Thursday, July 28, 2005

NHL's new drug program beyond insufficient

I didn't get a chance to talk about it yesterday, with the H.N.I.C. news, the schedule being released, the '08 draft news, and the White/Holik story from Bruce Garrioch in the Sun, but Al Strachan wrote a scathing piece on the NHL's new drug program in yesterday's Toronto Sun that's worth checking out.

With this recent kick the U.S. government seems to be on about drugs in sports, the NHL has often been the wipping boy by pundits who claim their previous program was the thinnest of all the big four leagues (does NASCAR have piss tests?). So naturally, implementing a new one was an initiative of Commissioner Bettman and the NHL when ironing out this new CBA with the NHLPA.

And on the surface, what they unveiled sounded like a move in the right direction. But as Strachan points out, it's hardly as it seems and what we have is, basically, the same program dressed up.

One of the parts of the new program Bettman and company proudly ushered out was the supposed "lifetime ban" for a player's third offense. In theory, it sounds fairly strict. Well, that "lifetime ban" would probably be better described as being for two years, as the player can apply for reinstatement. As Strachan points out, would anyone caught twice allow themselves to be caught a third time?

Oh, and one other kink: the NHL and the PA have to agree on what substances are a part of this new program. The one drug they've agreed will not be included is perhaps the one that is most in need of addressing.

If you've ever talked to a hockey player on any level (but especially on the major junior, where the difficult travel can be quite grueling), you know that the "traditional" performance enhancing drugs (namely, steroids) are not considered to be a significant problem. But what's quietly been hockey's dirty little secret is that over-the-counter cold medicines, such as Sudafed (which is on the I.O.C.'s banned substances list), is far more rampant as far as usage (one might argue abuse) goes, providing a player with a jolt of energy that they often feel they need come game time.

Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated penned a pretty revealing look at the problem back in 1998.
Anecdotal accounts of Sudafed abuse in the league abound. A former coach says one of his players built up such a tolerance to the medication that he had to gobble 20 pills to get the desired boost.

The rationale behind not including "Sudeys" is, maybe, understandable initially. After all, it's not an illegal drug. Cold medicine is often used not for the buzz it provides, but rather, to combat a head ache a player is fighting. Meaning, it's intended use. Where do you draw the line between using them for legitimate reasons rather than to enhance your play, right?

Well, yes and no. I'm not any kind of experienced drug program implementer, nor do I play one on TV, but even I can think of some solutions superior to this nonsense.

Surely a program could be put in place to measure the usage. Speak with officials who specialize on cold medicines to know what the "normal usage" looks like, and then punish those who go above and beyond said level. Players, of course, should be made aware of the threshhold. If they're fighting a cold so often that they have to go above it, consult the team's physician or perhaps more appropriately an independent doctor located in every NHL city and make the league aware of your situation. If they have a cold every month, well, there's a problem that needs to be dealt with.

Something, anything, is better than nothing at all. The game's been turning a blind eye to the issue for too long now, probably because taking a few cold medicine pills with a glass of water before the game doesn't have the same stigma that shooting up steroids in a weightroom does. But make no mistake, they're both drugs that if abused will enhance your play, and if you're going to have a drug program, what sense in there in one that's half assed and doesn't address the real problems?


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