By Nathan MacDermott – Thompson Rivers University 2L JD Student
In early October the NHL and the NHLPA acknowledged that there is a cocaine problem among NHL players. With NHL drug arrests on the rise, the league has asked the NHLPA to allow cocaine to be added to the list of substances regularly monitored within the league’s testing program under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
If it is truly on the rise, what effects may it have on the league and its players?
Given the nature of the drug, one could argue that it is a performance-enhancing drug in a sport like hockey where aggressive play is an asset. But the true implications could be more to do with the image of the players, teams and the league as a whole.
There is a need for clarification within the CBA as to what impacts substance abuse will have on players and their contracts. Currently the substance abuse program is the place for players who are found to have a problem, but the recent case of Mike Richards may have changed that somewhat. The Los Angeles Kings recently terminated his contract after a drug related arrest, and eventually the parties reached a settlement. On its face it appeared that he should have been placed into the leagues substance abuse program before the Kings took any action regarding his contract. The Kings however stated that they terminated his deal because he did not tell them of the arrest, and not because of his drug use or the arrest itself. This shows that more clarity is needed within the CBA to protect players from similar outcomes.
If the league’s policy is to attempt to assist players with their addictions quietly before further action is taken, then there should be further clauses within the CBA to limit team action around such cases. Page 2 of the Standard Player Contract (SPC) states that the player agrees “to conduct himself on and off the rink according to the highest standards of honesty, morality, fair play and sportsmanship, and to refrain from conduct detrimental to the best interest of the Club, the League or professional hockey generally.”
This leaves the door open for clubs to penalize players or even terminate contracts for a myriad of reasons, and it appears that this could include drug use if any of the criteria in the SPC are met. A drug related arrest or simply being found in possession of an illicit substance could violate the contract and leave the player open to reprimand if pursued under the guise of another violation.
The NHL and the NHLPA need to get together to amend the language to avoid conflicts in these situations. If they left substance abuse related incidents outside the realm of ‘conduct detrimental’ etc., then players would truly have more security when dealing with substance abuse. The league may even find that players would be more willing to come forward and enter the program of their own volition, knowing that the contract repercussions were limited in this regard. As the setting in which these contracts function changes, so should the terms within the CBA and the SPC to better reflect the current state of affairs within the NHL.