Ottawa Senators v Washington Capitals

Not that long ago, the editor of Grantland.com, Bill Simmons, wrote about the disconnect between how sports (and athletes) are generally talked about, and how they’re covered. When you and your buddy Jimmy are watching sports in a basement with pennants on the wall you’re never going to think “boy, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ray Lewis did steroids, but I don’t want to falsely accuse him, so I’ll sit on this thought.”

And so it goes:

“That dude definitely did steroids.”

“Oh, no doubt about it.”

That’s something that’s always going to be there. The media have sources to protect, they have to avoid dangerous speculation, and they have standards to adhere to. Even when they think X is happening it, they have to print Y until they can prove X. The rest of the sports world does not.

***

10 weeks ago Erik Karlsson had his achilles tendon sliced 70% of the way through, and we were told he was out indefinitely. It was assumed his season was over and the Sens would have to make do without him. In an interview in March Karlsson himself gave this quote:

Last night, he played over 27 minutes (more than any other Ottawa Senator), fired eight shots on net (more than any player in the NHL last night), tallied two assists, and was +16 in Corsi terms. I believe in football terms that’s described as “Beast Mode. Also: day-um.

Generally, I’d write about the phenomenon that is Erik Karlsson and how miraculous and cool what he just did was, because HOLY BANANAS AND APPLESAUCE, did you read the above paragraph? Heavens to Murgatroyd. Only a premier defender can do things like that (in his first game back after 10 weeks, no less), only a special human is built to do such things, holy smokes is he logic defying.

But here’s where we come to the disconnect between what people write and what people say. I’d happily write about the show he put on last night. But judging from my Twitter feed, email inbox and personal interactions, plenty of people think he did performance enhancing drugs or took human growth hormone to get back so quickly. They really do. Too much too soon, too unbelievable.

My “outside of this, no” response linked to a post by our resident doctor Jo Innes, explaining that PEDs wouldn’t have really been helpful in this case.

Here’s what Simmons wrote after citing a number of reasons sports fans have to justify the fact that they find uber-quick recoveries shady.

I believe that Ray Lewis cheated. I believe that to be true based on circumstantial evidence, his age, his overcompetitiveness, the history of that specific injury, and the fact that his “recovery” made my shit detector start vibrating like a chainsaw.

I believe in my right to write the previous paragraph because athletes pushed us to this point. We need better drug testing. We need blood testing. We need biological passports. We need that stuff now. Not in three years. Not in two years. Now. I don’t even know what I am watching anymore.

I believe we need to fix this disconnect between our private conversations and our public ones. Cheating in professional sports is an epidemic. Wondering about the reasons behind a dramatically improved performance, or a dramatically fast recovery time, shouldn’t be considered off-limits for media members. We shouldn’t feel like scumbags bringing this stuff up. It’s part of sports.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think Erik Karlsson cheated. I think that’s he’s an insanely fit 22-year-old with access to the best nutritionists, doctors, and advice money can buy. I think when they reported his achilles as 70% cut they wanted Matt Cooke to be held accountable for what they viewed as an intentionally dirty play, and may have exaggerated the damage. I believe they know to under-promise and over-deliver to keep the media dogs at bay. I do not think Erik Karlsson cheated, and I’m saying that both publicly and privately.

Ottawa Senators v Washington CapitalsThe takeaway from the conversation though, is that I agree with Bill Simmons. It’s okay to be skeptical. I’ve talked to many hockey people who genuinely believe that somehow our sport is the pure one. I know some dudes cheat, so much so that I italicized one very important word in this sentence. I’d ballpark it at a player per team in the minors (that’s how it was when I played, anyway – things have likely changed in four years), on average, and the numbers are likely comparable in the bigs (higher during the summer, lower during the season). I’m saying that because I’ve seen steroids in pro hockey. Just because I’m not willing to give names doesn’t make it untrue.

I don’t think it happens often from an organizational standpoint, and I highly doubt their own medical staffers are involved, but I wouldn’t be shocked if there were times that a team or two has recommended that a certain player go see a certain specialist knowing what their future might hold. More likely though – faaaar more likely – is that individuals that are worried about their recovery and their place in the lineup don’t have trouble finding someone to give them a little something-something if they personally want to seek it out. These are educated guesses about what might go on, but one thing is certain: outside of print, a large swatch of sports fans think the same thing and often worse.

This isn’t a referendum on Karlsson specifically. A  Twitter search for “Karlsson steroids” or “Karlsson PEDs” or “Karlsson HGH” will show you that plenty of people have made up their minds about his situation. It sucks for him that healing up so quickly has turned him into the catalyst for this conversation (when in fact he should probably be praised for his diligence in rehab). But it does give us the opportunity to make the point that there’s no reason for hockey to become baseball a decade back, turning a blind eye to something occasionally visible because it makes our best players better, recover faster, and entertain us more. We made decisions about what we consider legal and fair, so it’s not out of line to say we need to stay on the watch for cheating in hockey to keep the field level. I’ve written about this before.

It’s unfortunate that sports have brought us to this point, but they did. In the wake of issues with some of our most well-regarded athletes, most recently Lance Armstrong, it’s silly to disregard the possibility and assume hockey is the last bastion of purity and integrity. I don’t think Karlsson did a damn thing wrong, but I’m also not naive enough to believe that hockey’s without its warts.