Is this NHL's drug scandal?

 

Maybe it's nothing. Maybe the arrest of some paranoid semi-professional bodybuilder and his bodybuilding wife in a house filled with loaded guns and steroids in Lakeland, Fla., was just another Tuesday in the state -- well, one of the states -- common sense forgot.

 
 
 
 
 

Maybe it's nothing. Maybe the arrest of some paranoid semi-professional bodybuilder and his bodybuilding wife in a house filled with loaded guns and steroids in Lakeland, Fla., was just another Tuesday in the state -- well, one of the states -- common sense forgot.

And maybe when Richard Thomas, the semi-professional bodybuilder in question, started boasting about selling steroids to members of both the Washington Nationals and Washington Capitals, it was the ravings of a desperate and potentially crazy man. From a distance, Richard Thomas does not appear to be the most credible witness around.

But criminals never do. It has become clear that, for the most part, the use of performance-enhancing drugs by professional athletes is not detected by drug tests, but by the suppliers and trainers getting arrested. The creep in question will turn out to have kept the receipts, an autographed picture with the sports star in question, and maybe some DNA on a syringe. You know, for a rainy day.

Now, to hear that members of a baseball team -- even one as relentlessly inept as the Nationals -- were sold steroids is not enough to cause much of a ripple. But as soon as Richard Thomas said he had sold to an NHL team, this story got a little more interesting.

First, it was surprising to hear that a resident of Florida was aware of the existence of the National Hockey League, much less able to name one of its constituent clubs. Second, it was the first time anybody had linked an NHL team to PEDs.

"You name the sport, and I've sold steroids to athletes who play it," Thomas said, according to the Polk County Sheriff's Office.

Sheriff Grady Judd told reporters he wasn't sure whether Thomas was telling the truth, but, "I can tell you this, there will be a whole lot of people puckered up after the morning news."

Thomas and his wife, Sandra, allegedly had between US$100,000 and US$200,000 worth of steroids in the house, along with those loaded guns, and have each been charged with 10 counts of possession with intent to distribute, 10 counts of importation, and one count of maintaining a dwelling for drug sales. And they seem willing to sing.

"Capitals players were subjected to no-notice testing five separate times over the past two seasons ... and there was no indication of any improper conduct or wrongdoing," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement.

"Even though there are no specifics provided in the story and we have no reason, at this point, to believe the allegations are true, the National Hockey League takes all matters of this nature very seriously and will conduct a prompt investigation," Daly added.

Maybe the Capitals are clean, to a man. But somebody isn't. When Dick Pound was the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, the organization was approached by all kinds of coaches, trainers, and other figures involved with hockey. Pound estimated in 2006 that about a third of NHL players were on performance-enhancers, stimulants mostly. The NHL furiously protested.

The old argument about PEDs in hockey went along a couple of lines. Steroids were not part of the game's culture, which is another way of saying nobody talked about them. And some insisted hockey players did not look like baseball's hulking sluggers, with muscles crowding against one another like cows crammed into a corral.

To which the obvious question, of course, is do hockey players look like swimmers? Like cyclists? Like cross-country skiers? In other words, do they look like athletes?

"It's disappointing that they would recognize that it's unlikely in the extreme that they would be immune from something that has affected every other sport on the face of the planet," Pound said from his Montreal office. "That's complete nonsense. Of course [hockey players] would be helped. You're stronger and faster, and you recover faster."

There is not a sport in the world that cannot be made easier by some sort of chemical enhancement. Both the NHL and the NBA only test in-season, leaving the summer open. Pound says WADA's research shows a high-end steroid program can clear your blood-stream in 30 days, and benefits can last up to four or five years.

And yet hockey clings to the notion of innocence over experience. There have been whispers of steroid use, largely among enforcers, in hockey for years. But other than a positive test by Islanders defenceman Sean Hill in 2007, and Jose Theodore testing positive for the hair-loss drug Propecia -- which is also a masking agent -- it has been clear sailing on hockey and a problem with PEDs.

"I would really doubt it," Capitals enforcer Donald Brashear told a Washington radio station yesterday. "I mean, maybe there is and we don't know the ones that are doing it. They wouldn't necessarily tell us."

No, they wouldn't. It's not just hockey; every sport will eventually be tarred. While watching the NBA commercial featuring Larry Bird's iconic steal against Detroit in the 1987 playoffs the other night, my wife said, "Those guys are all so skinny." Now, cartoon muscles abound, even if the NBA has not experienced its steroid scandal so far.

But it will, along with everybody else. The question will be how wide the scandals will be, and how profoundly will they shake their sports. The nightmare in hockey would be if someone like Alex Ovechkin is implicated. If someone out there is puckered up, as Sheriff Judd so colourfully put it, then the most puckered up might just reside in the National Hockey League's head office.

 
 
 
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