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USOC and NHL still at odds over time line for random drug tests

Officials from the NHL and the U.S. Olympic Committee spent Thursday offering their blueprints for an ideal drug-testing policy but emerged with issues that, if left unsettled, could dilute the star power of the U.S. hockey team.

During a nearly two-hour meeting in Salt Lake City, some progress was cited and some procedures were clarified. But still to be resolved was the question of when the members of the U.S. hockey team would have to be named so they could comply with the USOC's random drug-testing policy.

The USOC requires Olympic-bound pro athletes from basketball and hockey to be placed into the No Advance Notice pool up to 12 months before the Games, subjecting stars to the same random drug tests for steroids as other U.S. Olympians. In the past, pro athletes were not tested until they were named to the U.S. team, often just two months before the Olympics.

"The thrust of our discussion was that we need to have substantially all of the U.S. team in the NAN pool and eligible for testing sooner rather than later," said Scott Blackmun, the USOC's acting chief executive officer.

With its new drug policy less than a month old, the USOC is willing to wait until this summer, after the NHL playoffs are over in mid-June, to require a pool of potential U.S. hockey team members for the NAN program. But that may be too soon for the NHL.

"We have to sit down and come up with a framework that can address everyone's needs," said Bill Daly, the NHL's chief counsel. "I'm comfortable that we'll be able to do that, but time frame is another issue.

"We talked about a lot of different scenarios. From the league's perspective, we want consistency with respect to all of our players. I don't think there's any magic to any date. If we can get everything resolved, we'll be happy to make an announcement. If not, it'll have to be pushed a little bit."

The USOC's flexibility has bounds, though. Blackmun said he understood the concerns of hockey officials who view naming a team so early as destructive to the competitive balance. Their argument is that it is impossible to predict in June which American players will be performing well or be healthy in February. And if other nations are not following the same time frame, it would also be unfair.

"I think they want all NHL players to be treated the same," Blackmun said. "And what we're asking them to do, unless there is some way one system can be followed worldwide, is to treat the U.S. players differently. So I think there is some legitimate issues on their side that they need to work out."

Whatever inequities might be in play on a world scale, the USOC is firm on keeping its athletes under the same year-round, drug-testing guidelines, even at the risk of losing some athletes.

"I think the USOC has very strong resolve on this issue," Blackmun said. "I don't want to get to the point where we're laying down any ultimatums until that's necessary. Right now, I'm optimistic that the NHL and the players association will work with us. If they don't, we're prepared for the possibility that our team may look different than everyone anticipated."

Another issue for the NHL is the potential discrepancies in the way different countries test their athletes. The NHL, which does not test for steroids under its league program, insists it is not trying to evade the anti-doping agencies. But they do not want players subjected to a patchwork of different tests from divergent agencies that may or may not be equal in frequency and method.

Both sides are expected to talk again in a few days.