Carter Ashton suspended 20 games for PED violation; blames borrowed inhaler

DETROIT, MI - MARCH 18: Carter Ashton #37 of the Toronto Maple Leafs warms up prior to the start of the game against the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena on March 18, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. The Red Wings defeated the Maple Leafs 3-2. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Carter Ashton
DETROIT, MI - MARCH 18: Carter Ashton #37 of the Toronto Maple Leafs warms up prior to the start of the game against the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena on March 18, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. The Red Wings defeated the Maple Leafs 3-2. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Carter Ashton

Carter Ashton probably wishes he didn’t inhale.

The Toronto Maple Leafs forward became only the third NHL player since 2006 to be suspended for a violation of the League’s performance enhancing drug policy, earning a 20-game ban that was announced on Thursday. In a statement, Ashton denied seeking competitive advantage, and said he ingested a banned substance through a borrowed asthma inhaler.

Ashton, a first-round pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2009 (29th overall), had appeared in three games for the Leafs this season without tallying a point, last appearing on Nov. 4 for 6:43 against the Arizona Coyotes.

From the NHL:

Under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the suspension is accompanied by mandatory referral to the NHL/NHLPA Program for Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health for evaluation and possible treatment. Based on his average annual salary, Ashton will forfeit $169,185.

Neither the NHL nor the Leafs offered additional comments on the suspension.

Carter did, through an NHLPA statement, accepting his fate but explaining the circumstances:

“I suffered an asthmatic spasm in late August while in a training session getting prepared for the 2014-15 NHL season. One of the other athletes I was training with gave me an inhaler in order to help open my airway, which provided me with immediate relief from my asthma attack.  I kept this inhaler and used it a second time early in the training camp upon experiencing another asthma episode. Unfortunately, I incorrectly assumed that there were no problems associated with the use of this inhaler and I used it without checking to see whether its contents were permissible under the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program.

"I now recognize that I ingested Clenbuterol, a prohibited substance, through the inhaler. However, at no time was I seeking to gain an athletic advantage or to knowingly violate the terms of the program. I used the inhaler in response to exercise-induced asthma, a condition that my doctor with the Toronto Maple Leafs has since diagnosed and he has prescribed me with an inhaler. 

"As a professional hockey player, I recognize that I am responsible for what I put into my body, and I will not appeal my suspension. While I am extremely disappointed that I have let my teammates, our fans and the Maple Leafs organization down, I will work very hard during my suspension to stay in game shape so that I can help out the team when I am able to return.”

Now, Clenbuterol isn't exactly commonplace as an inhaled substance. It's typically used as a fat-burner, in pill form. It speeds up metabolism and helps define muscles. Cyclist Alberto Contodor tested positive for it two years ago, putting it in the international sports spotlight. From The Explainer:

Clenbuterol was, indeed, developed as an asthma treatment. The drug is similar to salbutamol, the asthma drug whose overuse resulted in the one-year suspension of Alessandro Petacchi. Like salbutamol, clenbuterol is a Beta2 adrenergic agonist, which relaxes those smooth muscle groups over which you exercise no direct conscious control. Salbutamol, for example, was often used to relax uterine muscles when a pregnant woman experiences premature labor, although a similar drug, terbutaline, is more commonly prescribed for that purpose.

The relaxation of smooth muscle tissue would also result in the dilation of bronchial passages, hence the use of Beta2s as asthma drugs.But under the World Anti-Doping Code, clenbuterol is banned entirely. Unlike salbutamol, there is no Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) available for clenbuterol. Asthma suffering athletes – and there seem to be a lot in cycling, if you review the number of TUEs issued – have to rely on salbutamol.

This isn't to say Ashton couldn't have gotten this inhaler from a training partner and accidentally used it. But it would make more sense if that training partner was, in fact, a horse. 

The NHL suspended New York Islanders defenseman Sean Hill in 2006 for performance enhancing drugs, a violation that Hill didn’t dispute. They suspended Buffalo Sabres center Zenon Konopka in May 2014 for a violation; like Ashton, he had an excuse:

“I want to make it clear that this violation occurred because I ingested a product that can be purchased over-the-counter and which, unknown to me, contained a substance that violated the program.  Unfortunately, I did not take the necessary care to ensure that the product did not contain a prohibited substance.  I want to stress, however, that I did not take this substance for the purpose of enhancing my athletic performance,” he said in a statement.

Konopka is currently an unrestricted free agent.

There have been other violations outside the NHL. Jose Theodore tested for a banne substance in 2006 at a pre-Olympic camp, and blamed it on the hair-growth drug Propecia. Nicklas Backstrom wasn’t allowed to play in Sweden’s gold medal game against Canada due to a banned substance test result over an allergy medication; he needed an IOC ruling to earn his silver medal.

Leafs president Brendan Shanahan backed the NHL’s decision: “The Toronto Maple Leafs support the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program and today’s decision to suspend forward Carter Ashton. At this time, out of respect for Carter and the process involved, the Club will not comment any further."