NHL lacks effective drug-testing program

Zenon Konopka was suspended 20 games on Thursday. (J Pat Carter/AP)

A wise old track and field coach once told me, “If you don’t have out-of-competition testing, you don’t have a drug program.”

What he explained was, the smart cheaters can ply their trade away from the spotlight, let their system flush out and show up at the games clean. The only guy you’re going to catch at the competition is either dumb or careless. Either way, he’s not the real problem.

Which brings us to Zenon Konopka, the unrestricted free agent who tested positive for an undisclosed performance-enhancing drug. He received a 20-game suspension, so as a 33-year-old UFA he’ll need to find a team to sign him, then keep him on the roster for the first quarter of the season while he serves his sentence.

Dumb? Or careless? Discuss among yourselves.

He is only the second NHL player to test positive since Sean Hill in 2007. Think about that for a second: It’s 2014, there are roughly 750 young men per season, chasing an average salary of about $1.4 million. In other sports, some with less compensation, some with more, PEDs have been a constant, nagging problem for more than 20 years.

But not in hockey? Really?

In Konopka’s case, he admitted the substance was in his body and took it like a man. Of course, there’s always a “but” in these cases.

“I want to make it clear that this violation occurred because I ingested a product that can be purchased over-the-counter and which, unknown to me, contained a substance that violated the program,” he said in a statement.

It is an excuse so practised that media relations types likely have it embossed on a card in their desks, the way the front desk at your hotel has printed directions to local attractions: “I took something legal, that turned out to be spiked. I did not mean to cheat.”

In hockey there is no drug culture. Not like, say, in cycling, where they’ve been so far ahead of the drug police for so many years that when someone does get caught it’s always a doctor’s mistake. A mislabeled blood bag or a double dosage administered in error.

The entire peloton dopes. If the testing were perfect, we would never see a Stage 2.

Historically, hockey’s positive tests are players like Nicklas Backstrom, the victim of an honest mistake when the Swedish team doctor did the math wrong and unwittingly administered too high a dose. But the Olympic testing protocol is what nailed Backstrom. Same with Bryan Berard, who skated past NHL testing but was nailed at a pre-Olympic test in 2005. Same with Jose Theodore.

The NHL-NHLPA testing program is so weak, it has only caught two players in eight seasons. And so the cycle of satisfaction begins.

They don’t test very hard, so they don’t catch anybody. The culture of drug awareness never sets in, and whenever the topic comes up, it is brushed away with nonchalance. “We don’t have a problem in hockey,” they say, as if anyone could truly know.

“I think it would be naive to say that there’s no one in the NHL that is trying to get the edge in that fashion,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews told Sportsnet 590 The Fan last August. “But at the end of the day, whether you get caught now or not, down the road at some point those sort of things come out as we’ve seen in Major League Baseball and cycling.”

They did not come out in cycling until the sport was drowning in EPO. An Olympic level of testing was imposed, and even then Lance Armstrong stayed ahead of the drug cops for years.

In baseball the human eye could see the growth in players like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. Even Major League Baseball couldn’t maintain its blind eye, and today, positive PED results are an annual event.

Then there is hockey.

The days of big John Kordic being juiced are long gone. Today’s hockey player would favour the same PED that a 10,000-metre runner, cyclist or cross-country skier would use. Something like Erythropoietin, or EPO, that delivers more red blood cells and more oxygen to an athlete’s muscles, leaving him with more energy and strength after the 30-second mark of a shift than his opponent.

Your eyes can’t see that in a player, the way photographs captured Bonds’s ever-growing hat size. But it works. And if Player A is consistently less tired for the last 20 seconds of his shift than Player B, he will win more battles, have the puck more, and inevitably produce more points.

With production comes money, and if you agree that athletes in almost every other sport have used PEDs to help them be good enough to get another contract, then you’ll have to be awfully protective to believe that hockey is immune to that process.

We know this: The Konopka excuse is no different than what we’ve heard from athletes across the spectrum. And Toews, for one, wasn’t buying that type of justification in his interview last summer.

“I think guys that apologize and plead that they didn’t know what they were doing, I think they know exactly what they’re doing,” Toews said.

So do I, Jon. I think the league, the union, they all know exactly what they’re doing.

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