene, an expert in the field hired to represent McKay. “The only reason we got the reduction is because we figured out where it came from, and his degree of fault was very low. He’d been very careful about looking at the label.”

(Full disclosure: Greene and McKay only agreed to be interviewed on the condition nothing could be used on- or off-the-record until the USADA announced the suspension. They did not want to run afoul of the organization.)

On Jan. 23, testers showed up at McKay’s home for the only drug screening of his life. Being Team USA’s alternate goalie for the Beijing Olympics put him in the World Anti-Doping Agency’s testing protocol. (NCAA athletes are subject to year-round testing, but McKay says he’s never been selected, before or since that day.)

Eight days later, on Jan. 31, McKay got the notification, informing him of what is known as a “provisional suspension.” The next day, he hired Greene. Among previous clients is Canadian pole vaulter Shawn Barber, the 2015 World Champion. Barber initially was banned from the 2016 Olympics for a drug violation, but Greene’s advocacy led to a reversal.

The next 48 hours were complete chaos. McKay withdrew from the Olympics, shipped “my proteins, vitamins, everything” to a lab for analysis. Focus zoomed in on a bottle of Quercetin, a plant-based antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that some use as an immune-booster or recovery tool for COVID. 

McKay was taking it exactly for that reason, as Omicron surged. He wanted to protect himself as much as possible during his final college season. But, if you’ve ever dealt in the world of supplements, you know how tricky it is. Ingredients aren’t always what they are marked to be.

It’s a minefield.

“I made the mistake of taking it,” he said. “But I could have never imagined that this would have been the result of taking something like that.”

“This has happened to hundreds of people I’ve represented,” Greene added. “Taking what seems like an innocent vitamin that turned out to be contaminated.”

What saved McKay in the short-term was that this particular company (which he and Greene would not name) agreed to send a sealed Quercetin bottle to the lab for analysis. 

“Typically the only way to get the provisional suspension lifted is to show not just the open version is contaminated, but the sealed version of the same lot number, too,” Greene said. “There are instances over time where people have tried to manipulate the supplement and thrown a drug in there, which is absurd. You need the sealed version.”

Lab testing confirmed both the open and sealed bottle contained Ostarine.

“This vitamin was the positive source,” Greene said. “Honestly, every time I see something like this, that a vitamin that says it’s all-natural, an immune-booster, would somehow be contaminated with Ostarine — which is an illegal compound in the United States. It’s amazing how unregulated the supplement and vitamin industry is.”

It’s a critical reminder. If you’re an athlete taking them, know the risks and the responsibilities. 

“You can’t be any more innocent than Dryden is, but he’s still getting a penalty,” said Matt Schmidt, the athletic department’s director of heath and performance, and the team’s head athletic trainer. “That’s the lesson here. If you’re an athlete, you better triple-check everything. I figured whatever (the illegal substance) was, it had to be with the proteins for muscle-building. In the vitamin? I would’t have bet that.”

Greene asked for an expedited hearing with the American Arbitration Association to get the provisional suspension lifted. (McKay wouldn’t be totally cleared, as USADA continued its full investigation — which can take two or three months.) A Feb. 3 date was set. The goalie hopped on the bus for a trip to Bowling Green, not knowing if he’d be able to play. 

“The only people that knew were my parents, my coaches, the trainer and the athletic director,” he said. “I didn’t tell my teammates until (two weeks ago). I didn’t want it out there. If one guy (says), ‘Oh, he tested positive,’ it blows up in my face.”

In a rare moment of levity, when McKay did tell his teammates, there were jokes about him using a performance-enhancing substance.

“He’s the last guy you’d expect,” Schmidt said. “He’s not exactly a workout fiend.”

In addition to the sealed bottle revealing an illegal substance, the other thing that helped McKay was a tiny level of Ostarine in his system — 22 picograms. (A picogram is one-trillionth of a gram.) That strengthened his testimony, that he’d only recently begun taking the product. In UFC, a fighter at that reading would have a doping case dropped once there is evidence ingestion is not intentional. (USADA actually partners with UFC on this program.) Major League Baseball has something similar. But, since the Olympics are under WADA control, McKay was in a tougher spot because that organization has no such threshold. There is a harsher standard.

“It’s a strict liability standard, so it doesn’t matter if it helped him,” Greene said.

The arbitration judgment came down the same day of the hearing.

“The sole issue under consideration is whether (McKay) is able to demonstrate that the potential anti-doping violation likely resulted from the use of a Contaminated Product,” read the decision. “After considering the testimony and documentary evidence submitted…the Athlete has met his burden. Therefore, given the totality of facts and circumstances comprising the evidentiary record, the mandatory provisional suspension…shall be lifted immediately.”

“It’s very hard to get a provisional suspension lifted,” Greene said. “It doesn’t happen very often. If we didn’t get it lifted, he never would have played again. On Feb. 3, that would have been it.”

NCAA rules state “athletes under a drug-testing suspension from a national or international sports governing body” under WADA codes can’t play intercollegiate sports “for the duration of the suspension.” However, he or she “may resume participation if/when a suspension is lifted/completed.”

For the time being, McKay was back on the roster. He didn’t miss a game. He made 45 of 46 saves that weekend as Minnesota State beat Bowling Green 3-1 and 5-0. 

“I had a new lease on life,” McKay said. “My season almost ended. I cherished what I had left, because I knew (the whole situation wasn’t over).”

USADA policy is not to announce anything until a final decision is rendered. McKay had no idea when that would come. There was no guarantee he’d get to finish the season. But, Greene knew that if the organization “charges” you with an offence, there would be 20 days to respond.

While he waited, McKay continued a terrific season that would win him the Hobey Baker. On March 19, he made 21 saves as the Mavericks beat Bemidji State 2-1 in overtime to win the CCHA Championship. Their NCAA Regional began March 24 against Harvard. 

The day before, March 23, USADA notified him of a six-month ban. The 20-day response period took him to April 12. The Frozen Four championship game was April 9. McKay was clear, if Minnesota State could get that far.

Not everyone is going to be happy with that outcome. There will be complaints. But Greene bristles at any thought of favouritism or special dispensation.

“(USADA) is not going to rig anything for anyone,” he said. “There is going to be an inevitable, ‘He never should have been allowed to play,’ or whatever. Legally, he was allowed to do everything.”

There is precedent for that stance across different sports and leagues. Defenceman Sean Hill was suspended during the 2007 playoffs for violating the NHL’s performance-enhancing protocol. It did not become public until he lost an appeal, with the NHL indicating at the time that Hill deserved his right to play through the process — in case his penalty was nullified. Same with Nate Schmidt in 2018.

There are examples in track — sprinters Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson among them — where athletes were allowed to compete while these kinds of issues were sorted out. 

McKay stopped 58 of 62 shots, with one shutout, as the Mavericks advanced to the championship game. They led Denver 1-0 after two, but the Pioneers ended the dream with five goals in the third period. That was a hard, hard loss. 

He’s an unrestricted free agent and there was NHL interest. As we waited for news on his next stop, word started to seep out that something was up. Now we know what it is.

Greene advised McKay to accept the six-month penalty.

“Typically the range (for a non-intentional ingestion) is somewhere between four-to-eight months or four-to-10 months, depending on the situation,” Greene said. “They offered him six months, which is in-line with a lot of cases I’ve been involved with. He had a decision if he wanted to accept the six months or go forward to a hearing. We just decided it made the most sense to accept the six-month ban. Let the process start now that his season was over.”

McKay can resume practising with a team on Aug. 25 and play games on Oct. 11. According to several sources, there will still be interest. He’ll have to start at the AHL level and work his way up, and there’s no shame in that. 

What’s he going to tell teams that ask about the suspension?

“I’m just going to tell them, ‘I accept the risk that I took the non-certified supplement,’” he answered. “That’s something I can’t hide from. At the same time, I’m not a cheater. I’m not someone who is trying to get an advantage. I was trying to take care of my body, avoid COVID and stay healthy so I could play the rest of the season. There was no intent.”

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