nick backstrom

I’m still pretty floored by the idea that Nick Backstrom was told he couldn’t participate in the gold medal game of the Olympics because he apparently took Zyrtec-D.

The effect Sudafed (which contains the ingredient pseudoephedrine, hence the name) has on a hockey player’s body likely varies, but in my own experience it made me feel zero percent better, faster, or more awake. I still occasionally took them before games because when you’re competing in athletic competition breathing as clear as possible has to help, logically (particularly with recovery), so I figured why not. They weren’t illegal (or maybe they were, who knows, I was never tested in the AHL, ECHL or NCAA), and a lot of guys took them, so sure, toss me a couple of those, will ya doc? If everybody’s popping them pre-game, they must do something?

A quick web search explains how pseudoephedrine operates:

Pseudoephedrine works by acting on alpha receptors that are found in the walls of blood vessels in the linings of the nasal passages and sinuses. It causes these blood vessels to contract and narrow, thereby decreasing blood flow into the linings of the nose and sinuses. This reduces the feeling of congestion and also reduces the production of mucus.

So sure. Maybe they help performance a bit, maybe they don’t, mind as well take the at-worst-placebo and “be at your best.”

The regular distribution of sudafed in a hockey locker rooms would be a real chore for anybody to rein in without outlawing and testing for them for a number of reasons, the foremost is that it’s a sport played in the winter, and guys often legitimately need them. Between changing and showering with 20-plus other people every day, being locked in buses and planes, sharing hotel rooms…you’re just going to get sick, and most doctors are more than willing to help – that’s why they’re milling about the medical room before the game. (That, and for the free tickets.)

I’ve played on a team with a doctor who tried to be careful about how many he gave out, but it became a daily interrogation that wasted his time.

Doc: Are you really sick again?

Player X: Can barely breathe. 

Doc: Really tough to call your bluff here.

Player X: Was pretty much banking on that.

Doc: Ah. 

And if that doesn’t work, well then guys will just go to the damn store. If they want ‘em, they can get ‘em.

I think it used to be far more common for players to take something more hardcore than anti-sniffle pills for energy, because guys realized how impossible it made making delicate plays like saucer passes with hands shaking like they’d been on a espresso binge. The game didn’t used to require this level of delicateness with the puck.

BackstromI remember a few guys used to take some seriously illegal stuff in junior – pretty sure they were called “yellow jackets,” and they were far more potent, and got passed around pretty casually (I never touched those). I never once saw or heard of a player in a pro locker room taking anything harder then Sudafed for energy, and I had a pulse on guys using steroids.

I’ve seen people debating how many Zyrtecs Backstrom would have to take to get red flagged at the Olympics before the gold medal game, and if I’m being honest, my stance is…I don’t really care. Sudafed, Zyrtec, any of those decongestants are just so common, so familiar in hockey dressing rooms that it seems like a laugh to me that this has become such a big deal, but that’s what happens when you ask a superstar to miss a gold medal game for overusing something 50% of guys use. I’d love to have a more enlightened, how-dare-he attitude, but I just can’t muster it.

If we decide that those are pills we don’t want athletes to be able to take, and Backstrom was made aware of it, and he still tried to cheat the system, then I’ll happily board my high horse and get tsk-tsking.

Maybe he was taking something different, something more hardcore, trying to legitimately cheat. I’ll withhold judgement on that for if we ever hear that was the case. But if it’s true this was about allergy medication while the NHL still allows the use of them, we don’t know any more about what really happened, and the guy getting “caught” for using them resulted in him missing the biggest game of his life in what was to be a contest against other NHLers, I’m baffled this happened. Seems like a situation common sense should’ve overcome, and he should’ve played. What a mess.

Comments (21)

  1. Just don’t see the point of testing for something that’s totally legal *without a prescription* in the regular world!

    But I can also say that taking Sudafed doesn’t make me feel any better in terms of athletics — in fact, I think it makes me kind of dopey. Never understood why hockey players are known to pop Sudies, but I figured those that do must have a different response than me, for some reason.

    Also — how come this seems rampant in hockey but not other sports?

    • As far as it being more common goes, I can’t say for sure, but my guess is the combination of the season and cold playing environment, plus the amount of foam padding in hockey equipment. All that protective gear doesn’t just build up a stink, it builds up bacteria like woah. I’ve never seen a study on it, but just anecdotally, my hockey-playing friends get sick a lot more often than my basketball-playing friends, and I’ve known several local hockey guys who have gotten far worse things than a cold from their own dirty equipment.

    • seems like I recall it being a big deal in baseball awhile back.

    • No, it happens elsewhere. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (gridiron football) had some MRSA issues this past season.

  2. Why isn’t Jo Innes writing about this?

  3. from NHLPA
    The joint Committee also will agree on a Prohibited Substances List. The list will include performance-enhancing substances on the list maintained by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for both in-competition and out-of-competition testing. Changes to the items included on the Prohibited List can only be as negotiated by the NHL and NHLPA.

    From WADA
    In addition to the categories S0 to S5 and M1 to M3 defined above, the following categories are prohibited In-Competition:
    b: Specified Stimulants (examples):

    Backstrom has struggled with allergies and migraines since he joined the Caps. I doubt backstrom was popping pills to gain some sort of advantage. If anything, psuedoehedrine is effective for weight loss pre-competition but you need to take enough to stop your heart to have a competitive advantage.

  4. From what I understand it tests the same as several things in the amphetamine group and thus would show as a positive result. They have no way of knowing if it was something actually illegal or simply I took allergy meds I swear.

    It can be used as a masking agent and is not allowed because of that not beacuse of any performance enhancing effect it actually has.

  5. Isn’t the idea that you could have been taking higher doses of something with pseudoephedrine earlier during the games, if you pop for the amount in a Sudafed, so that’s why they test for such a small amount in your system?

    I don’t think Nick Backstrom is a cheater, but they can’t exactly just take his word for it because he seems like a good guy. And while I wouldn’t rag on him for cheating, it’s an athlete and their team doctor’s/staff’s responsibility to know what they are and aren’t allowed to take and to avoid those.

  6. My friend’s (an M.D. plus a doctorate in medicine) comment: “Pseudoephedrine is indeed doping.” i.e. it has performance-enhancing qualities. It may have already been mentioned, but most countries don’t sell medicine with pseudephedrine over the counter since it can be used to synthesize meth.

  7. Regardless of what the argument is for what pseudophedrine can and can’t do, does and doesn’t do, it comes down to one simple fact: Its listed as a banned substance by WADA, which the IOC adheres to vehemently. Yeah, its a tough break for Backstrom, Sweden and all fans of sport who wanted to see a game played to its full potential, but its still something that should have been “caught” before it was caught. It truly blows that Backstom suffers something fierce, and its pretty unfair that he’s not able to feel normal without using a banned substance. But the whole world is unfair. Its unfair how unfair life is sometimes. He’s a top level athlete with what appears like the immune system of a infant. I myself was born sans top level skills, but my immune system is built like a tank. Its unfair that I wasn’t born with skills like his, and he an immune system like mine. But that’s the way it goes. If we were all born perfect, the entire world would perform everyday tasks like it was Spacejam. But everyone has flaws and some people will do anything to nullify said flaws. Rules are put in place to try to make everything we do in sport an even playing field. Maybe the pseudophedrine rule is more of a blanket-rule meant to catch true cheaters, and Backstrom was just caught up in the mix. But the moment the rules start to change for one person, it ruins the integrity of the whole reason why they’re put in place to begin with.

  8. FWIW, it’s not available without restrictions in the US any more, but that’s because it’s used to make harder drugs. The issue here is not that Backstrom was taking it. The issue here is that the incompetent Swedish doctors KNEW he was taking them, KNEW they were banned, and didn’t tell him to stop.

    I mean really, how many olympic drug scandals does it take before the doctors say to all players on the first day they are put on the team “Guys, stop taking everything. Run it by us first”. It’s the fricking Olympics!

    • On it says “Find it behind the pharmacy counter. No prescription needed.*” and * In most states. I’m assuming this is accurate information. Zyrtec-D’s active ingredients: Cetirizine HCl 5 mg, Pseudoephedrine HCl 120 mg.

      There may have been a misunderstanding on the part of the Swedish doctors, because again afaik Zyrtec in Sweden never has pseudoephedrine and neither does Zyrtec in the US. It is only Zyrtec-D that is the problem. Of course they shouldn’t have assumed anything, but it is easy to see were the problem may have occurred.

      • In the States, you do NOT need a prescription for something like Zyrtec-D, but neither can you just grab a bottle, pay your money, and go. You have to have the pharmacist give it to you, and you sign a book (and in many cases, also must show some sort of photo ID).

        In theory, this will result in some extra attention from the authorities if your name shows up too often, under suspicion of cooking the stuff down into a controlled substance.

  9. You guys realize the same meds he popped positive for in the olympics are banned in the NHL except the Backstrom has a medical waiver for a necessary medication.

    He is paid to play the doctor is paid too make sure anything the doctor OKs is good to go with testing.

    I want to know why it took 4 days to inform team Sweden of the problem, leaving it impossible to protest. Also, where is the B sample and what were the results?

    • I’m sure the test processing took some time. However it shouldn’t take four days, but it sitll isn’t instantaneous. The B sample is also positive or so I’ve heard. Letting him play could have been an even worse situation for ALL the parties involved. Had somebody else on the team tested positive for a banned substance after the final the whole team would’ve stood to lose their medals.

  10. Great read. As a Caps fan I’ve know for years that Backstrom has allergies and occasional migraines which I personally assumed were from an allergic reaction. Virginia is particularly tough on those with allergies.

    I have tons of questions, most particularly about how the process was handled by the IOC. A similar situation occurred in Vancouver but Visnovsky got his results back from the IOC within 48 hours and was able to give a sample both before and after the next game and the levels had gone back down to below the threshold. And he was able to play in the bronze finals.

    Unfortunately for Backstrom the IOC got the results back late Saturday (samples given on Wednesday after the Slovenia game), after the Friday quarterfinal with Finland. Yet even then they still failed to contact Team Sweden and Backstrom. The IOC waited until Sunday two and half hours before the match, thereby leaving no time for Backstrom to appeal and have a chance to retake the test. It would have been far better had Backstrom been able to give pre and post game samples against Finland the way Visnovsky was able to do. And like him his levels may well have gone back down below the threshold. But we will never know now.

    • from the IOC athlete handout

      The WADA-accredited laboratory, located in the Olympic Park in Sochi, will use the most up-to-date technologies and operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week during the Games. Up to 200 samples will be tested every day.
      The normal test turnaround time will be 24 hours (some tests will take longer). A team of nearly 100 anti-doping scientists from several countries will carry out the testing at Games time, led by Professor Grigory Rodchenkov, from the Moscow Anti-Doping Laboratory.

  11. My wife is a curler. She is an amateur athlete. When competing at the National level there is the possibility of testing. Because of this, we both know the list of allergy, cold and cough meds that can and cannot be used. We avoid them if necessary.

    Amateur curler with a day job can figure this out. Millionaire, Professional hockey player can’t? Cry all you want. Should have been simple to avoid.

  12. I feel like its pretty common knowledge that pseudo is one of the IOC banned substances. Between the player and the training staff, someone should have known better. I’m not saying that it was enhancing his performance at all, but these are the rules.

  13. I recieved this email, which I found helpful if you’re looking for more information:


    Hi Justin,

    Regarding the Backstrom doping story, this might be of interest.

    I think, like you, I’m not sure pseudoephedrine is in an of itself a big problem. But if you check out this PPT from WADA (World Anti-Doping Administration, which lays down the doping substance lists to be administered by each country’s ADA orgs) you can see that pseudoephedrine can metabolize into a banned stimulant. Probably why some people say they get jittery when they take Sudafed, and others say they don’t (or even get tired?).

    On addition to hockey, I follow professional cycling. Cycling is so far beyond other sports in their pursuit of dopers. People think cycling is a dirty sport, but that’s just because they work much harder at catching cheats. What you find is there are substances that aren’t a big deal themselves, but they may be used to mask the use of other, banned substances. So the initial substance gets banned to ensure no one is masking illegal doping, etc.

    Crazy stuff gets on the list this way (or stuff that would see crazy, but there’s a reason in the end).

    It looks like with pseudoephedrine that in small doses it’s not a doping concern, but even at over the counter strengths it could result in a level that flags a drug test. That appears to be what happened with Backstrom.

    It is unfortunate, and I believe he wasn’t trying to enhance his performance. But like you said, if this is the rule, and he violated the rule, then that’s the way it goes. Stop taking it a day before the game and it appears you’re good to go.

    From the USADA:

    · Pseudoephedrine is an ingredient in several cold and flu products. WADA has issued an advisory to athletes that they should discontinue taking medications containing pseudoephedrine less than 240mg per day AT LEAST 24 hours prior to the time defined as “in-competition.” Be advised, in some cases this may not be enough time for the substance to clear from the body,such as a slow-metabolizer or because of drug interactions. USADA recommends avoiding pseudoephedrine-containing cold and flu products for several days in advance of competition, and using a non-prohibited alternative instead.

    If you want to learn more about doping, and how this stuff works, I’d suggest contacting Jonathan Vaughters. Vaughters is a team owner/director for Garmin/Sharp one of pro cyclings experts on doping. I don’t have an email address for him but he’s very active on Twitter @Vaughters. He’d be able to answer any questions or certainly point you to someone who can.

    This is his team

    Anyway, FWIW


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *