On Sunday, Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt made his season debut after serving a 20-game suspension for a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs. Schmidt appealed the process (and lost) but vehemently asserted his innocence. “Not only did I not intentionally take a banned substance, I could not have received any performance-enhancement benefit from the trace amount that inadvertently got into my system at a level that was far too small to have any effect,” Schmidt said in a statement. “This low amount was consistent with environmental contamination that I could not possibly have prevented.”
The Golden Knights passionately stood behind Schmidt through the entire process, even awarding the defenseman a six-year, $35.7 million contract extension while he was in serving his suspension (and skating with a team in Austria). A large group of NHL players also defended Schmidt.
“I don’t think [PEDs] are very involved anywhere in [hockey], really,” Washington Capitals winger T.J. Oshie told ESPN in September. “I know Schmidty pretty well, I played with him for two years. In my opinion, he must have had just the worst luck with whatever happened. He’s the most honest, nicest person, and I can’t see him ever doing something to gain an advantage, illegally so.”
We may never know the truth about Schmidt’s innocence, but we do know that his case was quite rare. Since the current collective bargaining agreement was ratified in 2013, there have been only five suspensions. The last case was in 2016, when 37-year-old Shawn Horcoff, then with the Anaheim Ducks, was also suspended 20 games for a first-time violation. In a statement, Horcoff accepted responsibility and admitted that while recovering from an injury that fall, he “tried a treatment” that he “believed would help speed up the healing process.” Horcoff claimed he was unaware the treatment was not permitted under NHL rules, though “that is no excuse whatsoever.”
As much of the sports world, specifically Olympic sports and baseball, face a reckoning on performance-enhancing drugs, it’s worth asking why the NHL hasn’t had more cases. Do hockey players really not dope or is the system designed to allow them to hide?
“It’s just not worth it”
In interviews with more than a dozen NHL players, PED usage in the league was uniformly downplayed.
“I think there probably was a time where it was being used a lot, but it’s never really talked about, for whatever reason,” Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid said. “I think hockey guys are just a little bit different. There’s something to be said about wanting to flat out work harder than the other guy, and that’s your advantage.”
“I think there’s no doubt our players are playing within the lines, for the most part,” Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “There’s always special scenarios. For the most part, you can’t really commit yourself to one aspect of performance. You look at hockey players off the ice, they don’t look like football players, they don’t look like basketball players. You can’t be too strong, or too fast, you have to have a balance and athleticism all around. I think players are more focused on the skill aspect of the sport.”
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And Oshie: “I don’t think it’s a problem, maybe you hear the odd guy that does it. For the most part, people are pretty honest and do things the right way.”
One recently retired NHL player told me he has never heard much, if any, gossip about PEDs among his peers; he theorizes that in a career that’s so fragile anyway, it’s not worth the risk of losing money for a suspension. “You look at what the take-home salary is after escrow, and for most guys, careers are so short as it is. One positive test and you’re giving up a fourth of your salary for the season,” he said. “It’s just not worth it.”
One prominent NHL agent theorized, “Many hockey players come from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds. Most guys come from stable homes. There’s not a level of desperation you might see in other sports.”
Most players interviewed shrugged that steroids wouldn’t help hockey players since bulking up would actually do more harm than good in their sport, which is more about endurance; that argument, however, totally glosses over performance-enhancing drugs that assist with recovery. Those drugs probably would have benefit for a hockey player, given the grind of an 82-game season.
Experts on doping say it’s ignorant to assume any sport is devoid of cheaters.
“The king is the money involved,” said Dr. Charles Yesalis, a professor emeritus at Penn State and leading expert on performance-enhancing drugs. “If there was a drug available to journalists, or scientists, or to lawyers or investment bankers that would help their performance and therefore career, they would be taking drugs as much as any group of athletes do. There’s drugs like Ritalin that various professionals have used. For years, musicians have taken drugs to deal with stage fright and so on.”
The desire for a change
It should be noted that the NBA, similarly, has had few PED cases. In 2017, George Karl alleged in his book that it was “so obvious” modern basketball players were doping, and “likely it’s for the newest, hard-to-detect blood boosters and PEDs they have in Europe.” NBA commissioner Adam Silver responded publicly in 2017, saying: “I have no reason to believe whatsoever that we have an issue, either as the result of testing or as the result of other information that comes to the league office. I’d say that in most sports where there are issues, even when players do not test positive, usually there is some chatter that there is something going on. Other than what George Karl wrote in his book, there is no chatter whatsoever in the league.”
The chatter is the essential component here. MLB had its reckoning because some the “clean” baseball players became infuriated some of their peers did not abide by the rules. The recent Russian doping scandal that swept Olympic sports was sparked by a whistleblower.
“The saying, ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’?” Yesalis said. “If you don’t have people clamoring for stricter drug testing and nobody cares, why do you want to stir the pot? You’re not going to have reform.”
The NHL’s testing for performance-enhancing drugs slightly beefed up what was in the prior CBA; the new edict allowed for testing in the playoffs and offseason, though in a limited capacity. A maximum of 60 players are tested in the offseason, and they are selected randomly.
Every team is subject to team-wide, no-notice testing once during training camp and once during the regular season. Individual players can be selected for random testing during the regular season and playoffs. Any time the testing takes place, it must be done “at work on the day of a scheduled practice or meeting.” Testing does not occur on game days.
An official from another sports-governing association who works closely with the drug policy reviewed the NHL’s guidelines and said, “Trust me, if a guy is using, he can slip through the cracks. Easy. It’s the unlucky or truly careless guys that get caught.”
Adds Yesalis, who has served as a consultant to (among others) the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, U.S. Senate Judiciary and Committees, the NFLPA, the USOC and NCAA: “Combine the availability of these drugs with the loopholes in testing — the loopholes are so big, I could drive an M1 Abrams Tank through it, in the total darkness, without night vision on, and not scrape it. There is no suspicion among fans. Drug testing is a facade, it’s only to keep politicians away, and give fans plausible deniability. They think their sport idols, the guys and gals they really like to watch perform, are naturally big and fast and strong. Frankly, I don’t know if fans do care if they dope, they just don’t want it shoved into their face.”
Trusting the source
The NHL bases its banned substance list off of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list, though it’s not exactly the same. (For example, cannabinoids are not on the NHL’s banned list.) It’s a fluid list, and can change upon approval from both the NHL and NHLPA.
When it comes to banned substances, the league has a zero-tolerance policy. Any “adverse analytical finding” counts. A first positive test results in a 20-game suspension (and referral to the league’s substance abuse and behavioral health program for potential treatment). A second positive test mandates a 60-game suspension, while a third offense means a “permanent” suspension. (A player can apply for reinstatement after two years.)
One of the experts called at Schmidt’s appeal testified that the substance found in his system was present at seven billionths of a milligram/mL, which is “the equivalent of a pinch of salt in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.”
Including a minimum threshold for banned substance testing is sure to be a topic of discussion in the next CBA talks, a source said. However it’s a delicate topic as, if you don’t believe Schmidt’s word, the tiny amount could mean he was at the end of what doping experts call a “washing out period.”
The biggest issue, most players say, might be inadvertently taking a banned substance.
“I think of how many times I take a shake from a trainer, I don’t even ask what’s in it,” McDavid said. “That doesn’t mean that I’m using PEDs, it just means I trust that person, and sometimes people abuse that trust.”
Matt Nichol is the co-founder of the sports drink company BioSteel, which is popular among NHL players. He is also a former Toronto Maple Leafs trainer who privately trains a number of high-profile NHL players in the offseason. Nichol said his company spends “a ton of money” to get third-party testing on his products so “guys don’t have to worry about it.”
“Most of the guys wouldn’t know what the things are that are on that [banned] list,” Nichol said. “But the biggest problem is this: Say they go to the supplement story, they could have very good intentions. They could pick up the product, they could take the time to look on the label and cross-reference it. They could have the banned substance list in hand. But if the ingredient label wasn’t regulated, they could be screwed.”
As for why we haven’t seen more NHL doping cases, Nichol admits his worldview is a bit biased because when he created a line of products, he was directly involved in the nutrition and supplementation program players were doing.
“Guys are at the arena for two or three hours a day and the other 21 hours they could do whatever they want,” Nichol said. “In my experience, they’re pretty diligent. But they could be influenced by people or seek counsel from someone outside the team. So you really never know.”