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Drug scandal hits Russian U-18 team before world tournament

Russia's U-18 world championships team has tested positive for meldonium, the drug tennis star Maria Sharapova was suspended for using.

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It could be the biggest drug scandal ever to hit the world of hockey.

A Russian website is reporting that the country's national under-18 team will pull out of the upcoming World Championships and be replaced by the U-17 team after “samples of the absolute majority of the players” were found to contain the banned substance meldonium.

And now Canada is reportedly responding by testing its players for the substance when the team's camp opens in Winnipeg on Thursday.

The U-18 team in question is a standing squad that competes in Russia's MHL, a U-20 junior circuit similar to the Canadian Hockey League. It finished second in the league with a 27-9-4 mark, but was upset in the first round of the playoffs by the seventh-seeded Krasnaya Armiya. It also represents the country internationally.

The team's roster, which includes 2016 NHL draft prospects Mikhail Maltsev and Mikhail Berdin, has been erased from the country's national team website, and the team's coach, Vitali Prokhorov, has been fired.

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​Meldonium is the same drug that led to a positive test for Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova at last month's Australian Open. She's since been provisionally banned from the sport.

Nearly 150 athletes have tested positive for the drug, which was banned on Jan. 1 by the World Anti Doping Agency.

WADA classifies the drug as an S4 substance, which focuses on hormone and metabolic modulators. It can be used to treat a number of heart conditions, but athletes have used it with the belief that it can increase the body’s oxygen uptake, which can aid endurance. There's some controversy over whether that's the case, however. “There’s really no evidence that there’s any performance enhancement from meldonium. Zero,” said Don Catlin, a long-time anti-doping expert and the scientific director of the Banned Substances Control Group. However, there's some question as to why healthy athletes would be using a heart medication if there weren't performance benefits.

The drug, which was developed in Latvia, has been particularly popular with Russian athletes. Yuliya Efimova, a four-time breaststroke world champion, and Nikolai Kuksenkov, the country’s top male gymnast, have also tested positive in recent months.

The U-18 team was set to leave tomorrow for the U18 World Championships, which will be played in Grand Forks, ND, from April 14-24. The United States has won the tournament in six of the past seven years.

(stick tap to Russian journalist Slava Malamud)

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