Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom was pulled from Sweden’s lineup shortly before the Olympic gold medal hockey game against Canada on Sunday after he tested positive for a banned substance found in his allergy medication.
Backstrom’s test result showed an elevated level of pseudoephedrine, which is prohibited by the International Olympic Committee but not the NHL. The violation of the IOC’s anti-doping policy is not expected to prevent Backstrom from playing with the Capitals when their season resumes on Thursday.
While Backstrom’s NHL eligibility isn’t in jeopardy, the timing of his removal and the realization the center was taking the medication with the approval of the Swedish national team doctor raises questions about the IOC’s testing process.
“There certainly is no doping in this instance. He is an innocent victim, and we support him strongly,” said Mark Aubry, chief medical officer for the International Ice Hockey Federation. “Doping is certainly not allowed, but this is not a case of doping.”
Backstrom has taken Zyrtec-D, a permitted drug although it contains pseudoephedrine, for seven years to treat sinusitis. Pseudoephedrine is allowed by the IOC as long as levels do not exceed 150 micrograms per milliliter and is not tested outside of competition. Backstrom’s level was 190, according to Aubry.
“I have absolutely nothing to hide. I have allergy problems,” an emotional Backstrom said at a news conference. “I’ve been there for two weeks now, and it was probably the most fun two weeks I’ve ever had. Great group of guys. I was ready to play probably the biggest game of my career, and two and a half hours before the game I got pulled aside. It’s sad.”
Backstrom was tested Wednesday following Sweden’s quarterfinal win over Slovenia, but neither he nor team officials were informed of the positive result until hours before the gold medal game four days later. The IOC said it had too many tests to process to deliver the result sooner.
NHL Players Association official Mathieu Schneider didn’t see that as an acceptable explanation. He cited a similar situation during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, when defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky of Slovakia tested positive for elevated pseudoephedrine levels but was retested two days later and ultimately allowed to play.
“The process was flawed,” Schneider told reporters in Sochi. “I think it’s clear that he wasn’t intending to cheat, that he wasn’t doping. Doping’s a very serious allegation, and at some point common sense should have prevailed, and it clearly did not.”
Backstrom’s ineligibility left Sweden, already without stars Henrik Zetterberg (herniated disk) and Henrik Sedin (ribs), missing their top remaining center. They lost the gold medal game to the Canadians, 3-0.
Evolving sports of the Winter Olympics
“Our opinion is that IOC has destroyed one of the greatest hockey days in Swedish history,” said Tommy Boustedt, general manager of Sweden’s national team. “That was one of the worst games we’ve ever seen, not because of outcomes and the way the team played but because Nicklas couldn’t compete in the game.”
Given that the positive test resulted from a common allergy medication and wasn’t intended for performance-enhancing benefit, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said, “We do not anticipate there being any consequences relative to Nicklas’s ability to participate” in Capitals games.
It is uncertain whether Backstrom will receive his silver medal. The IIHF, international hockey’s governing body, took it back to its offices in Zurich to await a final ruling from the IOC on Backstrom’s test result, according to the Associated Press.
Capitals Coach Adam Oates sympathized with Backstrom’s predicament.
“It’s an innocent blunder but it’s still a blunder,” Oates said Sunday at the team’s practice facility in Arlington. “I feel for him because it’s a game he obviously wanted to play. He’s been a big contributor for that team, and it’s the biggest game of his career maybe to date. And he can’t play for that? That’s terrible.”
Sheinin reported from Sochi, Russia.