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NHL, Washington Capitals icy about conducting steroid investigation

This article appears in the April 26 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Polk County (Fla.) sheriff Grady Judd was having dinner at Louie Mack's Steakhouse in Lakeland last May when he received a call from a veteran narcotics officer about a large cache of drugs that his unit had seized. "It was like an entire drugstore," Judd says of the stock of pills, bottles and syringes -- more than $200,000 worth and some containing steroids -- ­that detectives had found in the home of Richard Thomas, a former bodybuilder who for years had been peddling anabolic steroids that authorities say he imported from at least 20 countries.

Judd figured the media would want to know whether Thomas had dealt to athletes, so before he held a press conference announcing the seizure, he had a detective ask Thomas directly. "You name the sport, and I've sold steroids to athletes who play it," Thomas replied. He pointed to the Washington Nationals and Capitals as teams whose players he had dealt drugs to, though he did not name specific athletes.

When Major League Baseball (having learned the hard way what can happen when it ignores steroid allegations) learned of Thomas's claims, its security officials immediately called law enforcement authorities in Florida to offer cooperation, and also launched an internal investigation. MLB -- which Judd praised for its ­cooperation -- would not comment on its investigation. The NFL was in contact too, though Thomas had not mentioned any football teams or players. Neither the Capitals nor the NHL called, but they publicly promised internal investigations.

The NHL has reason to be especially interested. Last month detectives from the Polk County Sheriff's Tactical Drug Unit, working with the U.S. marshal's office, arrested a Thomas client, Douglas Nagel, a Virginia chiropractor who has treated Capitals players and keeps an office in a mall adjacent to the team's practice facility. Last September, Nagel told investigators that he was a client of Thomas's and that he had mailed money for steroids, including testosterone and nandrolone. Nagel, who is charged with eight counts related to steroid distribution (he has yet to enter a plea), also told investigators that he had treated Capitals players referred to him by that team's athletic trainer Greg Smith, whom detectives interviewed in September 2009 and again on March 23.

On the day of Nagel's arrest NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly issued a statement: "Based on the investigation we have done and the information we have, there is no evidence that Dr. Nagel ever supplied (or even offered to supply) performance enhancing drugs to any current or past member of the Washington Capitals." The Capitals issued a statement as well: "This has been a thorough investigation, and we are satisfied that law enforcement, the NHL and our own internal investigation have not led to any link of steroid use by Capitals players."

However, according to an April 7 e-mail from Ian Floyd of the Polk County Sheriff's Tactical Drug Unit to Judd (his boss), there are serious questions about the investigations conducted by the NHL and the Capitals. "I called and spoke with [NHL executive vice president of security] Dennis Cunningham today in reference to the official statements made by the Washington Capitals and NHL regarding the 'thorough investigation,'" reads the e-mail, which Judd allowed SI to review. "Mr. Cunningham admitted that contrary to the below issued statements, no investigation was ever conducted into Dr. Nagel and his ties to steroids and Capitals players by anyone with the NHL."

When presented with an excerpt of the e-mail, Daly told SI through an NHL spokesman, "We stand by the public statements that we have provided on the subject, including the fact that the NHL investigated the matter and has closed its investigation. We have nothing else to say on the subject."

According to Floyd's e-mail, when he asked the Capitals about their investigation, a team official also told him that none had been undertaken. "During a conversation I had with [Capitals assistant general manager and director of legal affairs] Don Fishman," the e-mail reads, "he advised that no investigation had been conducted by the Capitals into Dr. Nagel's potential involvement with steroids and Capitals players. Mr. Fishman advised that any investigation would have been conducted by Dennis Cunningham from the NHL's security office."

Capitals spokesman Kurt Kehl wrote in an e-mail to SI that the team conducted a "brief investigation, but the more extensive investigation was led by the NHL and Dennis Cunningham." The league would not make Cunningham available for comment.

After Nagel's arrest last month, Polk County investigators interviewed Capitals forwards Matt Bradley and Eric Fehr and defenseman Shaone Morrisonn, all of whom had been treated by Nagel. The players told reporters that the interviews were short and basic and that they told investigators they had seen Nagel for legitimate medical purposes. "We have nothing to hide here," Morrisonn told reporters on March 24. "We're all tested throughout the year. The NHL has a testing policy, and it's not an issue with this team."

But unlike MLB or the NFL, the NHL does not test during the off-season, nor once the playoffs have started. (This week the Capitals are facing the Canadiens in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.) Polk County officials noticed that of the 10 FedEx and U.S. Postal Service labels for packages mailed in 2008 and '09 between Thomas and Nagel that law enforcement officials obtained in their investigation, eight are dated during the period when the Capitals were either in the playoffs or out of season, and one was dated the day before the end of the 2007-08 season. After the arrest of Nagel, says Judd, "the NHL head of security was more concerned about how we got jurisdiction to arrest him [in Virginia]."

"I don't know whether the NHL has a steroid issue or not," Judd says, "but they certainly are very uncomfortable with us asking questions about it." The lesson of baseball's steroid era is a simple one: transparency -- not obfuscation or passivity -- is always the better course.

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