Is the NHL as squeaky clean as its drug-testing failures indicate?

As far as major league sports go, the NHL is considered to be pretty clean when it comes to the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). In fact, just five players have been banned under the league and players’ association drug policy in the past 10 years. Two of those suspensions have been handed down this season though as 24-year-old defenceman Jarred Tinordi of the Arizona Coyotes was just hit with a 20-game ban on March 11th after failing a drug test. Shawn Horcoff of the Anaheim Ducks received the same punishment earlier this campaign while other players suspended in the past were Zenon Konopka, Sean Hill and Carter Ashton.

But some people feel the NHL isn’t as clean as its image suggests and the drug-testing system is too lax. There are approximately 800 NHL players on the ice during any given season with the average salary being about U.S. $2.6 million. Major League Baseball has suspended a minimum of 35 players since 2007 and the NFL claims that well over 100 players have failed tests. On the other hand, the NBA is also relatively clean with just eight players being banned. This leads many fans to believe the NHL is more or less squeaky clean in regards to illegal substance use. While MLB has suspended star players over the years such as Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, those failing drug tests in the NHL have been fringe or journeymen players.

It’s possible that fourth-line NHL players are worried about losing their jobs and are trying to get an edge on their competition by taking PEDs. On the other hand, MLB stars are accused of cheating as a way to earn bigger contracts and get their names in the record books. Most NHL’ers who fail drug tests claim they didn’t knowingly take illegal drugs, but do admit they were given a list of all banned substances and are responsible for what they put into their bodies.

These players then release statements apologizing to their clubs, teammates, families and fans. They sit out 20 games and forfeiting the salary for those contests and then get on with their careers. The mandatory punishment for a first-time offender in the NHL is 20 games, which equates to about a quarter of a season while MLB hands out an 80-game ban, which is close to half a season and the NFL hands out a four-game ban for a first offence, which is also a quarter of a season.

The NHL and the players’ association agreed to a drug-testing program when they signed the last collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Drug tests can take place during the playoffs as well as the offseason to keep players on their toes. But critics point out there isn’t enough overall testing being done. Each team is tested just twice a year with the first test in training camp and the second taking place during the regular season. In addition, an individual player can be asked to take a random test during the regular and post seasons as long as it’s not on a game day.

During the offseason the NHL is allowed to test a maximum of just 60 players, which isn’t many considering the number of players in the league. The NFL performs approximately 14,000 tests per year. Also, NHL players tested in the offseason are given two-week’s notice beforehand. Since it’s not impossible to mask PED use, this gives an individual adequate amount of time to prepare. The actual testing is performed by a committee consisting of NHLPA and league representatives as well as a doctor nominated by each organization. However, under the current CBA, the league doesn’t test for HGH (Human Growth Hormone).

There are numerous hockey insiders and ex-players, such as Georges Laraque, who believe there is much more illegal-substance abuse going on in the NHL and there should be more testing. The NHL will have to wait for the next CBA to introduce more comprehensive tests though and the league recently announced it may consider adding cocaine and other recreational drugs to the banned-substance list. Currently, just one-third of NHL drug samples are tested for drugs such as cocaine. There have been several high-profile incidents of drug possession with NHL players over the past few years and this could be an effective way of reducing them.