It’s time for the NHL to expand its drug policy

The NHL is tough on performance-enhancing drugs, but soft on other substances. The Evgeny Kuznetsov suspension shows it might be time to change that.

Well, it’s safe to say Evgeny Kuznetsov didn’t wake up to the news he wanted to hear. Instead, Friday morning it was announced the Washington Capitals center has been suspended for four years by the International Ice Hockey Federation for testing positive for cocaine during this past year’s world championship.

This follows the ongoing saga that began when a video of him surrounded by people partaking in the drug surfaced online earlier this summer. That matter had been deemed closed by the Capitals, as they were satisfied with his explanation.

At the hands of the IIHF’s seemingly drastic punishment, an interesting conflict emerged. Almost immediately after the news broke, the NHL responded in a statement put out by Deputy Commissioner Bill Daley. The picture Daly paints of the situation is in stark contrast to the IIHF’s view on the matter.

Unlike the IIHF, cocaine is not considered a performance enhancing drug and is therefore not a Prohibited Substance under the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program.  Instead, it is considered a drug of abuse that is tested for and for which intervention, evaluation and mandatory treatment can occur in appropriate cases.

More or less, what Daley is saying is that in the eyes of the NHL, cocaine isn’t expressly forbidden. It’s easy to imagine that this was a motive pushed by the players association, to treat individual drug problems as separate from on-ice activities.

To its credit, the NHL has done a fantastic job with drug addiction programs available to players. “The program”, as it’s been called, was commended by Robin Lehner in his acceptance of the Masterton Trophy at this past season’s NHL awards. Lehner previously wrote about “the program”, as it’s become colloquially known, in his article in The Athletic describing his struggles.

Still, it’s weird that the NHL hasn’t taken a tougher stand and expressively forbidden these drugs. Cocaine has a lengthy and controversial history with professional sports, most notably during the Pittsburgh Drug Trials of 1985 where Major League Baseball players were involved in a seemingly multiple team cocaine ring.

Luckily for the NHL, they haven’t experienced a similar problem. However, Kuznetsov’s example proves how easily some of these things can fly under the radar.

The league should use this situation as a wake-up call to do more to protect its players and the integrity of the game. You can argue all you want that players shouldn’t be doing these drugs purely on the basis that they’re illegal and should post a clean imagine noting their status as role models for kids. While those arguments are true and hard to argue against, it also turns a blind eye to the negative effect drugs can have on a player, which provide an equally justifiable argument.

By not specifically banning these substances, the NHL is promoting a lax attitude towards them. That it turn harbors a culture that allows the problem to grow, at both the detriment to the players themselves and the league. Just like the Pittsburgh Drug Trails but a black eye on the face of major league baseball, the same can go for any sports.

While I agree with the Daly’s explanation that these things are dealt on a case by case basis by the league, after all some players are different from others, the lack of mandatory treatment concerns me. Granted some people might have a deeper rooted problem than others, but these type of things should be dealt with immediately so they don’t escalate. The Olympics and IIHF have found ways to deal with this and banned doping in their sports, so why not the NHL?

The best way for the NHL to go about this is to not institute mandatory suspensions, but mandatory treatments, especially for first-time players. The league has to clearly convey the message that they’re not vilifying any players but trying to help them.

While performance-enhancing drugs are directly detrimental to the game and can be dealt with in a disciplinary manner, substance abuse issues have more layers to them and treating a player like the bad guy might not be the best avenue to go down. Players like the previously mentioned Robin Lehner and former NHL forward Jordin Tootoo have gone on to play productive careers after seeking treatment.

According to Daly’s statement, Kuznetsov has already sought information about the NHL’s problems. Then again, he also said he had never done cocaine, but the IIHF’s drug test determined that was a lie. The NHL should use this opportunity to right a wrong in their drug policy, for the safety of the players, and the league itself.