The last suspension for violating the NHL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs came in late 2016, when 37-year-old Shawn Horcoff lost 20 games of what was his final pro season. The announcement on Sunday that Nate Schmidt would miss the same number was shocking for its rareness and for its mystery. There’s so much we don’t know and will likely never know about the violation.
The NHL press release was light on details: four sentences, with the last sentence merely announcing that no further information would be released. It said simply that Schmidt had violated the policy against PEDs and will be suspended for 20 games.
The Vegas Golden Knights responded with a comment that revealed a few more details. Citing “independent medical experts and sworn testimony,” the team says the unnamed substance in Schmidt’s system was “trace” (happening in very small amounts) and therefore accidental.
Then, via the Players’ Association, Schmidt himself added the last wrinkle. Schmidt says he tested clean twice last season, that the amount he tested positively for most recently was too small to have an effect, and that it was present in an amount consistent with “environmental contamination.” Schmidt added a quantity for the substance: seven billionths of a milligram per milliliter. I spoke with a medical expert who confirmed that this amount sounded small but could not comment further without knowing what the substance was, how quickly it is metabolized, and when the test was performed.
No party named what the banned substance was.
While this seems like information, it’s not. We do not know and we may never know the following:
The last one is important. Schmidt and the Golden Knights offered unambiguous denials of deliberate intent, but that’s standard procedure in these cases.
In 2016 Horcoff said, “I was unaware that this treatment was not permitted under NHL rules.”
In 2014, when Zenon Konopka was suspended following an offseason test, 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.”
Also in 2014, when Carter Ashton was suspended for using an inhaler, he said, “I incorrectly assumed that there were no problems associated with the use of this inhaler and I used it without checking to see whether its contents were permissible under the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program.”
And when Nicklas Backstrom was suspended from the gold-medal game of the 2014 Olympics for testing positive for Zyrtec D, the chief physician for the IIHF called Backstrom “an innocent victim” in the situation.
These statements are standard. This does not mean suspicion of Schmidt’s denial is needed, but maybe we should all ponder precisely what it means for recent memory to contain zero cases of an NHL player admitting to knowingly doping.
The NHL uses a modified and negotiated list of banned substances identified by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which groups substances into the following categories (PDF):
Also banned during competition specifically are stimulants (e.g. cocaine); narcotics (e.g. heroin); cannabinoids (e.g. marijuana); and glucocorticoids, which are banned in specific applications. There are exceptions to many cases, which are spelled out in WADA’s guidelines.
The L.A. Times provides a good summary of how testing works in the NHL:
Every player who has participated in an orientation session is subject to testing as follows: each club will be subject to team-wide no-notice testing once during training camp; each club will be selected at random for team-wide no-notice testing once during the regular season; individual players will be randomly selected for no-notice testing during the regular season and playoffs; tests are not conducted on game days.
During the off-season, each player who has participated in an orientation session will be subject to testing as follows: a league-wide maximum of 60 tests may be conducted during each off-season; individual players will be randomly selected for no-notice testing.
So a player is subjected to one mandatory test during training camp, a second mandatory test during the regular season, and a possible third test during the playoffs. During the off-season, 60 players are selected at random. Zero noticed is given for any test. The first two are team-wide, the last two are individual.
Because Schmidt said he tested clear twice last season, we can conclude those tests were the mandatory team-wide preseason and regular-season tests and not the individual playoff test. Schmidt was among 60 players subjected to a no-notice offseason test, and he is apparently the only player among those 60 to have a positive result.
The statements from the Knights and Schmidt provide a pretense to doubt the violation, but no actual framework on which to do so. The “pinch of salt in a swimming pool” metaphor provides a seed of doubt, but they have no obligation to give any meaningful information like what the substance was or when the test was performed. It’s just public relations, and it’s typical in these cases.
At the same time, supplements in the United States are effectively unregulated, and trainers providing treatments to athletes have a profit motive to give their clients the most powerful substances while either enjoying plausible deniability from their suppliers, extending that deniability to the athlete, or both. It’s seems impossible to fully know what a person has ingested, how, and why.
Yet again, of the 600 off-season tests the NHL has conducted in the last decade, 598 passed without issue. Schmidt and Konopka are apparently the only offenders.
And it’s also an inescapable conclusion that the NHL and NHLPA have an incentive to keep performance-enhancing drug violations rare in order to maintain the integrity of the sport. This is a lesson NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr must have learned in his previous job running the MLB players association during the era of Canseco, McGwire, Bonds, and Clemens. The business of hockey is best served by strict punishments meted out infrequently.
All of this serves to thoroughly muddy the waters about whether or not Nate Schmidt is a cheater – even before we grapple with our own prejudices as fans of the player or his team. We don’t know even the basic facts of his violation, let alone the truth of the matter. Inclinations one way or the other are justified, but certainty in either is not.
The only thing I know for sure, as a person who grew up in the steroid era of baseball, is how powerful disillusionment can be.
Headline photo: Amanda Bowen
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