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Chris Foster / ON THE NHL

Drug Policy Still Contentious

January 24, 2006|Chris Foster

There was a feeling of some vindication from Dick Pound, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

"Yes, Virginia, there are drugs in the NHL," Pound said.

This was what he told people in November with comments that were rejected by the NHL Players' Assn. Then it was learned last week that Bryan Berard of the Columbus Blue Jackets tested positive for a banned anabolic steroid in November -- a test conducted for the Olympics by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

That, to Pound, was the smoking gun to back up his claim that one-third of the NHL's 700 players use performance-enhancing substances.

"There was institutional denial and a lot of huffing and puffing," Pound said. "What was annoying about it was the spin doctors. They all focused on steroids, and I did not say it was steroids. I said 33% would test positive to something on the WADA list."

The 800-pound gorilla in the room, Pound said, is stimulants.

The NHL installed a plan last summer to test for performance-enhancing drugs twice a year, becoming the last major sports league to begin drug testing the rank and file. But they will not punish players who test positive for stimulants, at least not this season, and "the drugs of choice in the NHL are stimulants," Pound said.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the NHL is doing "survey tests" for stimulants this season.

"It's being done on a blind basis and is meant as information," Daly said. "The intention of the program is to decide this summer whether stimulants need to be added to our drug list."

Daly still scoffs at Pound's assertion that a third of the league would test positive for performance-enhancing drugs, calling that "ridiculous."

"There is no evidence to support that claim in the least," Daly said. " ... There were 250 tests for the Olympics, and Bryan was the only player to test positive."

Effecting change takes time, but the program the NHL and union developed during negotiations for last summer's collective-bargaining agreement falls well short of what is necessary, Pound said.

Players are tested twice a year, but that does not include the off-season. The NHL said that the tests were delayed to allow players and medical personnel to attend tutorials on substance abuse. Pound, though, saw it as a chance to see what would fly under the radar.

"They announced what they called a comprehensive program last summer, but they waited until the season is half over," Pound said. "The clear message to players was 'Go find a private lab to see whether you test positive.'

"It's a funny thing, because the reason they said they never did drug testing was because there was no drug problem. Well, if there is no problem, then there should be no problem having testing, administered by a third party, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year."

What Pound sees as an inadequate program, Daly sees as a plan that is "evolving."

"The CBA is a living, breathing document," Daly said. "The way the program is set up, we can make improvements as we go along. I don't want to discuss the particulars, but we have made a number of changes to the program since July.... Neither party is interested in a program that is ineffective or eye candy, and that is not what this is."

Ted Saskin, the union's executive director, said that the current drug policy "is properly tailored to our sport," and the league and union will "continue to evaluate the current program before deciding whether or not changes are required."

He also chafed at Pound's statements.

"We will not require Dick Pound's assistance, and are disappointed but not surprised that he continues to make irresponsible and reckless allegations," Saskin said.

Meanwhile, Berard continues to play for Columbus because he did not fail an NHL-administered drug test.

"Go figure, here a guy tests positive for steroids, the league acknowledged that he had taken the steroid, he acknowledged that he had taken the steroid, he is suspended from international play for two years, yet he is welcome in the NHL," Pound said. "That is way off message."

Pound said WADA would be willing to help the league and union improve on their drug-testing program but "we're now in the your-mother-wears-army-boots stage," Pound said. "I'm the bad guy for daring to mention there are [performance-enhancing] drugs in the NHL. I hope we'll work through that."

Penguins Gamble

The seemingly endless effort to secure the Pittsburgh Penguins a new arena has reached another high-water mark, as team officials said that putting the Penguins on the market was "not a tactic," then proceeded to talk as if it were.

The Penguins' hopes of a new arena depend on the team's ownership and its partners' landing the city's slot casino license. The state will hand out 14 licenses, and four groups are vying for the one in Pittsburgh; none, though, have the political backing falling in behind the Penguins.

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