Konopka’s 20-game suspension for failing performance-enhancing drug test shows NHL needs to increase vigilance

Adam Proteau
Zenon Konopka
Zenon Konopka

Buffalo Sabres center Zenon Konopka violated the league and NHL Players’ Association’s performance enhancing substances program and was hit with a 20-game suspension Thursday. But the fact Konopka is just the second NHLer in history to test positive for a banned substance raises questions about how far the league’s drug policies still have to go.

In a statement issued by the NHLPA, Konopka apologized and took full responsibility for his suspension.

“As a professional athlete I am responsible for what I put in my body, and I am to blame for this mistake,” he said. “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.”

Before the news of Konopka’s suspension, only former Wild defenseman Sean Hill (who was suspended 20 games in 2007) failed a PED test. Hill and the Wild acknowledged he’d used a physician-prescribed, NHL-approved testosterone booster before testing positive for the illegal anabolic steroid boldenone, but argued he didn’t knowingly take any banned substance. And while Konopka’s willingness to accept blame for his error is commendable, the rarity of this type of occurrence is curious. NHL players will loudly tell you performance-enhancing drugs have no place in hockey because the sport isn’t predicated on the type of muscle bulk normally associated with steroids and human growth hormone, but performance-enhancers can also be used to speed the healing process.

Ultimately, there’s still too much wiggle room an athlete can exploit for his own benefit. Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews told a Toronto radio station about as much last summer, arguing “it would be naïve” to suggest there aren’t any NHLers who are trying to get an artificial edge on their competition.

“The more tests, the better,” Toews said at the time. “It protects the guys that are being fair and are putting good things into their body. So I have no problem with (more testing).”

To be fair, the NHL has improved in the fight against PEDs; in the current collective bargaining agreement, random testing has been expanded to include the off-season and playoffs, and the list of prohibited substances has been expanded. That said, only 60 players can be tested in the summer and human growth hormone still isn’t illegal.

Nobody wants to see a slew of hockey players failing tests and disgracing the game the way baseball players and professional cyclers have, but at a time when athletes in many other sports are being busted for overzealous competitive urges, the NHL would do well to tighten up their approach to PEDs as soon as possible.

It may hurt a few individuals in the short term, but over the long haul, the sport will be better-protected.