While the Chicago Blackhawks were rattling off a record point streak, and the NHL was realigning itself from a six-division geographical abortion into four time-zone friendly groupings, the biggest story of the NHL’s first half flew comfortably under the radar.
Comfort was at the root of this story, actually.
Hockey players get relative a free pass when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs, in the eyes of the public and through the policies handed down from league headquarters in Manhattan. I know of players still in the game who have been accused of using steroids by teammates, but such accusations seem extremely rare1 from my experience.
If you’re looking for tangible evidence, there are no inflated statistics to point to, as was the case in baseball. Players haven’t become both artificially chiseled and artificially fast, as was the case in football. It’s convenient to assume that smaller hockey players and smaller stats equate to an effective drug abuse and prevention policy. In reality, this could not be further from the truth.
There is a drug culture in the NHL. As with many things in hockey, it’s just not like the drug cultures in other sports. And it’s beginning to rise to the level of surface awareness.
Sports Illustrated reported on one significant development last month:
The NHL and NHLPA have established a joint committee to study the use of Ambien by players. “It’s not a huge concern, but it is a concern,” says NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. The often-hectic travel schedules of NHL teams, which routinely fly out of cities late at night immediately after games, can wreak havoc on a player’s sleep patterns, and the prescription aid, it seems, is a popular remedy in hockey locker rooms. In his enlightening three-part story on the late Derek Boogaard, New York Times writer John Branch quoted longtime AHL journeyman and former Islander Mitch Fritz: “I’ve been on teams where it’s pretty out in the open, and guys will say: ‘I have Ambien. Need an Ambien?’”
Fritz’s experience is not unique. If the Ambien handouts were limited to one clubhouse, maybe the league could dismiss the problem. But a funny thing happened on the way to the last lockout: The more NHLPA boss Donald Fehr talked to players, the more the NHL’s drug culture rose to the surface. The problem was pervasive, too large to ignore. The players, as the Globe and Mail nailed in a recent headline, needed to be saved from themselves.
“What [NHLPA head Don Fehr] did in preparation for this negotiation was talk to a lot of players. We’ve had some real tragedies in our game because of lifestyle and abuse of different substances and pills. It’s my belief that the schedule, the lack of rest, and the pressure helps accentuate this,” said Calgary Flames forward Michael Cammalleri.
The net result, as the Globe and Mail reported, was that teams are to be given no fewer than four days off for every full calendar month in the lockout-shortened season. The league appears to be a couple years behind one of its own franchises in this department. The Vancouver Canucks hired a sleep doctor in 2011 whose job was to make sure players were getting enough rest.
This is one area in which the lives of NHL players are night-and-day different from yours and mine. The travel demands of an 82-game schedule can really take a toll on one’s psyche, particularly for players on Western teams who had to travel among three different time zones within their own conference.
Here’s where realignment comes in. By shortening the distance between inter-division games (and expanding divisions up to eight teams), travel becomes more reasonable. By extension, the need for sleep enhancers is reduced, at least in theory. Sure, the new divisions look better on a map, but the practical effects of realignment run deeper.
Will the changes work? By increasing the amount of systematic drug testing, the league hopes to find out. SI reported that the NHL’s testing program got a significant upgrade during the lockout:
Buried in the 24-page memo of understanding are a few substantive changes to the NHL’s drug-testing program, notably that the league will begin testing during the playoffs and administer a limited number of tests during the off-season. That’s a no-brainer, and probably the only concrete step forward the league made to its policy. Individual no-notice testing has been introduced this season; previously, all testing was done on a team-by-team basis.
It remains to be seen what will come out of those tests, and if the league will make those results known to the press or the public. Don’t expect much transparency. Again, this isn’t like Major League Baseball, where the public backlash against steroid users has forced commissioner Bud Selig to seize every opportunity to trumpet his drug policy for seven years and counting.
Not all performance-enhancing drugs are created equal, of course. The side effects of Ambien are going to be different from, say, Winstrol. But there’s no excuse for a league creating a culture of drug dependency by its own action (scheduling 82 games across the continent over six months) or inaction (looking the other way when players and trainers distribute pills like candy). The NHL is beginning to realize it’s out of excuses.
1. Since there was no scientific poll, don’t mistake my use of the word “rare” for a statement of fact.