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.

Comments (41)

  1. I believe Ottawa exaggerated the injury but that quote by Karlsson also makes me suspicious. I could be believe that he was in on the exaggeration but I doubt that.

    Having said that are athletes pushing recovery times? Are some athletes in better condition to return quicker? I look at someone like Adrian Peterson who came back from ACL surgery. There are couple of examples in college football where one guy, Marcus Lattimore, came back from an exploded knee in months and another, DJ Hayden who just went in the 1st round of the NFL draft yesterday, who came back, literally, from a torn heart, in months.

    So my question is the general recovery periods for athletes outdated? Has rehab improved, more aggressive? Or is it a case of certain athletes being in better condition?

    I’m with Justin. I don’t think Karlsson cheated. But agree, that it’s also within rights to be skeptical.

    • I’m skeptical of that peterson comeback. ACL tear to one of the greatest rushing seasons in the history of the NFL…

  2. Great insight, particularly the Inside-Baseball stuff (as always), but this does read a little bit like: “If we’re naive enough to trust NHLers, we’re fools. But I trust this guy, for whatever reason.”

    I know we don’t have any tangible evidence Karlsson did steroids, but we also don’t have any evidence that he didn’t. It’s very unfair to shift the burden of proof to Karlsson–that’s why we have innocent until proven guilty–but increasingly, that’s the reality in professional sports.

    I’m all for taking a harder line on steroid use, but saying “we need to take a harder line on steroids” every time a case crops up and then kicking the can down the road doesn’t feel much like progress.

    • And there likes the crux of it..

      “I know we don’t have any tangible evidence Karlsson did steroids, but we also don’t have any evidence that he didn’t. ”

      How do you prove in these type of situations someone DIDN’T do/take something? You cannot. So you either have to prove he did or all you are really doing is slandering a person which is what some of the speculation I have read about Karlsson is.

      There is a BIG difference in a court in saying what Bourne essentially is.. “yeah, maybe he did” to some who are saying “oh for sure he did and is a cheat”. And that is where some of the media is over stepping in my opinion.

      • sigh…. likes = lies.

      • Oh yeah, I don’t mean to say unequivocally that Karlsson did or did not do steroids, I’m just suggesting that the burden of proof has seemingly shifted–rightly or wrongly.

        It’s especially fair to guys young like Karlsson or whoever, and this applies to all sports, who had no hand in the steroid scandals of the early 2000s. It’s not Karlsson’s fault that he’s under such scrutiny (unless he actually did take steroids, which makes it his fault completely). He’s a victim of fans changing perspective.

        It’s a tricky situation, because nobody wants to smear guys who are clean, but I think we can all agree that not knowing for sure, and not being able to trust our opinions, is a shitty feeling for a fan.

  3. If Karlsson was not a competitive athlete, just Joe Citizen who happened to be in spectacular shape, would these alleged uses of PEDs be beneficial to his overall well being?

    I honestly don’t know the answer to this. But, I would suggest that if there is a legitimate place for the use of these drugs in the recovery of an injury, competitive athletes should have access to them and it should be prescribed by a medical professional.

    For performance improvement, not so much.

    Having said this, and especially in the sport of finding loopholes, I realize that someone would eventually find a way to cheat the system and it wouldn’t be very difficult to do so.

    Nice article Justin.

  4. Karlsson has a Wolverine-like healing ability. There’s your answer

  5. Would Teemu Selanne make Simmons’ pee in the cup list? Would he make yours? On a clear downward path production-wise in his 30s, and then started playing like an All-Star in his prime when he was 35.

    • No kidding. Karlsson though, is 22. I’m pretty sure I had super healing powers back then too, and I wasn’t a professional athlete.

      Kinda shocked to see this article

    • Having the opportunity to get a much-needed knee surgery and take the time to recuperate and recover properly during the 2004-05 lockout explains Selanne’s return to the top of his game. He wouldn’t be on my list of suspicion.

  6. Why does it matter if he used PEDs? Why does it matter if Lance Armstrong used PEDs? Everyone in their right mind knows that the Tour de France is an invitation to use PEDs. You legitimately NEED them in order to even finish the damn race. All Armstrong did was level the playing field with all the other “cheaters” in the race (this doesn’t excuse him from blatantly lying when he told everyone he didn’t use PEDs, but that’s a whole other conversation).

    As far as Karlsson and Lewis go, they are star athletes. They get paid to play physical demanding sports that often involve injuries. It sucks when a star athlete suffers a season ending injury. I am the customer. I want the product. They are the product. They make STUPID amounts of money to play games and entertain ME. When they are injured, they still make stupid amounts of money but they are no longer entertaining me. If they want to use PEDs to recover from a season ending injury I don’t blame them. I encourage them.

    Now think of Kobe Bryant. Imagine two scenarios. The first is that he rehabs his Achilles naturally without any PEDs to help, and comes back half the player that he was before. Plays half a season then retires because he’s useless. That sucks. The second scenario: he gets the best treatment possible which probably will include some sort of PEDs, comes back and plays another full season or more in true Kobe form. Why in the world would anyone oppose that second scenario? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

    • something I’ve always wondered what’s the difference between using “rich platlet plasma” to aid healing and using HGH to aid healing? Aren’t they effectively doing the same thing yet one is legal and one isn’t?

    • Precisely! If it actually helps his health (injury recovery), not only should he have it as an option, it should be encouraged. That is just common sense.

      I guess the question becomes, where is the line between someone taking PEDs so they can train harder and in effect use the controlled substance illegally, and taking the PEDs to receive the best possible recovery from a legitimate injury from a qualified professional. Perhaps that line is just too blurry.

    • Ingesting a large amount of drugs for non-medical reasons (steroids, etc.) is hazardous to a human’s health. I like to be entertained, but personally I’m not going to require someone to deliberately disable or kill themselves prematurely to do so. Or their children. Ever hear of DES? Who knows what the effects may be of children fathered by men taking these drugs?

  7. I guess it’s because people want a level playing field? But what does that mean anymore?

    Imagine telling Babe Ruth that we’d be able to check out injuries with a machine that sees through skin and bone, and then send a tiny robot in to fix up what’s wrong. Seems almost like magin compared to “drink a couple beers and ice it”.

    • Being as Babe Ruth was born in 1895 and the first X Ray machine was 1896 I’m fairly certain he wouldn’t be too surprised by the ability to see through skin and bone

  8. Justin- Question for you. You know of a few players that took steroids based on you’re time playing. I get that you won’t report that, because at the time you were a part of the team. What happens in the locker room, stays in the locker room, etc.

    But if you found out about a player taking steroids now, would you report about it as a journalist? Or would you keep the veil of secrecy due to not wanting to ruin your pre-established hockey connections.

    • Depends how I came across the information. If I was sent some documentation, or had some form of proof, I’d definitely write about it. If I was told by a buddy in the NHL that his teammate, or roommate, or whatever was taking steroids, I wouldn’t run with it.

  9. There are two different conversations that are collapsed into one story. First, Karlsson’s recovery may mean that the 70% tear (unless we – and by we, I mean the great Jo Innis – are given access to the medical records) may not be truthful. If that’s the case, then good on the Senators PR department for doing as Bourne suggested in under-promising the recovery time… Why did no one think about calling Karlsson’s mom?

    The second is a far broader issue about the use of performance enhancing substances in hockey. The new CBA limits off-season testing to no more than 60 total tests, in addition to the tests for the team and random in season/post season tests. The testing policy has only now – for the 2013/14 season – been expanded to include stimulants and amphetamines as prohibited substances. Performance enhancing substances exist in hockey (see Michael Farber’s article on ‘Hockey’s Little Helper’ in SI way back in 1998) and to think otherwise would be turning a blind eye to the reality of professional sports in today’s day and age. I don’t begrudge anyone for using them as the decimal point moves to the right on their paycheck as they move up to the NHL. Just don’t tell me that hockey is a clean sport and expect me to believe it.

  10. …if the problem you have regarding his injury and recovery is Ottawa’s lack of truth telling about the injury, shouldn’t the story be the lack of truth telling in the NHL about injuries?

  11. I highly doubt that EK did any form of PEDs, due to what is in my opinion a varying degree of factors. The first, HGH (which most people synonymously refer to as PEDs) does not repair an injured tendon, or make you stronger for that matter; it repairs muscle tissue after workouts, and allows you to grow healthy muscles at a quicker pace as a result. Taking HGH would have done nothing for Erik’s recovery; the people bringing up Ray Lewis must simply not have read or understood what Ray’s injury was compared to Erik’s. Ray’s tricep muscle literally detached from his arm. Erik’s tendon was cut, and probably not to the degree that was originally stated. Look up a history of Achilles injuries; devastating in the beginning, but ultimately a very reparable problem. The tendon simply has to HEAL. Erik’s achilles was sewn up and given time, the only other aspect required was to wait for the tissue to reform and then to start applying weight to make it stronger. Ray had to build back lost tissue AND reattach a tendon and connecting tissue. Very different circumstances…

    As far as Erik’s quote goes, anyone who is a Sens fan will not read too much into it. EK is a VERY emotional player, and at the time of the injury (which again, is originally brutal {you can do next to nothing with your leg for a month}) he probably felt as if he had an immense time of recovery before him. 4-6 months from doctors is a conservative estimate, 2 and a half months is no real stretch.

    Saying all this, is Erik likely 100%? By no means; it might take another year until he feels fully functional in his movements. Is he a cheater who used substances to speed his comeback? No way…

  12. You’re right about the fact that steroids would have hurt, not helped the healing of his Achilles. But, HGH most definitely would have helped A LOT. Like enough to turn a 6 month recovery into 10 weeks.

  13. As a orthopaedic foot and ankle surgeon the difference in recovery of Karlsson from say Zajacs injury recovery
    (1) Laceration vs Rupture
    - laceration means healthy tendon was cut by skate. Rupture usually happens in tendon that was diseased (tendinosis) so in weaker state and couldn’t handle load.

    (2) Partial laceration (70% reported)
    - Achilles ruptures are usually complete, so when it’s repaired together, only thing holding the repair together initially is some sutures. The tendon needs to scar together and have collagen remodelling
    - if there is tendon remaining intact, means not just dependent on sutures to hold repair for first 6-8 weeks, can be more aggressive with rehab
    - arbitrarily in orthopaedic literature (mainly for hand/wrist lacerations), we have guidelines that say if a tendon is cut less than 50% don’t need to repair, while cut more than 50% repair. All that means is that much better not to have a complete laceration or rupture.

  14. We already know fans aren’t going to stop going to games out of protest. So, until one of the sport’s biggest stars gets caught with the needle in his arm, we’re going to be stuck speculating.

    But I think, if things seem too good to be true (a la miracle territory), then they probably aren’t.

  15. First off, grats on the return. He’s an amazing young athlete, and the NHL can use him back on the ice.

    Absolutely no clue if he used drugs to accelerate his recovery, but in lieu of any proof, why even discuss it? No reason to add anything negative to the kids reputation.

    As far as the thought that Ottawa may have exaggerated the injury, I find that an interesting line of thinking. They certainly went the whole 9 yards and beyond to make an issue out of that, hiring forensics experts, etc. If that is the case, I hope they feel the proper remorse, as it may have led to people questioning the ethics of one of their brightest young stars.

  16. Big difference between taking PEDs to gain a competitive advantage, vs doing whatever it takes to come back from a catastrophic injury.
    The former artificially raises your output ABOVE your natural baseline. That’s cheating.
    The latter is simply returning the athlete to where he was.

  17. its a minor quibble but if you want to be really strong on your language, look to say things like “I think karlsson did not cheat” rather than “i do not think karlsson cheated”. one’s a lot more direct and then you don’t even need bold!

  18. Its pretty simple. People are allowed to speculate as much as they want but that is all its going to ever be: an opinion. Unless there is testing which I’m not really for or against we will never truly know so you really can’t blame the player at this point no matter what the circumstance.

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