Why the NHL probably won’t (but could) suspend Evgeny Kuznetsov for his positive cocaine test

Back in May during the world hockey championship, a video surfaced on social media showing Washington Capitals star Evgeny Kuznetsov sitting at a table in a hotel room with what looked like two lines of cocaine and a rolled-up American banknote in front of him.

Kuznetsov is one of the best Russian players, and one of Alex Ovechkin’s key sidekicks in Washington. Ovechkin is the only Capital with more points than Kuznetsov over the last two seasons, and Kuznetsov led the NHL in playoff scoring in 2018, when the Caps won the Stanley Cup.

The NHL looked into the video after it became public, and within days announced it would not punish Kuznetsov. He then issued a statement saying he’d never taken illegal drugs in his life. He said the video was shot in Las Vegas in 2018 after the Caps won the Cup. Kuznetsov told a Russian media outlet: “I never took drugs. Give me a drug test and I’ll pass it.”

Well, someone did. And he didn’t. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) announced Friday that Kuznetsov tested positive for cocaine at this year’s world championship and it handed him a long suspension.

Here are the details and what this means for Kuznetsov’s future:

When did the positive test happen?

May 26. That’s the day after Russia lost to Finland in the semifinals of the world championship tournament in Slovakia, and the day before mainstream media picked up on the video. Kuznetsov was provisionally suspended on June 13, but word didn’t get out until the IIHF announced its final ruling today.

What’s the punishment?

The IIHF suspended Kuznetsov for four years, until June 2023, so he won’t be allowed to play in any IIHF-run events until then. Those include the annual world championships and the 2022 Winter Olympics, though the NHL hasn’t committed to the latter yet.

What was Kuznetsov’s response?

He said in a written statement that he accepts the suspension, and he promised to “take ownership of my situation and my actions from this point forward.”

Nowhere in the statement does Kuznetsov deny using cocaine.

Why is cocaine banned in international hockey?

The IIHF, which is the governing body for international hockey, follows the rules set out by the World Anti-Doping Agency. WADA classifies cocaine as a performance-enhancing stimulant, and the drug is on its “prohibited in-competition” list.

Will the NHL suspend Kuznetsov too?

Probably not. Compared to other North American sports leagues (and WADA), the NHL is pretty hands-off when it comes to recreational drugs — or “drugs of abuse,” as it calls them.

Under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the league and the players’ union, team-wide drug tests are conducted once during training camp and again during the regular season. Individual players can be randomly tested during the season and playoffs, and up to 60 can be randomly tested in the off-season. 

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has a lot of latitude when it comes to punishing players for off-ice misconduct. (Charles Krupa/The Associated Press)

But the focus of these tests is on detecting performance-enhancing drugs. Players’ urine samples are also checked for recreational drugs, including cocaine and marijuana, but they’re not prohibited. If someone tests positive for these, the lab reports it to a Performance Enhancing Substances Program committee, which is made up of union and league officials. But this is done on a “survey” basis only — meaning no one is named.

The only exception is if a “dangerously high level” of a recreational drug is found. Then a program doctor is allowed to learn the player’s identity and contact him for an explanation. If the doctor isn’t satisfied, he refers the player to the Substance Abuse and Behavioural Health Program for “mandatory evaluation and treatment.” 

That’s it. The CBA doesn’t say anything about fines or suspensions for testing positive for recreational drugs. The priority is on treatment, not punishment. So it’s unlikely Kuznetsov will be forced to miss any games with the Capitals. He should also be OK for the World Cup of Hockey, which is on course to happen again in 2021. That event is run by the NHL and the players’ union. The IIHF isn’t involved.

So Kuznetsov is free and clear?

Not quite. In a statement Friday, the NHL said Kuznetsov has “voluntarily sought help” through the counselling program and has “agreed to a regular testing protocol.” He’s also agreed to meet with commissioner Gary Bettman sometime before training camp, which starts in a few weeks. The league said it will wait until after that meeting to comment on “any additional actions that may or may not be taken with respect to today’s announcement (disciplinary or otherwise).”

Those words are interesting. Given the language in the CBA around recreational drug use, it seems unlikely the NHL would be able to punish Kuznetsov for a positive cocaine test (not to mention one conducted by another organization) without being challenged by the union. Especially with Kuznetsov having no prior positive tests that we know of — remember, anonymity is a big feature of the NHL’s testing process for recreational drugs.

But Bettman has something in his back pocket. The CBA contains a clause giving the commissioner the power to discipline players for off-ice conduct “detrimental to or against the welfare of the league or the game of hockey.”

That’s incredibly broad, and so is the range of possible punishments: players can be fined, suspended or even have their contracts voided. This is how the NHL was able to suspend L.A. Kings defenceman Slava Voynov for the entire 2019-20 season following his conviction on a domestic-violence charge.

So it might be a question of how far Bettman wants to take this.

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, the CBC Sports daily newsletter. If you want more writing like this sent straight to your inbox, sign up below.

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