Ozolinsh Leaves the Ducks Indefinitely

Times Staff Writer

Mighty Duck defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh has voluntarily entered the NHL’s substance-abuse and behavioral health program and will leave the team for an indefinite amount of time, officials with the league, the players’ union and the team said Thursday.

Ozolinsh, 33, will receive treatment at an undisclosed facility under the joint care of Dr. Dave Lewis of the NHL and Dr. Brian Shaw of the NHL Players’ Assn. NHL spokesman Frank Brown said there is no set period for treatment and that the length of time will be determined by Lewis and Shaw.

“It is up to the evaluation of the administering physicians,” Brown said.

Neither league nor union officials, who are prohibited from commenting on substance-abuse cases, disclosed the exact nature of Ozolinsh’s problem.

Team officials first grew alarmed when the six-time All-Star failed to show up for practice Monday -- the first one held after a four-day Christmas break.


Attempts were made to reach Ozolinsh, but to no avail. He then failed to make the team bus Tuesday as the Ducks prepared to leave for Columbus, Ohio -- the first stop on a three-game trip. The Ducks are currently in St. Louis, where they play the Blues on Saturday.

League and NHLPA officials said Thursday that Ozolinsh is being considered a “Stage 1" case, or someone who is a first-time patient.

In that scenario, Ozolinsh will not be penalized by the team or the league. If he violates the terms of the treatment and prescribed aftercare program, he will be considered “Stage 2" and could face suspension without pay.

The league and union are jointly paying for Ozolinsh’s treatment.

The substance-abuse program was part of the 1995 collective-bargaining agreement and launched the next year.

Of immediate concern to Duck officials and teammates was Ozolinsh’s health and welfare.

“We certainly support Sandis’ decision,” Duck General Manager Brian Burke said. “I’ve spoken to his wife [Sandra] and made it clear that anything they need from us is theirs for the asking.

“Essentially, this is a disease and what is required to deal with substance abuse is, one, top medical support. Second is the support from your peers and family and friends. The notion that people all around you can support you in a time like this.

“Third is the willpower of the individual. We feel we can deliver the first two.”

Ozolinsh, who only last week said he hoped to be able join the team on this trip after suffering a knee injury last month, is enduring possibly the worst season of his 13-year career.

Up until Thursday Coach Randy Carlyle initially excused Ozolinsh’s absence by saying it was because of “personal, family issues.” Carlyle said he did that to protect Ozolinsh, his wife and two children.

“Obviously he felt that when he didn’t show up for practice, he felt it was in the best interest to stay away,” Carlyle said. “In those situations, we as a coaching staff and an organization have to support him and his family.

“It’s a life decision that you make. In this specific instance, you can [try to] keep quiet about it but the reason we did that was to protect the player and his family. As the organization goes forward, we fully support him and his wife and children to help him get through this.

“This is a life crisis, not a hockey crisis.”

Ozolinsh, on injured reserve since straining his left knee Nov. 27 against the Chicago Blackhawks, has played in only 13 games and scored four points. In his second full season with the Ducks, he signed a two-year, $5.5-million contract extension July 29 after joining the team in time for their run to the 2003 Stanley Cup finals.

Duck players, who learned of the problem Thursday, expressed strong support for their offensively gifted teammate who has struggled with illness and various injuries this season.

“I heard some stories but trust me, if somebody has problems, he needs a lot of support and help,” forward Teemu Selanne said. “He needs the feeling that people care around him.”

Said defenseman Keith Carney: “You wish for the best. You hope that he gets the support that will help him get back to health.”

The last NHL player to enter the substance-abuse program was Philadelphia Flyer forward Claude Lapointe in the winter of 2003. Lapointe is not playing this season.

Toronto goalie Ed Belfour is another prominent player reported to have been through this program.

Past NHL players who were known to have dealt with substance-abuse problems include Grant Fuhr, Theo Fleury, and Ken Daneyko.

Burke, who is in Vancouver attending the World Junior Hockey Championships, said he had no suspicions of what made Ozolinsh skip practices and fail to join the team on this trip.

Ozolinsh was not available for comment. His agent, Paul Theofanous, did not respond to phone messages and NHLPA spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon also did not comment.

Burke said he has not spoken to Ozolinsh, but that the defenseman did talk recently with “someone in the organization” and indicated a willingness to deal with the problem.

“When we spoke to Sandis, he had made it clear it was his intention to seek help,” he said. “I did not mandate it.”

Carlyle said the players must move forward and deal with Ozolinsh as if he isn’t with the club.

“It sounds cruel but that’s the reality of it,” the coach said. “We have to move on without him. It would be no different than a player being injured for the year.

“We understand his situation. It’s fairly traumatic. It’ll be the biggest hurdle for him and his family to get through in their lifetime.”