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Saturday, June 20, 2009
Union agrees policy needs expanding

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- It is rare for a professional sports league to have the opportunity to get out in front of scandal, to be able to insulate itself against the most damaging kinds of publicity and blows to its integrity.

Yet, that is exactly the enviable position in which the NHL and its players find themselves.

Now all the players have to do is to have the courage to ante up and embrace not just a more stringent drug-testing policy, but also the most comprehensive in pro sports.

Imagine that. A group of highly paid athletes not running from the issue of performance-enhancing drugs, not having to recant or explain their lies, as is the perpetual situation with many of the biggest stars in Major League Baseball, but rather working with the NHL to voluntarily rework the collective bargaining agreement to introduce a new system of drug testing.

Sounds good, doesn't it?

In the coming weeks, we're about to find out if it sounds too good to be true.

The issue was one of the major topics of discussion at the NHL Players' Association's annual North American meetings here, and it will be again when the European group meets in Paris later this summer.

Although an expected vote on a new policy did not occur, the players' association shares, at least in general terms, the NHL's view that the current drug-testing policy needs to be expanded.

"I was federal prosecutor for a number of years, I was the head of the drug unit for a number of years. I'm fairly staunchly anti-drug," NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly told reporters Saturday. "I think that performance-enhancing substances have no place in professional sports. I don't think there's a problem in our sport. That said, I do think that we could probably take some steps to improve our program."

The common refrain from management and the players' union is steadfastly consistent: Neither side believes the league has a significant problem with performance-enhancing drugs.

After the lockout, the two sides agreed to its first drug-testing policy, which includes, among other things, up to three spot tests during the regular season for players. This testing policy has yielded one positive test (Sean Hill, then with the New York Islanders, tested positive for a banned substance in 2007).

Two other players, Bryan Berard and Jose Theodore, tested positive for banned substances as part of the pre-Olympics screening before the 2006 Torino Games, although neither was suspended by the NHL. But through literally thousands of tests conducted by the NHL and at international competitions, the NHL has not had even a hint of scandal related to performance-enhancing drugs.

Still, critics of the NHL's drug-testing policy have repeatedly pointed out it does not cast a significantly wide net to really assess whether there is a problem. There is no testing during the playoffs or the offseason. The list of substances tested under the policy falls far short of what the World Anti-Doping Agency suggests would be appropriate.

Now, there is a growing push from ownership to expand the parameters of the league's testing to mirror the WADA protocol, to truly assess what, if any, level of concern there should be.

When Kelly addressed the league's general managers in Florida earlier this spring, he was challenged by New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello to get his players on board. Kelly and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman also appeared before Congress, which has been pushing all pro sports leagues to toughen up their drug-testing policies.

Now it is time for the players to move from words to action on this issue.

Kelly said one area that can be easily solved is introducing drug testing during the playoffs.

"I think the playoff testing one is probably the most obvious one that ought to be addressed. We ought to take a good hard look at the list of substances," Kelly said. "But again, it has to be a two-way street. There has to be procedures in place and due process.

"We don't want players to suffer harsh penalties based upon a process, which frankly, at the present time, isn't the greatest and could use some improvement. I think it has to work both ways -- the league has to give a little on some of the process issues and I think the players will give a little on some of the substance issues."

Kelly suggested if the NHL is serious about making sure the sport is clean, it should also extend its efforts to its main feeder league, the American Hockey League, which has no drug-testing policy.

"If the NHL really means what it says about drug testing, then frankly they ought to exert their influence over the American Hockey League and put it in place and pay for a drug-testing program," said Kelly.

Bettman, who addressed the players at the meetings for the first time since he took office in 1993, addressed the drug-testing issue with the players during a lengthy Q and A session with them.

"While we didn't discuss specifics, conceptually everyone in the room agreed that this isn't a sport where the players really have a problem, but we can probably do more together to make the drug program look and act better than it does," Bettman said afterward.

The challenge for Kelly is going to be in balancing the players' rights to privacy with the critical need to avoid the kind of stain that now permeates Major League Baseball should there be a significant scandal involving NHL players.

"In the drug-testing business, there are false positives," said Kelly. "We don't want guys' reputations or careers to be ruined by those instances. There has to be a mechanism to corroborate what appears to be a positive test. And then there has to be a system in place to make sure that that player's rights are protected, that he's not going to be exposed to some type of criminal prosecution. We're working on that with the league."

Many players say they are unafraid of beefing up the testing.

"Whatever helps the public perception. I don't think we have anything to hide. I think we've been very up front about things," Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller told ESPN.com after Saturday's session. "We put a good policy in place early on, and I think if the public needs more reassurance that their athletes and people they look up to are clean and are doing things the right way, we should look into ways to accommodate that."

"I like the idea of drug testing and I think that it's important that we play on an even playing field," forward Mike Cammalleri added. "Not that I've ever seen any performance-enhancing drugs be used in our sport, but I don't think there's any place for it.

"If there was some way to have strict testing without it interfering with our personal lives, that would be ideal in my eyes."

And there's the rub.

Can the NHL and the union come to some conclusion about what will have the desired effect in terms of weeding out cheaters and recognizing that a comprehensive drug-testing program may cause players to give up more than a little privacy in the offseason?

Not everyone believes there needs to be changes to the current policy.

"Well, it's a CBA issue, and if Gary wants something changed out of the CBA, he's going to have to negotiate with us," Calgary defenseman Robyn Regehr said. "I don't think that there's a drug problem in hockey, so I think the testing is fair right now. I don't think that we have a wide range of people that are getting around it. So, really, I think it does a pretty good job.

"That's not just my opinion. I mean, I look back at international hockey and how we've been tested by the strictest of standards in international play for a number of years. There's been very little problem there. I don't think there's a huge problem there."

Nonetheless, there are a number of prominent NHL players who believe, regardless of the inconvenience of offseason testing, it is the players' responsibility to push for the most stringent of tests.

What better way to reinforce what hockey people truly believe -- that they don't have a problem -- than by happily embracing a stronger policy?

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.