Time to start talking about steroids in the NHL

Even with Ray Lewis’ admission that he used Deer Antler Spray and the Baseball Hall of Fame Committee’s recent shutout of PED users, the NHL has still managed to avoid the steroid question. Nobody wants to believe their favorite player is doping, but it takes a certain amount of naïveté to think it’s not happening at all.

Among those in denial is Philadelphia Flyers goon Jody Shelley, who – despite playing more than a decade in the NHL – claimed to have never seen any other players try to gain an unfair advantage by shooting a needle into themselves. During an interview with PhillyBurbs.com last month the veteran winger denied the NHL needed blood testing, which is used to detect the human growth hormone that kept ball players like Mark McGwire and Mike Piazza out of Cooperstown.

“You have to look at it from a kid’s point of view,” Shelley said. “Kids that are 12 to 20, living with dreams and aspirations and heroes. It sounds like a message from the writers, you can’t deny what those guys did as athletes and baseball players.”

And baseball players. Nope, not hockey’s problem. Only those dastardly athletes in the NFL, NBA, MLB, and every other sport would consider using PEDs.

Picture yourself as a 17-year-old kid playing in a junior league hundreds of miles away from home. You’re friends from home are going to senior prom and applying to colleges but your stapled to the bench. One of the guys who came up a few years ahead of you was just drafted and looks like he’ll be spending next season in the AHL. Meanwhile, because you’ve had trouble putting on weight, the team just traded for a 16-year-old that looks like he’s going to steal your roster spot.

All you have to do is start injecting a shot into your butt cheek 20 minutes before hitting the weight room a couple times a week. You know a guy who can get the stuff cheap, and the league you’re playing for doesn’t even test for it. No one even has to know, and even if they suspect something you’ll be too busy scoring goals for them to think twice. The difference could be a shot at the show versus bragging for the rest of your life about captaining a Division II team.

“As far as HGH, I think that if the league thought it was a problem, they would go after it,” Shelley continued. “Maybe that (blood testing) is the next step to this whole thing. They addressed the major issue when it came up and tried to get ahead of it like the other sports with steroids. Maybe there’s another step, I don’t know…I think the NHL has done a good job. If other things come up, there will be a discussion.”

Bad news, Jody. Other things have come up. Former seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong’s admission that he led the U.S.P.S. cycling team in a no holds barred steroid orgy should shake major sports leagues to their core. There’s no excuse to pretend this isn’t happening in locker rooms across North America, not anymore.

Part of the reason Shelley may not think there’s a problem is because of the league’s laughable testing policy. Before the 2010 Olympics Games in Vancouver, World Anti Doping Agency director general David Howman told reporters that, despite what too many executives and fans think, hockey doesn’t exist in a bubble.

“We don’t know if there’s a problem (in the NHL),” Howman said. “But you’re left with a suspicion there may be a problem if they’re not prepared to front-up. That’s the underlying issue. (The policy) is not as stringent as you would want. And therefore you could slip under the radar quite easily.”

Again, it seems unlikely that steroid use is a widespread problem in hockey, but refusing to even acknowledge it’s happening is mind-boggling.

Very little has changed under the terms of the newest collective bargaining agreement. Sarah Kwak at Sports Illustrated reported that the NHL and NHLPA only “will study the use of stimulants and amphetamines and make recommendations…including whether or not to establish a testing program.”

Instead of simply “establishing a testing program,” something that should be considered the bare minimum for any sport trying to curb drug use, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly announced the league would focus on Ambien, the sleeping pill.

“It’s not a huge concern, but it is a concern,” said Daly.

So sleeping pills are a “concern” but exorbitant levels of testosterone and the idea of players using the same drugs Sylvester Stallone used to bulk up for Rambo are off the grid?

In 2008 Daly’s boss, NHL Commish Gary Bettman, testified in front of a U.S. House subcommittee that the NHL didn’t have a problem with performance enhancing drugs, citing only one suspension in the nearly three years between the hearing and the 2004-05 lockout.

“We shouldn’t all be painted with the same broad brush,” Bettman said. “Every sport is different. What goes on in one sport does not go in every sport. This hasn’t been an issue for us as it has been for others.”

Gary has never been popular among fans but there’s no denying he’s one of the smartest men in the game. The commissioner’s sense of his own power is unrivaled, so he has to realize the benefits of keeping any steroid use in the league under wraps. It’s better business for him and the NHL to avoid the steroids discussion altogether. Living in the dark means hockey, coming off its second lockout in under a decade, will be able to avoid the public relations disaster that’d be unavoidable if a future Hall of Famer like Teemu Selanne or Martin Brodeur was revealed to have been so good for so long because they were cheating.

Someday the use of PEDs in hockey will fly in the face of fans and the league, whether they like it or not. It will be revealed that players scoring highlight reel goals today started using yesterday. Until then, though, it might be better to keep up the facade. But when the wall of denial finally comes down – either by force or league initiative – at least we’ll be able to stop pretending hockey is immune.


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