May 15, 2008
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly were apparently in the room last night when Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock discussed Pavel Datsyuk's disallowed goal in Game 4 of his team's series against the Dallas Stars. Did they stifle a laugh when a professional hockey coach, and a grown man, had to explain to the assembled media that the referee claimed Tomas Holmstrom's "butt was in the blue," before concluding, "Well, it clearly wasn't in the blue?"
Or were they silently observing the press conference while thinking to themselves, "C'mon, man, we've got glamour franchises and good ratings and positive momentum ... let's not talk about what an embarrassment our officiating has been during this postseason, m'kay?"
We've seen the degrees of ignominy gradually increase for NHL officials when it comes to goalie interference during the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It started with Sean Avery's clowning in front of Marty Brodeur (video); we all had a laugh, tweaked a rule or two, sold a few T-shirts and moved on with life. Then came Patrick Thoresen's interference with Cristobal Huet in Game 7 between the Flyers and the Capitals (video); a call whose interpretation seemed to vary from a similar call involving the Caps earlier this season. And then last night in Dallas, we reached new heights of utter folly: Holmstrom's reputation and his backside conspire to produce one hell of a phantom call:
(Look, even though we have our knives out here, we can still see the hilarity in this Holmstrom situation. The NHL has basically ruled that Homer's Kim Kardashian-sized rump shaker can interfere with a goalie even if his skates are outside the crease and his ass isn't touching another player. It's like it has its own gravity, like vintage J-Lo. If the Stars actually extend this thing to a Game 6, we want to see No. 96 "Hugh Jass" jerseys. We want someone to throw a toy donkey on the ice if he takes a penalty. We want to hear the first few lines of "Baby Got Back" over the speakers every single time Holmstrom touches the puck, or someone at the arena loses their job.)
Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press called this no-goal "robbery," but that's minimizing it: This is but one image in a larger portrait of incompetence by the officials in these Stanley Cup Playoffs. And there may be no way to remedy it.
Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News published the NHL's rule for goalie interference, and makes the rather easy case that if Datsyuk's goal wasn't counted, neither should the goal scored by Loui Eriksson moments later. But this is asking for consistency, which is an abstract concept in this postseason. Asking an NHL referee for uniformity in their penalty calls is like asking Steve Downie not to turn the puck over to the Penguins.
The numbers don't lie: The decrease in garden-variety penalties in the later stages of playoff games suggests a conscious effort to "let the players decide the game," which is Don Cherry-esque way code for "we'll call a hook in the first period but not in the third." There's subjectivity, and then there's a conscious partiality for running the game via some sort of predetermined storyline.
Most disgracefully, the officials in these playoffs have allowed themselves to be worked by coaches and players, through their media surrogates, in nearly every round. Remember the Stop Sidney From Diving campaign? That was pedestrian compared to the Stop Holmstrom From Screening swift-boating, which earned its first major victory last night.
George James Malik has a great review of different reactions to the Holmstrom "interference." So how do you remedy such abject failure by the League's arbiters of justice? Heika's suggestion is to grin and bear it:
The NHL isn't the only league that uses the "make-up" call. It's a tool refs feel can cover for mistakes and can keep things fair. But the NHL probably corners the market on "balanced" officiating, as refs will typically even out power play opportunities, as well as bad calls.
Marty Turco pretty much said that the Holmstrom call in Game 4 was a make-up for the lack of a call in Game 1 when Holmstrom was in Turco's lap and scored a goal. "Between the one in the first game that was allowed, and the one tonight ... probably trade the two, and the series would be different," Turco said.
Bob McKenzie of TSN raised the idea of using replay to figure out these goalie interference messes:
Contact with a goaltender is not under the criteria for a review; however if you are going to use video review to decide something as subjective as a goal being scored with a high stick, than this should be a no-brainer. If a player is standing in front of the net it is much more clear-cut from the overhead view to see if there was contact or not with the goaltender. The NHL either needs to include interference in the criteria of goal review or get rid of the review of goals scored with a high stick.
Wait, we're going after the League for the "subjective" review of goals scored off a high stick, but we're not going to mention those three dirty words: "Distinct kicking motion?"
Additional replay isn't the answer; because as popular as the NFL is, hockey simply can't afford to become the kind of disjointed, stuttering product we see on Sunday afternoons. They'd have to set up a puckhead depression hotline.
The answer is for these officials stop enforcing the game's rather simple rules with a complicated formula of rewards, punishments, "make-ups" and decisions grounded in résumé rather than reality.
It's really messing with our playoff buzz, man.