September 16, 2010
When players show up at training camp after a summer of lifting, as they will this weekend in the NHL, they're as jacked-up as they can possibly get. Hell, even I usually felt pretty good about my situation. So it rarely ever crossed my mind that anybody may have used performance-enhancers in the off-season. It was possible that a guy or two worked a little harder than me.
Then I walked into a teammate's bedroom one day and saw his "medical kit." It didn't blow my mind, but it definitely caught me off-guard. It would be the first and last time I ever saw steroid paraphernalia, but it was just the beginning of my awareness that the occasional player in professional hockey cheats.
That blind pursuit of a better opportunity or better contract was something I came to understand and grudgingly accept. But I stopped being so understanding when guys like him started climbing up our organization's depth chart.
The number of players using steroids in our sport is nowhere near as all-or-nothing as the polarizing figures on either side of this contentious debate would have you believe.
But, the topic came up more and more in the last year or two of my playing days, so it's time we face a reality: the use of performance-enhancing drugs is happening in hockey and we should get out in front of it.
Frankly, I have no idea what the numbers for users would look like - I always knew a teammate or two on every professional team that I was a part of who was on the gas, and there was usually another player most guys suspected beyond that.
Were there more flying under the radar that we were oblivious to? It's possible, but I doubt it.
I have uncertain thoughts on a number of ex-teammates, but there is something I can give you with concrete conviction: Anyone outside a locker room that claims to have a definitive number on steroid use in hockey is lying.
Dick Pound of the International Olympic Committee claims one out of every three players in the NHL is taking something. Gary Bettman thinks that having only one positive steroid test under the NHL's current system is a testament to how "effective and meaningful" the program has been, rather than an indictment of its efficiency. (By the way, Sean Hill(notes) was the only player nabbed by the NHL, while Jose Theodore(notes) and Bryan Berard(notes) tested positive under more strict international testing policies in 2005 and received two-year suspensions from international play.)
I never took steroids, as any of my ex-teammates who saw my scrawny physique would attest. I never had a coach or manager or trainer suggest I try. I never watched another player openly "juicing." I never had a teammate so much as ask me if I wanted to dabble.
When I thought about writing this piece, I also realized that I was never once asked to take a drug test in four years of NCAA Div. I hockey, parts of three professional seasons between the AHL and ECHL, and one NHL training camp. (I packed it in after the 2008-2009 season).
For an up-and-coming player like myself - and setting morals aside - the pros of looking for an extra edge pretty heavily outweighed the cons.
If a player can gain size and speed, wouldn't it be worth missing a mere 20 games for a flunked test if you were in the NHL? Wouldn't you still come back a better player, justifying your absence? And that's in a worse-case scenario -- in a world in which people don't know how to navigate the highways around the league's steroid testing. Which they do.
That oft-avoided program is more than a little suspect, and includes spacious loopholes like a five-month gap in testing that takes place between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the next one. (But during playoffs, have at ‘em, boys.) And if you're in the AHL or ECHL -- fighting to climb that last rung to a big-league career (and paycheque) -- there's a 12-month gap in testing. Which is to say it never happens.
For a decade, one season would end and I would start the month-and-a-half long process of getting back the muscle I lost over the previous season. From there, I could begin trying to build a bigger, stronger, more mature frame. I can't help but wonder how much quicker that progress might have been had I chosen to hammer out a quick "summer cycle," as they're commonly known.
My hazy understanding is that a cycle takes something like five weeks, then it takes something like a month for your body to adjust and get rid of all the heightened levels of god-knows-what. If those guess-timates are anywhere near accurate, a guy could feasibly hammer out two summer cycles; which, damn, look out for that dude in training camp.
But slower progress in the gym wasn't the most frustrating thing. The hardest part for me was watching a guy I thought I was better than move up the ladder because of his physical play. I constantly struggled to pack on muscle - I just couldn't protect the puck well enough down low, couldn't hold my ice in front of the net for long enough, and didn't win enough battles along the wall.
I'm not saying getting on the juice would've made the difference between the ECHL and NHL for me, but I think it could've helped my cause. After all, I played at 6-2 and 190 pounds (or less). Would I have been more effective at 200 or 205? Good chance.
It's a thin line between making it and being a step away - and jumping from the AHL to the NHL "moves the decimal," as players will say. In simple terms, an NHL contract means 10 times as much money - from the AHL minimum $35,000 to the NHL minimum of $500,000. I'd be lying if I said the thought doesn't cross my mind: "I'll take a time machine and a needle, thanks."
With a carrot that size dangling from the stick, the last thing we need is guys asking themselves the question "is it worth the risk?" when there barely is one. Our sport isn't anywhere near baseball's epidemic of use, but it shouldn't be that hard to learn from their mistakes and be proactive, should it?
The threat of getting caught isn't a high-stress topic amongst the few guys that talked to me about using. (This topic usually only came up after a half-dozen lip-loosening libations).
Once a guy says "yes" to "should I do a summer cycle to get strong going into camp?" they only need to figure out answers to a few questions that don't end in strict enough answers:
How long does it take to get out of my system? If I drink some potion before will it flush my system/mask the drugs during the test? Can I be sure nothing will show? Can someone else piss for me? How close do they watch this? Are they taking blood?
And if you're not in the NHL, none of those questions matter.
I talked to a buddy who played in the AHL last year about his experience with teammates on steroids and he said he saw the exact same exchanges I saw: If guys knew another player was on something and he was being a snap-show, they just made sarcastic jokes like "more juice, psycho."
It's barely even a "thing." Most people barely care. That said, I think they will care more if the numbers go from a couple guys per team to a half-dozen.
All pro teams do a daily weigh-in to make sure nobody is straying too far from their normal poundage. Can we not assume any guy gaining substantial weight but not body fat during the season or playoffs is on the juice? It's nearly impossible to not lose weight during the year. Is it possible to make natural strength-gains during the season?
I'm pretty sure hockey fans don't want to get put in a position where they've "gotta ask the question" about guys. I already find myself looking at fighters on teams and thinking, "damn, with their specialized role and next-to-no testing, it has to be awfully tempting for those guys."
Even to build a rep in the minors where you're untested, it has to help your chances of landing the big league contract next year. (And yes -- when there are whispers, more-often-than-not it's usually about a team's heavyweight).
In most sports, steroid use is visible on the body -- guys get massive biceps and chest muscles and end up with not-a-whole-lotta neck. But in hockey, being top-heavy is a disadvantage if you're not fighting. Most guys are built with quads like tree trunks - speed and stability take precedence over brawn and bulk in hockey, so players train accordingly.
Between the lower-half-first training plan of hockey players and the layers of padding, it's easy to see how a juiced-up player could go unnoticed. But we don't want to be the league where the men in charge have their eyes closed and hands over their ears going "la-la-la-la I can't hear you," intentionally trying to avoid reality.
My main question is, what does the NHL or NHLPA (or the PHPA in the minors, for that matter) have to gain from keeping testing at a minimum?
Maybe they're worried that catching players with positive tests will eat away at hockey's credibility the way baseball's has been damaged. I don't know, I can't think of any other reason. And if that's it, that's just as dishonest as being the type of guy who jabs so many needles in his ass he ends up throwing bat-shards at people.
The current system is inadequate because people are using and not getting caught. That's not hearsay or rumor, that's first-hand fact.
The new CBA is coming up, and this is something that needs to be rectified. A lot of players will be in favour of an increase in testing, too.
Most have nothing to hide.
Justin Bourne blogs on Bourne's Blog. His columns and videos will appear on this site on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.