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NHL fails its young stars

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July 14, 2015


Being elite in any discipline can be daunting. The accolades run steady and can carry a person away as if caught in a current. While this can build confidence, it can quickly turn to arrogance and foolishness if not tempered with responsibility and respect for the talent the person possesses. This is never truer than with those who become stars at a young age.

We have seen it across the spectrum—from actors to athletes—and the end results can be a testimony to recovery (Robert Downey, Jr., for instance) and to tragedy (like Steve Howe). Hockey certainly isn’t exempt from this story of talent wasted by substance abuse.

Most professional hockey players do not enter the NHL until nearly 23 years of age. Those extra years give the young men a chance to mature and learn how to shoulder responsibilities. They have a better idea of the value of money, as well as how fragile that source of income can be. The longer it takes them to make it to the NHL, the stronger their sense of appropriate behavior will be.

However, for those players that are so talented that they are drafted high or can make an immediate, positive impact on their teams, they find themselves in a star-making spotlight with a bank account stuffed to bursting while still a teenager. The combination can create a person who believes he is untouchable and responsible only to himself off the ice. That is a set up for problematic behavior.

While the National Hockey League and its Players’ Association have established “a comprehensive educational program on the dangers of performance-enhancing substances” under the terms of the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, there is no such program for alcohol and recreational drug abuse.

Instead, the players are required to receive an orientation that includes only “a presentation (in-person or, when in-person appearance is impracticable, via webinar or video) on the Program, including the testing procedures and disciplinary penalties, and the distribution of relevant informational materials, including the Prohibited Substances List.” In other words, players learn about the logistics of the testing procedures but nothing about abuse prevention.

The organizations did see enough of its players struggle with alcohol and drugs to establish the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program in 1996. All players involved in legal action for any alcohol or drug related incident are required to undergo evaluation to determine if there is a larger issue at play. If there is, the player will be provided with options for treating the problem. This is a positive step, but there needs to be more focus on prevention so that they can avoid intervention, and education should be required of all players, not just those who seek it or are ordered to have it.

Many NHL players end up abusing substances after they are well into their career, but the foundation for its use sets in early. Young players suddenly given a lot of money and a lot of freedom can develop habits that are hard to kick. Shortly after Jarret Stoll was arrested in Las Vegas for possession of cocaine and MDMA, ESPN ran an article highlighting the growing concern the NHL and NHLPA have for cocaine use.

[Cocaine] metabolizes quickly. Michael McCabe, a Philadelphia-based toxicology expert who works for Robson Forensic, told ESPN.com that, generally speaking, cocaine filters out of the system in two to four days, making it relatively easy to avoid a flag in standard urine tests.

The NHL-NHLPA’s joint drug-testing program is not specifically designed to target recreational drugs such as cocaine or marijuana. The Performance Enhancing Substances Program is put into place to do exactly that— screen for performance-enhancing drugs.

The joint NHL-NHLPA program administers extra testing on one-third of tests that screen for recreational drugs, a source confirmed. But even if a player tests positive, it would not trigger a suspension. In fact, it would not even trigger a visit from the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program doctors unless a result “shows a dangerously high level for a drug of abuse such that it causes concern for the health or safety of the player or others,” according to the CBA.

The program’s doctors warn players in rookie orientation and in team visits during the season about the perils of drug use, but there is skepticism about how effective a lecture from a middle-aged physician is on players. Said a source knowledgeable of the program: “It’s like your parents telling you not to drink.”

Sadly, the players’ peers also contribute to the problem. In response to Stoll’s arrest, Kings captain Dustin Brown said, “The way I see it is, [Stoll] screwed up and it is what it is. But am I worried about this happening again or this happening during the season or people getting into that lifestyle? No.”

This blatant disregard of such a loud warning signal contributes to the continued habit of pretending the problems do not exist. Moreover, it sends a message to younger players that they, too, can be foolish and irresponsible and get away with it, both legally and professionally.

Ryan O’Reilly has become the most recent example of this behavior. Only weeks after signing a lucrative seven-year, $52.5 million contract with the Buffalo Sabres, the young center drove under the influence of alcohol and fled the scene after crashing his truck into a building. Fortunately for O’Reilly, no one was hurt. However, it’s telling that he chose to run away from the accident, rather than accepting responsibility for it and calling the authorities himself.

O’Reilly isn’t alone in this type of behavior, which is why more needs to be done to teach these young players—with an extensive educational program, not a momentary lecture—about the pressures and temptations they will face and to give them the tools they need to withstand them.


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