Measured against other leagues, things are cool in NHL

By Michael J. Happy

CBS SportsLine Staff Writer

July 22, 1998

DETROIT -- Compared to the other major sports leagues, the NHL is relatively clean.

"Ice" is the surface they play on.

"Shooting up" refers to a player aiming for the top shelf of the net.

"Dope" is the guy who takes a penalty with a game tied late in the third period.

Rarely do you hear about a hockey player who gets busted for possessing an illegal substance (Sudafed is legal) or tossing a bar patron through a window.

But that doesn't mean the NHL is full of choirboys, said Jim Devellano, who has been around these players for more than 30 years. Devellano, senior vice president of the Detroit Red Wings, broke into the league as a scout for the St. Louis Blues in 1967 and helped build the New York Islanders' dyansty in the early 1980s. He also is the man most responsible for putting together the current Red Wings, winners of the last two Stanley Cup championships.

Devellano knows hockey and its players. He also knows the dangers of alcohol, which he said is the spirit of choice in the NHL -- just as it is in society as a whole.

"Alcohol is a real problem in society, period. It's a major problem in America," Devellano said. "There's very few people who aren't touched by it in some way, whether it's family or friends.

"There's bars all over, and you're talking about young, popular players with money and time on their hands. To think that there's not some players in the NHL who drink too much would be stupid."

Consider what happened at the Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Back in February, members of the U.S. hockey team had a few too many after a devastating loss to the Czechs and decided to take their frustrations out on a room in the Olympic village.

The incident was a major disappointment to the NHL, which sent its players to the Winter Games for the first time in '98 hoping to gain more exposure. Instead, the league was embarrassed on and off the ice. The International Olympic Committee doesn't award medals for chair-throwing.

"Obviously, that was a disappointing incident," Devellano said. "The people who did it should have come forward, lived up to it and that would have been the end of it. They wouldn't have been scarred for life. It's not the first time kids have gotten drunk and acted stupid.

"I think they were advised by the players' association to stick together and not reveal who it was and all take the rap for it. I don't think it was good advice."

While Devellano said heavy drinking does occur in the NHL, he also said the image of drunken players throwing temper tantrums in hotels across the United States and Canada throughout the season isn't accurate; there's simply too much at stake in the modern game to drink it all away, he says.

"Players today, with the kind of money that they're being paid in our league, they see that if they keep themselves in good condition and look after themselves, their careers can be extended," Devellano said.

"And that means several more million dollars that they can earn." The League also has done its part to make sure players stay clean without forcing them to undergo mandatory and random testing for illegal substances. In 1996, the NHL and its players association established a comprehensive program to address substance abuse, HIV and related health matters. The program -- incorporated into the collective bargaining agreement -- provides counseling for players and their families.

"The program extends to issues related to substance abuse as well as emotional and family problems," said Devin Smith, NHL players association spokesperson. "The confidentiality factor and access to the program's doctors have made the program work very effectively."

"They represent a good cross section of the blue-collar community," said Ray Barile, trainer for the St. Louis Blues. "You're going to have alcohol problems in general society. (The NHL) is a cross section of what you see in the United States and Canada. You're going to have a few players who drink, but no more than you'll find in the average workplace.

"We're not absolutely squeaky clean, but the league has put together a great program for helping people with problems."

For those who need it, the program goes beyond counseling. It also provides assessment and treatment, and a four-stage procedure was established to monitor a player's progress:

The league also has the right to force a player to undergo testing and treatment if he is involved in a substance abuse-related run-in with the law. Such incidents have been few and far between during the past decade.

"We have the good fortune of having our players embrace very much our therapy," NHL spokesperson Bernadette Mansur said. "They are not dictated, they are not compelled, but each of our players has embraced our therapeutic program. We're very proud of that and proud of our players for that."

(Proud or not, NHL teams still seem reluctant to talk about this issue. Of almost 20 phone calls made to front-office officials for comment on this story, almost none were returned.)

Devellano says things have been quiet in Detroit the past few years. "I've been through two regimes in Detroit," he said. "The mid to late 1980s I had a lot of problems on my team. Now, in the '90s, I have very few.

"I don't know why that is. I guess it's the type of players we have. We don't have a major problem in Detroit."

Maybe not, but even the defending champions are not completely immune to substance-abuse issues.

If not for the leadership of players such as Steve Yzerman and Paul Coffey, Red Wings forward Darren McCarty could have become a major problem in the mid '90s, when his excessive drinking became obvious.

"About three years ago, I had gotten some vibes that Darren might have had a bit of a problem," Devellano said. "I talked to some of the core players (Yzerman and Coffey) personally and confidentially about it. And they advised me that they thought that they could handle it internally, and I think they did."

"They went to Darren and talked to him about it. And one day, a couple of months later, in the summer, Darren came to see me. He told me that he had a problem, and it was drinking.

"I said, 'This is a joyous day for me, Darren.' "And he said, 'Why is it so joyous that I'm telling you this?' "I said, 'It's joyous because you've admitted, you've come forward, you've come clean.' "He came to me, and he was very good about it. And nothing has ever surfaced that there has been any continuance of the problem."

McCarty, now a recovering alcoholic, has become an instrumental part of the Red Wings and the metro Detroit community. He scored the winning goal in the '97 Cup clincher against the Philadelphia Flyers and is involved in a number of local charities.

But the same can't be said for some others who played in Detroit. Ten years ago, Hockeytown was Partytown.

"We had a lot of problems here in the late '80s, when six, seven, eight players out of our 25 drank too much," Devellano said. "Bob Probert was a major guy."

Probert, who played for the Red Wings from 1985-93, had substance-abuse problems beyond alcohol. His vice was cocaine, which led an arrest and subsequent suspension from the league when he was caught with the substance in his trunk at the Detroit-Windsor border.

"We could never handle it with Bob," said Devellano, who eventually gave up on Probert and let his contract run out after the 1992-93 season.

Probert signed with the Chicago Blackhawks in '94 but was placed on inactive status by the league in September that year for violating substance-abuse policies. He was reinstated for the 1995-96 season and remains with Chicago. And he seems to have cleaned up his act.

"He's just been super," Blackhawks spokesperson Barbara Davidson said. "He's just turned his life around.

"He's got two children now, a new marriage. He's a swell guy.

"He was at a dinner-meeting we had with various fans, season-ticket holders recently, and he just charmed the pants off everybody. It was really terrific."

Unfortunately, not every story has a happy ending when substance abuse is involved, and the NHL has suffered its share of tragedies. Among them is Craig MacTavish, who played 17 seasons in the NHL but spent a year in jail and missed the entire 1984-85 season after killing a woman in a drunk-driving accident in Boston in '83.

And Pelle Lindbergh, the first European goalie to win the Vezina Trophy ('85), reportedly was drunk when he drove his car into a bridge abutment and was killed in Philadelphia in '86.

Still, Devellano said the NHL has been lucky to avoid such incidents in recent years. He also considers himself blessed to be surrounded by players who stay away from even more lethal substances.

"I think our league has been very, very fortunate," Devellano said. "We haven't had what I would call a major problem (with drugs).

"A lot of our players come from a different culture: Canada, Europe. I don't know if (drug abuse) has been as prevalent up there.

"A lot of our players haven't been college educated. Maybe that's taking a knock at education. I don't know why, but somehow I relate drugs to college. Maybe that's wrong of me."

Whether college influences our youth to use drugs is up for debate. But based on recent police blotters, Devellano is right about one thing: Aside from an occasional minor incident, such as the room-trashing in Nagano, the NHL is pretty clean when compared to its rival leagues.

"I know it seems that other leagues have had more trouble," Devellano said. "The NFL and the NBA have had a lot of that. "But substance abuse certainly is not epidemic in the NHL."