Dopey drug testing in CHL

RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:29 AM ET

Fewer than 10% of major junior players in the Canadian Hockey League were tested for drug use last year, QMI Agency has learned.

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League commissioner Gilles Courteau wants to see those numbers rise.

"Always more, it's never enough," Courteau said. "It has to grow and increase. Seven years ago, we faced accusations that 65% (whistle-blowing agent Gilles Lupien estimated 40%) of the players in our league were using some combination of drugs.

"We had to develop an aggressive policy for the protection of our players and for the concern of their parents. In that time, we've had one positive (test). Our approach is always the same. First and foremost, it's about the safety of our players."

Courteau said he's impressed and happy with the way the Canadian Hockey League's anti-doping policy is heading.

But it could be better.

Last year, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport conducted 146 tests on behalf the CHL's anti-drug program -- 108 in the regular season, 38 during the playoffs and none in the summer.

About 1,500 players wear CHL uniforms each season in the Quebec, Ontario and Western leagues, spread over 60 teams.

At about $1,000 per test, that's an estimated $146,000 hit to the CHL budget and works out to $2,433 per team.

There's a minimal increase planned this season.

Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport president Paul Melia said hockey has been generally slow in responding to the drug question. By adopting its comprehensive program over the last three years (seven in Quebec), the CHL is still way ahead of the NHL.

"I think the CHL has led the way in this and how it deals with head shots," Melia said. "They are to be commended for taking the leadership role with young players (aged 16 to 20) who face the pressures of drug use but are still not even finished their physical maturity and growth.

"They've indicated they want to see their players compete on a level playing field and are working to keep drugs out of their sport."

CHL president and Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch doesn't believe junior hockey has a drug problem.

Branch doesn't foresee hockey sliding down the same path as baseball, whose results have been saddled by decade-long suspicion, or football, where the University of Waterloo suspended its program because of a steroid scandal last spring.

"Our sport is not a game of bulk where adding straight muscle is going to necessarily lead to success," Branch said. "Ours is a game of speed and skill, endurance and durability. We haven't had a positive drug test (in the OHL) but we recognize it's not something to take lightly.

"There's nothing to hide."

Initial positive tests for marijuana are not disclosed and a letter of warning is issued, the CHL anti-doping policy states.

A better anti-doping policy with more teeth would beef up his argument.

Melia said hockey is still at risk for certain performance-enhancing drugs, most notably game-day stimulants, but strength and muscle building remains a big part of the game.

"Our feeling in 20 years of drug testing is that no sport is immune from performance-enhancing drugs," he said. "(Target) shooters can use beta-blockers to slow down their heart rate. Cyclists use EPO for endurance. Weightlifters might turn to anabolic steroids.

"There are many different ways to cheat."

The top teenaged hockey players could face additional drug testing at special events such as the world junior hockey tournament in Buffalo this year. But unlike football, human growth hormone won't be on the testing menu because the CHL policy is limited to urine testing, not blood extraction.

Ideally, the CHL anti-doping policy will one day include out-of-season testing too. Many players hire their own personal trainers in the summer and there's no way -- at least not yet, Branch indicated -- to monitor how players prepare for the hockey season.

There's nothing set in stone but the CHL could move to register personal trainers in the same manner that player agents are certified and approved by the NHL Players Association.

"The first year in our league is about playing and the second and third years are about strength and conditioning," Branch said. "You look at the work someone like Gary Roberts had done in that area with nutrition and training the right way and you notice a lot of players see it and want to follow his lead.

"That, to me, is a progressive step. Our approach to drug testing has always been educational in nature."

It's a start -- but nothing promotes awareness better than increased testing.

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