OTTAWA — For Nate Schmidt, this is still a fight worth fighting.
It’s not one he can likely win in the waning days of a 20-game suspension for violating the terms of the NHL’s performance-enhancing substances program — not with confidentiality rules preventing him from providing blow-by-blow details of what went down, and not in a cynical sporting world where athletes tend to be presumed guilty no matter how vehemently they deny a doping charge.
Those things are well beyond the control of the Vegas Golden Knights defenceman, who was over the moon after finally being allowed to rejoin his teammates for practice on Wednesday afternoon, but still struggling with the idea his character was brought into question by the positive test.
“When you can look in the mirror and know you didn’t do something that’s all that matters,” said Schmidt. “You can see the Almighty and know when it’s all said and done — you can look at him in the face, myself, my family, my friends — and say that I know that wasn’t something I intentionally did, or even tried to even do.
“That’s not in my DNA to do something like that.”
Full disclosure, before we go any further: I have no idea if he did or didn’t do it. I don’t even know what banned substance he tested positive for. But Schmidt is one of the great characters in our game — the sort of person you want to take at face value — and Wednesday was the first time he addressed reporters since the 20-game ban was announced on Sept. 2.
He was permitted to participate in practices during Golden Knights training camp and joined the Vienna Capitals once the regular season started. He spent a month skating in Austria before returning home last week to get some work in with the University of Minnesota.
Now he’s back with the Golden Knights, inching closer to his Nov. 18 return at Edmonton, and still not entirely sure how he found himself in this situation to begin with.
“I honestly wish I could tell you. I don’t know,” said Schmidt. “I have theories. But at the end of the day it is what it is, it’s theories. No one really knows. All of the experts you could talk to — you talk to everybody you can and everybody can offer an idea — I just don’t take any more of anything. Pretty much clean all the way through.
“No supplements. I ate as much clean things as I can eat, which I try to do anyways. It’s just a shitty situation. Sometimes bad things happen to people for no reason.”
Schmidt was informed of his positive test long before news of it ever went public. The first phone call he made was to Golden Knights general manager George McPhee — a sign, he contends, that he didn’t have anything to hide.
The 27-year-old was tested twice last season and is believed to have known about the positive result even while logging the most minutes among Vegas players during their run to the Stanley Cup final.
Without confirming that timeline, he said he simply focused on what he could control once it happened. He offered to take a lie-detector test. He had his hair analyzed by an expert, who concluded there “was no evidence of intentional use,” according to the statement Schmidt released in September.
An expert in environmental contamination testified at his appeal hearing that the amount of tainted substance found in his system was “the equivalent of a pinch of salt in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.”
The problem? It was still there.
“The problem is there’s zero tolerance,” said Schmidt.
Athletes in other sports have blamed positive tests on tainted meat. While Schmidt continues to eat meat, he says “I make sure I know where it comes from.”
“You know what, I got to go hunting at home and I got myself a deer and that’s where my meat will be coming from for the next foreseeable future,” he added.
If he had his druthers, there’s clearly more he’d like to say about a process that’s stretched over several months. However, section 47.11 of the collective bargaining agreement calls for confidentiality on positive tests.
Schmidt plans to honour that.
“I’ve gotten fined enough in the last month and a half,” he said. “So there’s some things you can’t talk about … what it was, timing, all that other stuff. I don’t really want to get fined anymore, to be honest.”
The automatic 20-game suspension for a first offence cost Schmidt a little more than $460,000 in salary because he went unpaid during the first 34 days of the regular season and will now earn just 60 per cent of his pay until he’s eligible to play games again.
Should he test positive a second time in the future, he’ll be slapped with a 60-game suspension.
Still, there have been moments of affirmation amid the struggle. Schmidt is blown away by the support he’s received from the Golden Knights. McPhee even signed him to a $35.7-million, six-year contract extension on Oct. 25 — putting action to the words of support he voiced when the suspension was handed down.
Now back with his teammates, he’s reprised his role as the life of the dressing room. He led the stretch during practice at Canadian Tire Centre and hopes to provide a shot of energy to a team that’s been hit hard by injuries and stumbled to a 6-8-1 start.
“These guys aren’t going to have a whole lot of silence here the next 10 or 12 days,” said Schmidt. “I texted them about a week ago and said ‘I hope you guys have enjoyed the silence. I’m back in seven days.”’
Above all, Schmidt appreciates the support he’s received from every corner of the hockey world and beyond. It helped on the tough days.
Even if he can’t change the way he’s viewed in the court of public opinion, he intends to do whatever he can to push for changes that would keep a future player in a similar situation from being suspended.
“I’m all about keeping our game clean and I told them in the beginning ‘test me every day if you want to.’ The whole time. It wasn’t something that I was trying to shy away from,” said Schmidt. “I want to be able to work with the league and the [NHL Players’ Association] and put something together. I don’t want this to happen to anybody else. It was hard enough.
“If I have to be the guy that it happens to in order for it to never happen again, you know what, that’ll be OK with me.
“I can live with that.”