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Boston Bruins' Ryan Spooner and Toronto Maple Leafs' Carter Ashton battle for the puck during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto, Sunday Dec. 8, 2013.

FRANK GUNN/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Whether his version of the facts is accurate or not, Carter Ashton did something rather stupid for a professional athlete.

He took a banned substance – more than once – and the 23-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs winger is going to pay for it big time.

It may even derail his career, given how precarious his grip has been on a roster spot.

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Late Thursday afternoon, the NHL suspended Ashton for 20 games for violating the league's performance enhancing substances program.

Minutes later, the NHL Players' Association released a detailed statement from Ashton explaining that he had used an inhaler from another unnamed athlete while training in August and suffering an asthma attack.

He then used it again early in training camp – two days before he was tested by the NHL.

"Unfortunately, I incorrectly assumed that there were no problems associated with the use of this inhaler," Ashton said. "I used it without checking."

The substance in question is Clenbuterol, which is problematic. It's not a steroid, but what's known as a beta2-adrenergic agonist, one that is typically used to treat horses with asthmatic-like conditions but which isn't approved for use by humans in North America.

Nonetheless, it's all over the underground market, and there are plenty of helpful websites and videos out there for amateur bodybuilders about the stuff. It increases your heart rate, perspiration, blood pressure and the like. It also helps athletes lose body fat and weight while retaining muscle mass – referred to as "cutting" – which is where the performance-enhancing side of things would come in.

Some believe it can also increase muscle mass, especially when used with a cycle of steroids.

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Clenbuterol has a colourful history when it comes to sports. Most famously, Alberto Contador was stripped of the 2010 Tour de France after he tested positive for it, a fight that lasted years and involved the cyclist claiming contaminated beef was to blame.

(In some countries such as Mexico, the drug is prevalent in cattle as the result of companies attempting to make their beef leaner.)

Ashton is the third NHL player suspended under its fairly new substance abuse program. Both Sean Hill (in 2007) and Zenon Konopka (last May) received the same 20-game ban, which has been set as the standard for first-timers in the collective agreement.

Unlike Ashton, both players were found to have a type of steroid in their system. Konopka is currently a free agent without a home and still hasn't served his sentence. Hill disputed his test vigorously, going so far as to take another test from an independent lab and a lie-detector test to prove his innocence. He went on to play another half-season in Minnesota after sitting out the games.

"I had no idea what it even was," Hill told the Star Tribune of the banned substance found in his system at the end of the 2006-07 season. "I immediately asked to be retested, but they said they don't do that."

In addition to his ban, Ashton will now get a mandatory referral to the NHL's behavioural health program for evaluation and education.

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An inhaler that contained Clenbuterol would have had to either come from outside North America or the black market, making the story far more unlikely.

The fact Ashton didn't appeal the suspension also raised some eyebrows.

"I recognize that I am responsible for what I put into my body," he said.

In light of his explanation, however, some called for leniency from the league.

The kid wasn't trying to cheat," Ashton's agent, Rick Valette, told The Hockey News. "But under the league's rules, you get 20 games for HGH, you get 20 games for making a mistake on an inhaler. That's the unfairness of it."

Where this leaves Ashton with the Leafs remains to be seen. The team's statement from president Brendan Shanahan said merely that they supported the league's decision.

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Prior to Thursday, Ashton had appeared in only three of Toronto's first 12 games and averaged six minutes a game as part of coach Randy Carlyle's oft-neglected fourth line.

Nearly waived at the end of training camp, Ashton was already on the verge of settling in as a tweener who would spend his career between the minors and the NHL.

This suspension will cost him a little shy of $170,000 (U.S.), although the good news for the Leafs is that his contract comes off the salary cap while he sits because the ban is both an unpaid one and was for off-ice reasons.

It also serves as a warning sign to players that the league's little-used performance-enhancing-substance program has some real teeth if you're caught.

No matter what the explanation.

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