NHL must face drug issue, too

This is the time of year when everyone I know starts thinking about hockey, talking about hockey and having beautiful, beautiful dreams about hockey. Sadly, that says a lot more about the number of people I know it does about the popularity of the greatest sport played on ice skates.

Nevermind the strong possibility that hockey is the only sport played on ice skates.

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With all the attention the steroids issue gets, the NHL gets lost in the shuffle?for all the right reasons, if you take hockey commissioner Bill Daly at his word (as reported by The Canadian Press):

?I don?t think we?ve ever had the same problem…Hockey players have been tested for many years in international play. It’s simply not part of their culture. And we have tested NHL players up to three times a year since January 2006 and obviously have not had many issues other than one failed test.?

The one failed test Daly refers to is the case of defenseman Sean Hill, who in April 2007 was suspended 20 games for doping.

Daly?s view is, of course, not the only one. Enter Dick Pound, Montreal Lawyer who in 2005 estimated that a third of NHLers were doping. Pound is not in such a different position from George J. Mitchell, who put the Mitchell in the report that identified Andy Pettite as a doper.

Pettite admitted using HGH to speed recovery from an injury?just like New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison did?but denied using steroids. Just like Harrison. Credit Jayson Stark with the primary assist on this parenthetical.

The difference is that Pound has not yet coughed up the kind of evidence that Mitchell has?the sort of evidence that has a way of holding up only in the court of public opinion?and it is unlikely that Pound ever will substantiate his claims about the weakness of the NHL drug policy.

But the NHL should take notice, and consider a pre-emptive action. If it really has no drug problems, what would be the harm in hiring Pound to conduct a similar report and granting him the same investigative latitude Mitchell was.

If the NHL really has no drug problems, it could make a lot of hay right now and perhaps even set itself apart from all the other pseudo-sports out there.

And if it has a drug problem, wouldn?t the NHL (or any other league) want to deal with it now? Basic principle of crisis management is to stop the bleeding as soon as possible, to get through the three-step program of admitting the problem, apologizing for mistakes made and doing everything necessary to make certain not to fall into the same pit a second time?

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Dear Mr. Daly:

Setting aside the obligation to give off the image of always doing everything exactly right all the time, isn?t today exactly the right time to promote your league?s greatest quality?that it is, in fact, the best sport played on skates and maybe the only sport left in a world full of turn-a-blind-eye owners and lying cheating athletes?

NHL players have an impressive reputation for character that goes beyond that of those who go pro in other sports. Is that reputation well deserved? Put it on the line! Test it, and make sure, because cheating-by-juicing is one issue that can chase away even a loyal fan.

By the way, Bill, if you haven?t noticed, just about nobody cares about your sport right now?not exactly the way the Tragically Hip put it in that Fireworks song, but it?s true.

Please let the distinctiveness, character and integrity of your athletes store up some trust with sports fans, or at least deal with the lack of distinctiveness, character and integrity in your ranks now, before it festers.

The lockout did the NHL no good, and you?ve got an opportunity to regain a measure of credibility with the average fan. Please, please make good on it.



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