Murky Waters

With a still ongoing investigation, it’s been reported that Alexei Cherepanov, the Rangers prospect who died tragically in October, was apparently blood doping which may have caused his death. Blood doping refers to a practise which involves boosting the number of red blood cells. Oxygen is carried in red blood cells, and increasing the number improves athletic performance, specifically, aerobic capacity.

Blood doping has become increasingly more common as sports science has progressed. First, it is quite difficult to detect, considering that one of the first methods to find evidence of doping was to look for syringes in the athletes’ homes. It was not until recently that urine was used as a sample and with it the testing for a hormone called erythropoietin (EPO). EPOs stimulates the formation of red blood cells, but excess of EPO can cause polycythemia, in which the red blood cell count becomes abnormally high and causes the blood to become quite viscous, straining the heart. This is the most likely cause, reportedly, of Cherepanov’s death, who was also suffering from myocarditis.

The hockey world is treading on ice now. I think over the past 3 years we’ve seen an abnormally high amount of heart-related deaths for well-conditioned athletes, and while a part of it is because of the strict diet and exercise regimens the athletes follow, this is a little alarming. Blood doping is hard to detect because EPO is a natural growth hormone and also because there have been numerous cases of mix-up by anti-doping agencies. Things become a little murky here because 1) the NHL and IIHF are not involved in investigations, and 2) it’s still preliminary. There hasn’t been much information released so we’ll have to sit tight and see what other things come to light in the next couple weeks and months.

Remember Dick Pound, the crazy anti-doping activist that claimed a third of all NHLers were doping? Expect him to make a return sometime soon.

This article has 3 Comments

  1. Good points, and I’d only add:

    1) an undetectable heart defect is, well, undetectable. That some victims can be high-level athletes tends to cloud the fact that a certain % of the population can drop dead while in otherwise perfect health. As you say, this is early, but interesting. I’m sure blood doping, etc. wouldn’t exactly HELP an existing defect.

    2) Dick Pound (I HAVE to stop the urge to make a porn joke there…) was probably right IF you include over the counter drugs. Anyone who has been into a pro hockey dressing room will tell you that a suspiciously high number of players must suffer from colds, as the boxes of Sudafed, etc. aren’t (or at least weren’t) hidden. All that ephedrine can’t be healthy either, particularly if mixed with Red Bull, etc.

    3) fringe players, especially fighters, can be pretty desperate to keep from selling Lady Kenmores. I can’t believe that John Kordic was the only one using steroids. A lot of these guys are also gym rats. My nephew’s high school football team (and this is Canada, where football isn’t nearly as popular as in the States) was allegedly rife with ‘roids.

    I think the NHL and NHLPA have done a good job handling the traditional hockey disease (i.e., alcoholism). Why not aggressively go after the druggies as well? Ultimately, you are saving lives. Hard not to balance a career with that.

  2. When Pound popped into the scene it was in the midst of the controversy surrounding steriods and Barry Bonds. He went a power trip after a few others tested positive and made himself an enemy amongst pro sports circles. I can’t see him being credible at all… and a name like that doesn’t help.

    I think the doping that Pound was referring to were HGH. I agree with you that the NHL should tackle drug problems. Brian McGrattan is in rehab now for substance abuse, most likely alcohol but who knows what else. Imagine what Theo Fleury (a personal favourite) could’ve accomplished had the NHL taken some initiative – but that was the 70s and 80s when it was apparently quite commonplace.

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