PUTTING LOGIC ON ICE
NHL president John Ziegler admitted last week that on-ice violence is a problem in his league. Ziegler, who had long taken a boys-will-be-boys view of the sort of brawling the NHL is famous for, said that fighting penalties were up 15% this season, and that 2% of the players accounted for 20% of all penalty minutes. He called the situation "alarming and disturbing" and promised to address it.
Unfortunately, Ziegler promptly blew a grand opportunity to do just that. The next evening, at the end of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals between Montreal and Calgary, a vicious brawl broke out on the ice. Ziegler called it "appalling" and levied $42,000 in fines. But because the fines are likely to be paid by the teams rather than the players, they don't figure to be much of a deterrent. If Ziegler really meant business, he would have suspended the combatants for Game 5.
Also last week Ziegler joined with NHL Players Association executive director Alan Eagleson to announce plans for mandatory drug testing of NHL players. Ziegler and Eagleson said they were responding to reports—including stories on the Edmonton Oilers in SI and The Hockey News—about drug use in the NHL. Ziegler said that the NHL has little or no drug problem and that testing will prove it and help "make sure that the innocent are protected."
The call by Ziegler and Eagleson for mandatory testing appeared to be in keeping with the NHL's hard-line public stance on drugs. The NHL is the only major pro sports league without a drug rehabilitation program, and any hockey player caught using drugs faces suspension. Ziegler suspended the Rangers' Don Murdoch in 1978 and the Canadiens' Ric Nattress in 1983 after they were convicted of drug-related offenses, and he said three weeks ago he would investigate the case of Maple Leaf defense-man Borje Salming. Salming was quoted by The Toronto Star as admitting he used cocaine five years ago. Reiterating his position last week, Ziegler said, "We don't want to say, 'Go ahead and try [drugs], and if you have a problem, come to us, we'll help you and give you another chance.' We want to say, 'Stay away from drugs. If you want to do [drugs], go work somewhere else.' "
The flip side of Ziegler's tough talk is, paradoxically, a see-no-evil approach to drugs. Ziegler seems inclined to act only if somebody is convicted of drug offenses or admits to drug use. He appears eager to sweep other evidence of drug involvement under the rug. For example, he has refused to look into the reports of use among Edmonton players, and he said last week that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had "found no reliable information to conduct an investigation." In fact, the RCMP told SI that it had received information about cocaine use by Oiler players. An RCMP drug official said the department didn't vigorously pursue such matters because it's primarily interested in drug sellers, not users.
All this makes the Ziegler-Eagleson advocacy of mandatory testing unsettling. Such testing raises questions of civil liberties and cannot be justified merely as a public relations move—one taken to try to prove that media stories about drug use are wrong. Yet there appears to be no other purpose to their proposal; unlike the situation in other sports, the proposed NHL testing isn't aimed at eliminating a drug problem, because Ziegler insists there isn't one. Also, as is not the case in other sports, testing wouldn't be undertaken with an eye toward rehabilitating users, an objective in which Ziegler says he isn't interested.
In other words, in an area that he concedes is a problem—violence—Ziegler chose last week to do next to nothing. In an area that he insists isn't a problem—drugs—he did something, but for the wrong reasons.
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