PITTSBURGH—Other than an NHL player showing up to watch Wimbledon every once in a while, the worlds of tennis and hockey don’t cross over very often.
This year is different, and in an unusual way.
On Wednesday, tennis star Maria Sharapova was handed a two-year ban by the International Tennis Federation for her use of the performance-enhancing drug meldonium. The substance became illegal in January, and Sharapova insists she didn’t intentionally use a banned substance and plans to appeal her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
That one could take a while.
Meanwhile, with the NHL draft coming up, one of the more intriguing prospects is Russian centre German Rubtsov. He was a member of the Russian national junior team that was abruptly pulled from the IIHF world under-18 championships in April.
The belief is that all, or most, of the team, had been on a meldonium regimen, and there were fears that many of the players would test positive at the tournament in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Rubtsov is expected to be a top 25 pick this month in Buffalo, a talented two-way centre who is highly competitive.
“He’s like a dog on a bone,” said one hockey executive.
Another said he’s an “old school Russian centre who cares about the defensive side of the game.”
The question is, will the meldonium issue work against Rubtsov, causing him to fall in the draft?
“I don’t think it will,” said one GM. “Overall, I don’t think it will hurt him very much.”
“These kids weren’t to blame,” said another executive. “They didn’t know what they were taking, they just took what they were given.”
Currently, meldonium is banned by WADA, but not by the NHL, which doesn’t use the WADA substance list. However, sources said that could change.
One of the challenges with meldonium is that it appears to stay in the system for a long time. With Rubtsov, while he hopes to play major junior or minor pro next year in North America, that may not be a problem, assuming he no longer takes the substance, since he is under contract to Chekhov Vityaz of the KHL for two more seasons.
Asked about the meldonium issue at the NHL draft combine last week, the 17-year-old Rubtsov, through an interpreter, told Sportsnet he had no comment.
“I was upset, naturally,” he said when asked about the Russian junior team being pulled from the world under-18s.
The other player from the Russian national junior program rated highly for the draft who was tainted by the meldonium issue was forward Artur Kayumov. He is ranked 14th by NHL Central Scouting among eligible Europeans and is not expected to be a first round pick.
Only two Russians playing in Russia were taken in the first round of the NHL draft last June. Winger Denis Gurianov went 12th to Dallas, while netminder Ilya Samsonov was selected 21st overall by Washington. Russian-born defenceman Ivan Provorov of the Brandon Wheat Kings and Cape Breton Screaming Eagles forward Evgeny Svechnikov also went in the first round.
Rubtsov said he admires Artemi Panarin of the Chicago Blackhawks, who played for Chekhov Vityaz before moving to St. Petersburg, and then to the NHL.
He said his agent, Mark Gandler, is trying to get him out of his KHL contract.
“The sooner I can come (to North America), the sooner I will be in the NHL,” he said.