Hockey fans are, in my experience, the most conspiratorially-inclined of any group like them, and so it should be no surprise that in the course of these playoffs we've already seen numerous accusations of bias playing into the results of entire series.
These accusations aren't coming not from fans on Twitter or, worse, SportsYapper, who always have a roll or two of tinfoil ready so Gary Bettman's HAARP system cannot read or control their brainwaves; but, rather, from actual respected news sites where respectable writers post their thoughts on the goings-on for their teams is, well, silly.
Homerism is always going to exist in sports media, just by the nature of what the job requires: Reporters are around the guys whose work they must critique just about every day for literally half the year, and talk to them, and grow familiar with them, and in many cases come to like them. And honestly, the stuff you read now, in 2013, is far less fraught with rah-rah gamers and bad-luck bemoaning that reports of yesteryear contained.
Which is what makes stuff like Jason Botchford's petulant boo-hooism earlier this week — hilariously entitled "The Canucks got screwed by the refs. Of course they did." — stand out as being so peculiar.
We know the Vancouver area is at its heart one that feels the world closes in around it whenever things go even slightly sideways, but nothing in the media has, to my knowledge, ever been quite so avert in its accusations.
I should say that it has become rather a common thing in these types of Jim Garrison-ish pieces to acknowledge first and foremost that the team most victimized by the calls got run out of the building in all four games of the sweep, that they were out-everythinged in the profoundest ways possible, that they didn't deserve to be on the same ice, and all the rest. By Canucks' fans own count, San Jose outchanced Vancouver 47-28 at even strength over the course of the series. That's a lot to not a lot, and shows a pretty considerable gap in quality between the two teams, and that certainly gives credence to the whole "The Canucks weren't ready for this in any way" argument.
I thought the Canucks eulogy posted here yesterday did a pretty good job of breaking down why Vancouver lost, as if anyone really needed it spelled out for them: The Sedins are declining, and doing it hard. The whole team isn't very good at possession at this point. The goaltending situation was never going to be tenable no matter how much Mike Gillis wanted to convince himself and everyone else that it would be.
A few important players were hurt, including Cory Schneider, who started Games 3 and 4 despite having a groin injury. The list goes on. At the very bottom of that list, down so low and in such small print that you need a scanning electron microscope to make it out, comes the fact that the Sharks got 24 power plays in four games to the Canucks' 10. You'll note that 19-chance advantage at even strength over the balance of the series and you might figure that yes, that probably is enough to win a pair of one-goal games, a two-goal game and a blowout.
Play all 240 minutes of this series at five-a-side and what difference does it make? Does Vancouver win any more than it did? How many?
The notion that referees might hold grudges against the Canucks is of course not unlike Marge Simpson's Chanel dress: you only have so many ways you can tailor it before all people see is the desperation behind it.
There was, for instance, all that stuff about Alex Burrows being unfairly targeted by Stephane Auger and while the evidence seems substantial that it was real, the likelihood that two officials — Auger and now Kelly Sutherland — would hold grudges so deep that they'd put their jobs at risk just to ensure a first-round exit seems rather low. This can't be what a grown adult thinks, can it?
The post was a "false flag" and link to a cute alleged terrorist's Instagram account away from being worthy of InfoWars. And there is, we can all agree, a difference between a referee making the wrong call because they do that type of thing kind of a lot, and a referee making the wrong call because Alain Vigneault ripped him in the media a few months prior. Bad calls happen all the time, and not just from referees but from the NHL's Department of Player Safety, which at least has the benefit of hindsight and repeated video replays in making their decisions. NHL refs don't, obviously, so to express outrage the Daniel Sedin got a minor for a hit similar to one that saw Matt Cooke — of all people!!! — go unpenalized is the opposite of shocking. All referees don't call all things the same way; what is this world coming to?
The piece also suggested that perhaps the league should have more culpability for its referees when they make calls that affect the outcomes of games, and that's probably not that far off. Or at least, it isn't apart from the fact that it's hard to determine a deliniation point; if officials should have to answer for every overtime power play that results in a game-winner, what about those late the third period? Early in the third? In the second?
Goal totals being what they are in NHL games these days, power play markers in the first 20 minutes can carry significant weight as well. Should officials have to ask questions from slaveringm wild-eyed conspiracy theorist kooks for those as well? How about if they call offsetting minors and someone scores on the resulting 4-on-4?
This is a pointless, slippery slope argument employed only by people whose teams they support or cover happen to be on the wrong side of just such a call. No one in Vancouver demanded an inquisition into and overhaul of these rules when, in 2011, the Canucks beat the Sharks in five games in the Western Conference Finals, thanks in no small part I'm sure to its having earned 27 power plays to the Sharks' 17.
(As an aside, the war on hockey's lack of accountability should really begin at home for many reporters. The Professional Hockey Writer's Association's rule against publishing the awards ballots of all its members, in the way that the NHL refuses to let its officials be pilloried for making calls, seems at least somewhat analogous. If Sutherland should have to stand there and list reasons why he's not biased against Vigneault and the Canucks, shouldn't the morons who didn't give Jonas Brodin a vote for the Calder, or Zdeno Chara a Norris nod, have to answer for that trespass as well? Or does it not work that way? The writers who publish their ballots — i.e. the ones with actual accountability — really need to do more to shame their cowering bretheren into coughing up their picks so they can be just as scrutinized as every minor error they are deemed by some to have made. Seems only fair.)
Botchford dialed his opinion back somewhat for print, saying that maybe the Canucks did deserve to lose — adorably referring to the team's relationship to league officials as a "rivalry" on par with that of the Yankees and Red Sox, as if unaware that couching it just so undermined the prior point — and maybe they even deserved to have iffy penalties go against them because their crying about calls constantly, from top to bottom in the organization, and even from the media (like him) outside it, was what visited the refs' rancor upon them in the first place.
Apparently Vancouver is still waiting for one of its residents to explain how confirmation bias works.
Fortunately, though, Botchford's disconsolate aw-shucksing was a refreshing cup of sorbet after the massive main course served up by borderline-literate Michigan schlock jock Bill Simonson, who believed among other things that the NHL only suspended Justin Abdelkader two games for flying into Toni "Tori" Lydman like Niklas Kronwall in his prime because it wants Anaheim, ostensibly a major-market team, to continue advancing deeper into the playoffs. This ignores that Abdelkader ain't exactly Pavel Datsyuk, and certainly that the Red Wings are among the most feted teams in the league, which kowtows to it more or less constantly. Realignment, and so forth. To explore the issue further, though, would be to continue extending even a shred of credibility to this dispatch from the farthest reaches of human reason. So perhaps best to just let it be.
But let's just make one thing perfectly clear for everyone involved: Any conspiracy theory you may have about the outcome of any game as it relates to the National Hockey League's nefarious involvement might as well implicate the Reptiloids and the Freemasons too, because that's exactly how wrong it is, and how crazy everyone else thinks you sound.
What does the NHL stand to gain, really, from suspending a role player like Abdelkader for a pair, apart from the mere possibility of growing the game in a market that has proven somewhat inhospitable?
What does Sutherland get out of making calls like those, apart from potentially not getting any officiating assignments in the second round and maybe some smug satisfaction?
If you guessed "nothing at all," you are obviously correct.
Conspiracy theories will never go away. There will always be people who think the moon landing was faked or Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" was about how the moon was faked. But the good news is the people who think those things can very easily be written off, and they can continue their search for signs of the massive conspiracy against their teams in coded messages in the NHL Network's score ticker, totally alone.
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