Friday
Feb042011

The New NHL: Sending a Message

Publisher: The Fanzine
Date: 06.01.09
Article Link



It wasn't just the fact that the NHL scheduled the first two games of this Stanley Cup Final series as back-to-back games that had me bugging this morning. The scheduling, while hardly a precedented move in professional sports championships (hell the Superbowl has two weeks between the conference finals and the big game), was an effort to garner more weekend ratings for the ailing sport and "deemed" necessary since hockey playoffs as they are—if games go into overtime, the extra periods accumulate until one team scores, a mechanism that can lead to five or more extra periods (a good, appreciative article on that aspect of playoff hockey on the NY Times site)—there was a danger NBC's coverage would preempt Conan O'Brien's debut on The Tonight Show tonight. But what really got it going this morning was the NHL exposing itself again as a farce with blatant favoritism of certain players, throwing more fuel on the fire that is the clamor that the league is increasingly making a mockery of itself.

Pretty much all morning I was reading reports, blogs, and forums from Sunday night's game two in Detroit, between the Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins. It's a rather good matchup for the Stanley Cup finals, so good in fact they've reprised their respective roles from last year and are having another go at it. But the least interesting reports from last night's game were about the score—which Detroit won 3-1 on, again, a couple of fortunate bounces and a knuckleball of a shot by rookie Jason Abdelkader. Stats and figures notwithstanding, the real meat of the hockey news today was whether Penguins star Evgeni Malkin, who leads the league in playoff points with 30, would be suspended for instigating a fight with the Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg in the final 18.2 seconds of the game. According to the NHL rulebook, any player who instigates a fight in the final five minutes of the game is to be suspended for one game. Not surprisingly, Malkin wasn't.

He was, in fact, pardoned by league executive VP and director of hockey operations—i.e. the disciplinarian—Colin Campbell for mysterious reasons he (Campbell) did well to talk his way through with all the gusto and self-deluded conviction of George Costanza talking his way out of pushing women and children out of his path while escaping a kitchen fire—prompting a strident and vociferous howl from the hockey masses.

A little background: the rule in question is 47.22: "A player who is deemed to be the instigator of an altercation in the final five minutes or at any time in overtime shall be suspended for one game, pending a review of the incident. The director of hockey operations will review every such incident and may rescind the suspension based on a number of criteria. The criteria for the review shall include, but not be limited to, the score, previous incidents, etc..." (keep the nebulous "etc." in mind). The idea behind this rule to keep teams from "sending a message"—meaning the losing team wanting to keep its opposition from getting too comfortable, to let the other team know there's still fire in the belly, and that they plan to settle the score in the next meeting. It's a weird rule, meant to keep frustration from boiling over into potential injuries, and it's part of the "new" NHL, but a rule nonetheless.

Here is the incident in question:



As one can see from the video, the whole thing starts with the Penguins' Max Talbot, who is quickly gaining a reputation of a dirty stickhandler akin to Glenn Anderson of the '80s era Edmonton Oilers (i.e. the guy who caused Ron Hextall to do this:


), giving a jab to Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood. Then, as usual, a scrum around the goal builds with some pushing and shoving, until Malkin starts swinging his stick at Zetterberg, before throwing punches and losing his sweater in the process. Even CBC announcer Jim Hughson was shouting "He's throwing haymakers at Henrik Zetterberg!" At the end, Malkin is sent off for fighting (5 minutes) and a fighting instigator minor (2 minutes). One could well argue that this is just playoff hockey, the old time, ultra-competitive, hard-nosed stuff we love to see in a good game. We love to see teams' top players go at each other, and we love to see things get heated and a little scrappy. But rules are rules, right?

Well, not necessarily. What this morning's announcement confirmed is that rules are rules for certain people. In the new NHL, the league disciplinarian appoints himself not as an enforcer of league rules, but as a sovereign Judge of Character. And this Judge has deemed thusly: "None of the criteria in this rule applied in this situation. Suspensions are applied under this rule when a team attempts to send a message in the last five minutes by having a player instigate a fight. A suspension could also be applied when a player seeks retribution for a prior incident. Neither was the case here and therefore the one game suspension is rescinded (emphasis mine)." None of the criteria... applied in this situation. Are we reading the same rule? It seems to me like all the criteria was met here. How Campbell conjured this one up is probably best left to the conspiracy experts on hockey forums, but to me it appears Campbell has looked at Malkin's record, and apparently into his soul as well, to seek the answers for the question of intent. He looked into Malkin's eyes and looked for malice, and upon seeing dollar signs instead, absolved him.

As Yahoo! Sports columnist Jeff Passan wrote earlier today: "It is a rule to prevent the kind of thuggery and frustration spilling that Malkin displayed. The punishment fits... Except in the NHL, which includes out clauses with its rules. This suspension can be reviewed by Colin Campbell, the NHL’s executive vice president and director of hockey operations, who certainly doesn’t have anything riding on Malkin, the potential MVP, no, sir, and wouldn’t at all let his decision be compromised by the quality of the player involved, no way, no how, because he is a fair and impartial jury of one, yes, indeed."

So when is a rule a rule? Not surprisingly, at least for me, as a Philadelphia Flyers fan, it's when the penalty is on the Flyers. Or, in this case, not a penalty. In game one of the Flyers-Penguins playoff series, Flyers forward Dan Carcillo gave Max Talbot a headshot with his gloved hand, which was still attached to his stick by the way, after a late faceoff. No penalty was called, but the league later reviewed the play and handed Carcillo the required 1-game suspension. The league also fined Flyers coach John Stevens $10,000 for "creating a situation" in which a message could  be sent—meaning sending an enforcer like Carcillo onto the ice during the final moments of the game. At the time, hockey writers and bloggers hailed the call as justified and The Right One.

So when is a rule not a rule? Well, the next day Calgary Flames' foward Mike Cammalleri does his best Carcillo impression late in the game against the Chicago Blackhawks' Martin Havlat (who probably had his clock cleaned more than any other player this postseason, yet played very well until his team was eliminated), only Cammalleri gets a penalty for his actions. The league reviewed Cammalleri's hit, too—only instead of looking objectively at the play in hand, decided the move was uncharacteristic of Cammalleri—while Carcillo was a "repeat offender"—and decided to keep Cammalleri golden.

Likewise, Scott Walker of the Carolina Hurricanes cheapshots the Boston Bruins' Aaron Ward and is let off the hook. Why all the subjectivity? Well, I could go on for about 5000 more words about why it's usually the Flyers on the bad end of the call, but that's a whole other column. The fact is, the league has exposed and embarrassed itself with this Malkin non-suspension and its blatant double-standards, and I personally think the rule for which he should be suspended is a terrible one. Let 'em play the game, as they say. Let the players settle it on the ice.

But that's not what happened here. Even the NBA, the epitome of a league "arranging" marketable talent, suspended Orlando's Dwight Howard early in the playoffs. While Malkin is no goon (and Carcillo is, despite some NHL-level hockey skill, considered a goon), his singling out of Henrik Zetterberg was significant. From Greg Wyshynski's Puck Daddy hockey blog: "When a team attempts to 'send a message' is code for 'when a team sends a goon out to start a fight'; and no, that can't be applied here. Especially after seeing Malkin fight.

But Zetterberg is one of the players checking Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin into oblivion. He's a reigning Conn Smythe winner for his defensive prowess. That Malkin picked him out of the pile is no coincidence, no mistake. It may not specifically be 'retribution for a prior incident,' but it sure as hell was a message being sent about the frustration Malkin's feeling this series."

In an extremely rare occurrence, I actually agree with Sidney Crosby—who, although I view him as an arch enemy, has been superb during much of this postseason—on this one: "Those guys weren't even punching each other. They didn't even take their gloves off." Crosby, for one, knows what it's like to punch a guy with his gloves on.


Rule 47.22 is a dubious one at best, yet another example of the short-sightedness of the current NHL brass of Colin Campbell and Gary Bettman. But if one player is judged by his action, and others judged by character, when and where (and by whom) are the rules decided?

The real damage here is to the NHL, which lags by leagues behind the NFL and the NBA in terms of television viewers. Its latest example of short-sightedness, double standards, and rules-as-convenience is abandoning even the most dedicated hockey fans, most of whom, like me, won't see their favorite teams play again except on XBOX for another several months. If this is the kind of message the NHL wants to send as a league, for the sake of hockey and its fans one hopes the unspoken one is that Campbell is setting himself up for a sending off of his own.