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From The Point: NHL can't ignore steriod issue

Sean Hill's 20-gamer is the only drug-related suspension the NHL has handed down.

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Sean Hill's 20-gamer is the only drug-related suspension the NHL has handed down.

It was difficult to watch Major League Baseball’s Great Steroid Investigation press conference on Thursday – in which dozens of new players were implicated, including Roger Clemens – without wondering what the impact would be, if any, on the hockey world.

Officially, the NHL does not have a drug problem. In the past two seasons, the league reportedly has performed more than 3,000 random tests for banned substances, and only one player – Sean Hill – has tested positive (Previously, before the lockout, the NHL had no drug policy to speak of and did not randomly test for banned substances).

Hill, who has strongly denied he took anything illegal, failed a drug test as a member of the New York Islanders near the end of the regular season last year, but appealed and was able to continue playing into the playoffs. Ultimately, he was suspended for 20 games; he served one game at the end of the Isles’ five-game ouster versus Buffalo in the first round of the playoffs, then sat out the first 19 games this season after signing with Minnesota in the summer.

And back at the 2006 Olympics, Bryan Berard tested positive for a steroid  – there was no NHL suspension, but he was banned from international play for two years – and Jose Theodore got in trouble for his choice in hair care products (Propecia, to be precise).

So, the three NHLers who have had their names linked to performance-enhancing substances are: A 37-year-old defenseman (Hill); a highly skilled, roving defenseman who lost most of his vision in one eye in an on-ice incident in 2000 (Berard); and, a 5-foot-10, 182-pound goalie who likes his locks “real long.”

Not exactly a murderer’s row. There’s not a pugilist or a power forward among them; Hill plays with an edge and Berard has size, but neither player scares opponents. Then again, steroids aid in muscle recovery time and healing from injuries, too, and it’s thought these characteristics are just as attractive to some athletes as the gains in strength and muscle mass.

Dick Pound, who recently stepped down as the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, has called the NHL’s drug-testing practises “a sham.” Of course, Pound is not the most beloved man in NHL circles – or in the circles of most pro leagues. Commissioners shiver when his name is mentioned; Pound might be the biggest persona non grata in sports.

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“We could really care less what Dick Pound has to say,” NHL vice-president Bill Daly told ESPN last summer. “He has no idea what our program is or what it provides for, so by definition, he's speaking from ignorance. Just as importantly, he has no credibility left. Not a single person I know, either inside and outside the Olympic community, has any respect for what he has to say anymore.”

Of course, Daly is going to stand up and protect his league. And there is no hard evidence of a big, bad drug problem in the NHL. But c’mon…one failed drug test out of 3,000? The Mormon Tabernacle Choir isn’t that clean.

If you believe George Mitchell’s report, steroids have been baseball’s dirty little secret for more than a decade. (It should be noted, steroids have only been banned from baseball in the past few years.) And that’s a big blow to the integrity of the sport, but at least baseball is finally facing the problem and trying to put this whole sordid saga in the past.

The NHL, meanwhile, continues to employ the ostrich defense – “if we can’t see the trouble, then there is no trouble.” No league wants bad publicity and no league goes looking for bad PR, but it’s very hard to believe steroids – and other banned substances, such as HGH (Human Growth Hormone) – abound in baseball and the NFL, but are nowhere to be found in hockey.

The timing is perfect for the league to get serious about cleaning itself up and ensuring the NHL is, indeed, a drug-free workplace. The hockey-watching public is aware of baseball’s ordeal and smart enough to know that teams and athletes are always looking for that extra edge.

Banned substances and steroids are part of hockey; of that, there can be no doubt. The only question is will the league do anything – of real consequence – about it?

Sam McCaig’s From The Point appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Have a point to make with Sam McCaig? You can reach him at smccaig@thehockeynews.com.

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