[Photo via Mansoor Ahmad/The Reporter]
Record-setting Minnesota State goaltender Dryden McKay has accepted a six-month ban from competition for violating an anti-doping rule, according to the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). McKay was recently named the winner of this season’s Hobey Baker Trophy – the Division I men’s hockey equivalent of the Heisman Trophy – after setting the records for wins in a season by a goaltender (38) and shutouts in a career (34).
There seems to be a bit more to the story, though. McKay tested positive in January for Ostarine (enobosarm), a muscle growth drug that is not approved by the FDA. The USADA released a statement explaining, “Ostarine is a Non-Specified Substance in the class of Anabolic Agents and prohibited at all times under the USADA Protocol for Olympic and Paralympic Movement Testing, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee National Anti-Doping Policy, and the International Ice Hockey Federation Anti-Doping Regulations, all of which have adopted the World Anti-Doping Code (the Code) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Prohibited List.”
McKay was being tested because he had been named an alternate goalie for Team USA in the Beijing Olympics, which placed him in the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) testing protocol. Although NCAA athletes are subject to year-round testing, McKay stated that he had never been selected for drug screening prior to, or since, the urine sample at issue.
On January 31, McKay was notified that he was facing a “provisional suspension,” as a result of a positive test; the initial length of the suspension – a whopping four years. WADA/USADA employ a strict liability standard with regards to positive tests, but provided “the opportunity for a substantial reduction in the otherwise applicable period of ineligibility in this circumstance.”
McKay hired attorney Paul Greene, who has handled hundreds of similar cases, the next day. McKay withdrew from the Olympics, and sent “’[my] proteins, vitamins, everything’’’ to be tested by a WADA-accredited laboratory. “’If we didn’t figure out where (the Ostarine) came from, he was going to get four years. The only reason we got the reduction is because we figured out where it came from, and his degree of fault was very low,” Greene said.
Quercetin, “a plant-based antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that some use as an immune-booster or recovery tool for COVID,” quickly became the likely culprit. McKay had, in fact, been taking Quercetin as an immune booster against the coronavirus, as the Omicron variant was peaking at the time. The supplement’s packaging suggested that the product was “all-natural.”
The unnamed company that produced the supplement critically agreed to send a sealed bottle of Quercetin to the lab. “’Typically, the only way to get the provisional suspension lifted is to show not just the open version is contaminated, but the sealed version of the same lot number, too,”’ Greene pointed out.
Lab analysis of both the open and sealed bottle determined that Quercetin was indeed the source of the Ostarine. According to the USADA, “a supplement product McKay was using prior to sample collection, which did not list Ostarine on the Supplement Facts label, was contaminated with that substance at an amount consistent with the circumstances of ingestion and his positive test.”
The amount of Ostarine found in McKay’s system? 22 picograms, or 0.000000000022 grams; a picogram equals one-trillionth of a gram. In a statement that McKay released on Twitter, he noted that this level was described to him as being “comparable to a grain of salt in a swimming pool, therefore providing NO performance enhancing benefit to me whatsoever.” Nevertheless, McKay admitted that he “made the mistake of taking it,” although he added, “but I could have never imagined that this would have been the result of taking something like that.”
Although this urine sample was taken in connection with McKay’s Olympic roster status, this positive result and subsequent provisional suspension were placing his historic senior season in jeopardy. NCAA drug-testing rules state that ‘“athletes under a drug-testing suspension from a national or international sports governing body” under WADA codes can’t play intercollegiate sports “for the duration of the suspension.” However, he or she “may resume participation if/when a suspension is lifted/completed.”’
Greene requested an expedited hearing with the American Arbitration Association, in hopes of getting the provisional suspension lifted. Otherwise, McKay would not have been cleared for competition for approximately two to three months, while the USADA completed its investigation.
The hearing was set for February 3, just four days after the initial suspension notice. McKay was scheduled to play on the road against Bowling Green that evening, but was unsure if he would even be eligible. Sure enough, the arbitration judgment came down later that day.
The decision read: “The sole issue under consideration is whether (McKay) is able to demonstrate that the potential anti-doping violation likely resulted from the use of a Contaminated Product. After considering the testimony and documentary evidence submitted… the Athlete has met his burden. Therefore, given the totality of facts and circumstances comprising the evidentiary record, the mandatory provisional suspension…shall be lifted immediately.”
Greene once again noted how difficult it is to get a provisional suspension overturned, and said “if we didn’t get it lifted, he never would have played again. On Feb. 3, that would have been it.” However, USADA policy is to not make any announcements regarding suspensions or subsequent appeals until a final decision is made. Furthermore, the USADA offers athletes 20 days to respond to notifications of suspensions. McKay impressively continued to lead one of the nation’s best teams, and a record-breaking season of his own, all with the looming threat of suspension ever in the background.
On March 23, the USADA notified McKay that he was facing a six-month suspension. Factoring in the 20-day period, McKay had until April 12 to respond. Luckily, the National Championship game was April 9, and McKay was in the clear to finish what was a truly special season (although they did ultimately lose to Denver in the title game).
Greene advised McKay to accept the six-month ban, and McKay did just that. “’Typically, the range (for a non-intentional ingestion) is somewhere between four-to-eight months or four-to-ten months, depending on the situation,”’ Greene said. “’We just decided it made the most sense to accept the six-month ban. Let the process start now that his season was over.”’
Greene remarked that “it’s amazing how unregulated the supplement and vitamin industry is,” while questioning how an illegal (WADA/USADA) compound can be contaminating supposedly all-natural, immune-boosting vitamins.
This situation stands as yet another example of why athletes must be extremely diligent with regards to what they put in their bodies. Minnesota State’s head athletic trainer (and the athletic department’s Director of Health and Performance) Matt Schmidt said, “’that’s the lesson here. If you’re an athlete, you better triple-check everything. I figured whatever (the illegal substance) was, it had to be with the proteins for muscle-building. In the vitamin? I wouldn’t have bet on that.”’
The 24-year-old Hobey Baker winner finalized a two-year AHL contract with the Toronto Marlies (the Leafs’ AHL affiliate) on Monday. He can resume practicing on August 25, and will be eligible to play games on October 11.
3L at University at Buffalo School of Law; BSELS Co-Vice President
MBA in Marketing;
In pursuit of a career at the intersection of sports law and sports business, specifically in professional hockey.