The latest string of doping infractions in the Canadian Hockey League isn’t exactly worthy of a U.S. Congressional hearing. There’s no Mark McGwire coming clean about human growth hormone or Jose Canseco discussing injecting teammates with steroids in the posterior.
This is more like going to your local GNC or heath food store and buying an over-the-counter energy supplement -- which is exactly what Prince George Cougars forward Spencer Asuchak did to earn an eight-game suspension after testing positive for methylhexaneamine, a banned stimulant on the World Anti-Doping Association’s list.
“Eight games is extreme for this,” said Cougars head coach Dean Clark on Tuesday. “I think when they originally set the suspensions it was more based on guys taking steroids and that type or stuff, or other banned drugs like marijuana, cocaine, whatever and that’s why it was set up to be as harsh as it was.
“Unfortunately there’s no wiggle room and that’s the problem.”
The CHL runs their doping program through the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, which conducts the testing of players across the entire league. As far as the non-profit organization is concerned, players are solely responsible for what they put in their bodies -- no ifs, ands or buts.
“Athletes are strictly liable for any substance found in their doping control sample, regardless of how it got there,” said Paul Melia, the President and CEO of the CCES.
There is an appeal process for the suspensions, though as Clark noted, “by the time the appeals process goes through, you’d rather have your eight games done with in case (the appeal) doesn’t turn out.”
Asuchak, 19, was the third CHL player to test positive for methylhexaneamine, joining Ontario Hockey League forward Alex Aleardi of the Plymouth Whalers and defenceman Ryan O’Connor of the Saginaw Spirit, who were also given eight-game bans on Jan. 14 for their first doping offenses. All three players have now been branded as drug cheats despite both the Western Hockey League and OHL saying the players “had no knowledge” that the over-the-counter supplement they purchased contained a banned stimulant.
“It’s not like you’re going into an alley and buying some stuff off some guy because you want to get an advantage,” said Clark. “It was a product that you could go to any supplement store and buy.”
All three players took an energy supplement called “Jack3d” -- a powder-based “pre-workout nitric oxide drink” that does not list methylhexaneamine on its label, but rather a derivative, dimethylamylamine, though both names are mentioned on the product’s website.
According to Clark, Asuchak, a native of Kamloops, B.C., was particularly careful about the products he was taking and checked the ingredients against the WADA list, which unfortunately for him, was from 2009 and outdated. It wasn’t until 2010 that WADA added methylhexaneamine to its list of banned substances.
“If you didn’t get an updated list for 2010, you wouldn’t even know,” said the Clark, adding he feels badly that Asuchak might be tainted as a drug cheat for something he alleges was an honest mistake.
“You couldn’t ask for a better kid. He’s very honest and he works very hard. I feel bad for him, because I know he feels bad.”
Adding to the confusion is the fact that WADA puts out its list on Jan. 1, based on the calendar year, so an ingredient that might be legal in September, when the CHL hockey season starts, could well be banned in March when playoffs are underway.
“Can you imagine if you’re going into the playoffs and a kid bought a (contaminated) over-the-counter drink? That’s eight games,” said Mississauga Majors head coach and GM Dave Cameron. “That keeps you up at night, because you’re responsible.”
After having Asuchak suspended for the test he took in December, Clark said he’d rather see his players go without taking any supplements than take something questionable.
“The only thing you can do about it is not take anything -- just work hard,” said the 47-year-old. “There’s always a viable option, I don’t think you have to take stuff in order to improve, certainly some of this stuff helps build muscle and different things like that, but there’s no replacement for plain hard work.”
In Plymouth, Whalers head coach and GM Mike Vellucci said their problem arose when Aleardi assumed the product was safe and failed to let staff know he was taking the supplement.
“We were vigilant,” said Vellucci of the team’s screening process. “But sometimes it’s on the player to make sure (it’s safe). I can’t follow them around to the stores, but I think with the education and this coming out that players realize that no matter what you’re doing, you need to run it by your trainer. Just like if you’re at work and you don’t know if it’s the right thing to do or not, you’d run it by your boss. If you have any doubt, run it by your trainer.”
But as many trainers will tell you, many of the supplements can be labeled incorrectly. Even those that are seemingly safe can suffer from cross-contamination in processing facilities.
“Even if everything is fine on the label, wherever that supplement is made, if that factory produces anything that is illegal or banned there’s always a chance something could end up in your product,” said Ivan Bokanovic, head athletic therapist for the Mississauga Majors.
Bokanovic said he doesn’t even advise his players to take over-the-counter cold and flu medications when they’re sick, unless it’s at least 24 hours before a game where it has time to clear the system.
But increasingly popular for some players is the completely legal combination of caffeine and sugar, found in everything from a Tim Horton’s double-double to a can of Red Bull from the local convenience store.
“For all three kids involved, I don’t even think it was an advantage,” said Clark. “It’s not something they wanted to do. Kids take Red Bull, is that great for you? Probably not. But that’s the thing, those things are out there and some of them aren’t banned. Some kids drink coffee, there’s lots of different things.”
And while products like 5-Hour Energy drinks and Red Bull might be looked upon as quick boosts before a game, Bokanovic said they’re not worth it in the long run.
“I always tell my guys, ‘You’ll get a high from it, but then you’ll crash,’” said Bokanovic. “All those products have that sugar and caffeine so you’ll crash.”
As far as Clark is concerned, with testing results taking up to a month before being released, he wouldn’t be surprised if there are more players found to have ingested banned substances.
“I’m sure there are other kids,” said WHL coach. “These guys aren’t the first guys.
“I think there are some general managers in our league who are worried… because there was a month before the Ontario guys came out (positive) where (WHL players) were being tested, so there could be some more guys that come out here that end up testing positive.”