Chronic Alcohol Problem All But Ignored By Nhl

In compiling research for his widely acclaimed book, "Drugs and the Athlete," co-author Dr. Gary Wadler sought to compare the drug and alcohol programs of all four major professional sports leagues and enlisted the help of officials in each sport.

From the National Basketball Association, National Football League and Major League Baseball, he received detailed outlines of their respective drug and alcohol policies, listing everything from banned substances to the criteria for suspension to general opinions on the seriousness of drug and alcohol abuse.

The one-paragraph statement he received from the National Hockey League shocked him.

"I called the NHL for their drug and alcohol policy, and I got a letter stating their policy," said Wadler, a clinical associate professor of medicine at Cornell University Medical College who also is an attending physician at North Shore University Hospital.

The letter read as follows:

"Our policy with respect to illegal drugs is quite simple. The use is forbidden. If you choose to use illegal drugs, you will be suspended. There are no exceptions. There are no excuses. To put it bluntly, we have told our athletes they have a choice. They can pursue their careers in the NHL or they can use drugs. They may not do both."

Despite a long history of alcohol-related problems in the NHL - including the drinking-related death of All-Star goalie Pelle Lindbergh in 1985 - there is no mention of alcohol rehabilitation, penalties for alcohol abuse or even as much as a phrase expressing concern over alcohol-related issues.

Newsday conducted a two-month examination of the league's history of alcohol abuse and found there was a chronic problem both before and since Lindbergh's death. According to estimates by several substance abuse experts familiar with the league's alcohol problem, as many as 20 percent to 25 percent of the players may be abusing alcohol in some form.

In more than 100 interviews with NHL officials, current players (most of whom would not be quoted), former players and others familiar with the league's long history of alcohol abuse, Newsday also found the following:

-- Unlike the other three major professional sports leagues, all of which have detailed drug and alcohol policies, the NHL has no formal centralized policy dealing with alcohol abuse.

-- Many NHL officials are unaware of what constitutes alcohol abuse and what are the best methods of determining whether players are either alcoholic or alcohol abusers.

-- Despite a number of alcohol-related tragedies, the league has not felt hard-pressed to react by implementing a wide-ranging educational and rehabilitation program on alcohol abuse.

-- The NHL Players Association will begin formal negotiations next month on a formal substance abuse policy. But it is unclear how far owners are willing to go to achieve a solution.

NHL Commissioner John Ziegler said alcohol-related problems are strictly the jurisdiction of individual teams. And he has often cited the fact that the legality of alcohol makes it difficult to address the problem from a league-wide disciplinary standpoint.

"Trying to have rules and regulations for that kind of stuff," said Ziegler, referring to alcohol consumption, "I don't have an answer."

The NHL appears to be several years behind Major League Baseball, the NBA and NFL in tackling its more pressing substance abuse problem.

-- The league's only official mention of alcohol abuse comes during a one-hour preseason presentation by a security official. Players are told of the legal consequences of excessive drinking and drug use. However, the subjects are brought up along with a host of others, including warnings on illegal gambling and getting proper financial advice.

"The guy gets up there and tells you everything you already know," said one player.

-- For eight of the league's 21 teams, that is the extent of their education on alcohol and drug abuse.

-- The other 13 teams have a supplemental preseason seminar that addresses substance abuse.

-- Only 10 teams have psychologists, and all are hired on a part-time basis.

-- No team has a formal employee assistance program.

-- Players who either come forward or are discovered to have a severe drinking problem are never turned away from getting treatment. However, alcohol and drug rehabilitation experts agree that a potential lack of confidentiality in this type of set-up often prevents players from admitting to problems for fear of losing their jobs.

Alan Eagleson, the executive director of the NHL Players Association, acknowledges there is a problem, and he hopes to address it this month when collective bargaining negotiations begin.

"I think we should be looking more at helping any player who has a drug and-or alcohol problem," said Eagleson. "We'll be presenting something to the owners. We're going to need something instead of doing things on an ad-hoc basis.

"I'm concerned with the five or six players who might well have a serious problem and be afraid to mention it because they're worried about what might happen. I'd like to have a standardized approach."

Pittsburgh Penguins center Bryan Trottier, president of the NHLPA, believes a new policy will be beneficial.

"Anything that can bring the problems to light is going to be helpful," said Trottier. "Drinking isn't as bad as it was, but you've still got a lot of young kids coming into the league making a lot of money. They're sometimes getting into cars when they shouldn't be. More education, I think, would help solve that problem."

What may disappoint union leaders, however, is that the NHL appears reticent to invest in employee-assistance programs for each team.

"I think what we have to be careful of is not getting things out of proportion," Ziegler said. "If we had one problem per club - and I don't think we do - you're talking about less than 1 percent (of the players)."