Mike Richards' arrest raises questions about painkiller use in NHL

Does the drug possession arrest of L.A. Kings forward Mike Richards point to a painkiller problem in the NHL?
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The news that former Los Angeles Kings center Mike Richards was charged with possession of a controlled substance after a two-month investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police raised a number of serious questions that have yet to be answered beyond his guilt or innocence.

An arrest like the one that took place back on June 17 when Richards tried to enter Canada at the Emerson, Manitoba crossing “typically” occurs when “the individual is carrying loose pills that are not in the original bottle” in which they were prescribed, according to a Canadian Border Services Agency employee who is not authorized to speak to the media.

The CBSA employee refused to speculate on the quantity of pills that typically would result in an arrest, but did say, “I wouldn’t question someone with a legitimate prescription.”

Does the NHL have a painkiller problem?

So, were these pills prescribed to Richards? If so, were they prescribed by a team physician? If that was the case, to what extent is it the responsibility of that physician to make the player aware of issues that might arise from cross-border travel, something that a great many players do during the off-season?

And if they weren’t prescribed to Richards, whose pills were they ... and what was he doing with them?

It’s no secret that the use of prescription pain killers is an issue for a league that is currently being sued by the family of Derek Boogaard who committed suicide after becoming addicted to them. Having another prominent player—a two-time Stanley Cup winner and an Olympic gold medalist—arrested for possession at an international border doesn’t help the optics.

With few facts available, it’s too early to tell what this arrest might mean for Richards and his future.

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“This is an offense for which there is a huge [sentencing] range,” University of Manitoba law professor Debra Parkes told the Los Angeles Times.“It will all depend on the seriousness. I’ve seen examples of people getting discharges for possession of Oxycodone. There are some examples of that across Canada, if the person is an addict, if it is a relatively low amount, no record, that kind of thing. It could be a fine, or could possibly be imprisonment.

“Without a record, and assuming if it was a small amount, it would be possible to argue even for a discharge. But we don’t know enough about the facts.”

• The decision by USA Hockey to create a National Team Development Program in 1996 to hothouse the country’s top underaged talent has been critical to both the successful development of that talent and the improvement of America’s teams on the international stage.

After years of frustrating results, Russia has decided that a similar model might work for them, too.

The Russian Ice Hockey Federation and the MHL, the country’s under-21 junior league, have committed to icing a centralized U18 national team for the 2015-16 season.

“One year ago, as instructed by the Ministry of Sport, I went to study the American example to provide recommendations. Now the decision is to establish a team,” former MHL managing director Dmitri Yefimov told sportbox.ru. “For the MHL it will be a pleasure to have the U18 national team and I can guarantee that we will create all conditions for this special team.”

There are scheduling challenges for a team that will play a regular slate of league games along with competing in all the major international tournaments. But after several years of disappointing results, culminating with a 5–0 loss to Switzerland in the 2015 U18 quarterfinals, these are challenges the Russians are willing to overcome.

The results won’t be immediate, but as with the American program they should provide a significant return over time. Don't be surprised if this signals the start of a Russian hockey revolution.

• No one really thought it would go like this for Cody Franson, did they? A young (28) right-shooting defenseman blessed with bright, shiny #fancystats and a rep for producing on the power play, he was expected to be one of the first unrestricted free agents to land a new deal this summer. Instead, he’s been pushed to the discount table where he’s sat for nearly two months, like an expired loaf of bread that no one wants even at pennies on the dollar.

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That may be about to change, however. Mike Harrington is reporting that the Buffalo Sabres are in talks with the former Predator and that a two-year deal is on the table. No word on salary although it, like that term, is sure to fall well short of Franson’s blue sky dreams.

Obviously, the rebuilding Sabres can use all the help they can get but Franson has clear limitations. Despite that big 6' 5" frame he’s far from physical. He’s not particularly quick or agile on his skates. He has a tendency to make head-scratching decisions with the puck. Still, outside of that disastrous stint with Nashville, he’s coming off a couple seasons in which he handled big minutes and was one of the more productive defenders on a bad team. He’s likely a third-pairing depth player on a good club, but a chance to skate on Buffalo’s top four could bring out the best in him again.

• That four-year, $15.4 million extension that Dallas gave Cody Eakin on Friday won’t be warmly greeted by teams that are looking to re-up their own pending free agents in the coming months, but it’s a reasonable investment from the perspective of the Stars. At 23, Eakin is on the verge of establishing himself as an excellent third-line center. He finished fourth on the team in scoring last season, setting new personal bests in goals (19) assists (21) and points (40). He ratcheted up his face-off winning percentage as well, moving from 47.8% to 50.8%. Some of that improvement can be attributed to taking fewer draws from the left side after the arrival of Jason Spezza, but he’s also improved his craft with practice. If that number continues to trend up, and his offensive production stays in the same neighborhood, he’ll provide decent value on the dollar. More important though, he’ll help the Stars lay claim to having the best center depth in the West.

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