NHL uses only rules that are convenient

DETROIT – The National Hockey League rule book spells out 87 rules and hundreds of sub-rules that govern its game. There is an 88th rule that goes unwritten: The league’s braintrust can invalidate any of the others, so long as it behooves their short-sighted and selfish interests.

No group of management has so mangled its sport as the NHL, and its never-ending quest for redemption and relevance turned laughable again Sunday night following Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals at Joe Louis Arena. The league overturned an automatic one-game suspension handed down to Pittsburgh star Evgeni Malkin(notes), whose post-whistle elbow and subsequent fight with Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg(notes) earned him an instigator penalty.

Because Malkin’s antics came with 19 seconds remaining in the Penguins’ 3-1 loss that left them facing a 2-0 series deficit, it triggered Rule 47.22, which hands down the one-game ban to players who instigate a fight in the game’s final five minutes. 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.

And Campbell did review the incident. With the precision of an electron microscope, assuredly. The rule allows him to rescind the suspension based on “the score, previous incidents, etc.” Campbell determined that “none of the criteria in this rule applied to this situation,” and he went on to explain how.

“Suspensions,” Campbell began in his prepared release, “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.” And that, Campbell said, was not the case Sunday.

Oh, what delicious wording. The Penguins may not have wanted to send a message to the Red Wings, who manhandled them with two season-long minor leaguers and a third-line center tallying their goals. Malkin did. His frustration boiled. The entire point of the fight was to send a message – that the Penguins were still around, and that they still had some fight in them, and that he was going to show it by beefing with a guy 4 inches shorter.

In his first three years, Malkin has not once gotten a five-minute penalty for fighting. This was Zetterberg’s first fight in his six NHL seasons. These are two of the best players in the league, and even if it wasn’t a sucker punch like Scott Walker’s(notes) fist introducing itself to Aaron Ward’s(notes) face in the Carolina-Boston series – which, by the way, was overturned by Chief Justice Campbell, ever wise he – the rule is in plain language.

Now, certainly the rule itself is questionable. That’s not the point. The worst kinds of rules aren’t the ones that make little sense. They are the ones levied willy-nilly, or even worse, enforced with favoritism.

The NHL believes it cannot afford to lose Malkin, even for a game. Pittsburgh staying competitive is good for the league, which wants a long series and surely wouldn’t mind watching Sidney Crosby(notes) skate around the ice with the Cup hoisted above his head. Those versed in NHL justice consider this such a non-issue that they simply scoff at it, so familiar are they with those in charge of the league treating their own bylaws like some burden.

It’s not cynicism if it’s true. Thirty minutes before Campbell’s ruling, Detroit coach Mike Babcock was asked about the potential of Malkin missing Game 3, and he said: “I don’t think anything will happen.”

So that is how it works in the NHL.

Face a penalty.

Get bailed out.

Everyone goes on with their merry day.

The players know the rule because of its severity, and still, Malkin had no problem instigating. The scrum started around Detroit’s net after Pittsburgh center Max Talbot(notes) poked goalie Chris Osgood(notes), who had made a save. The Red Wings did not take kindly to it and surrounded Talbot. Malkin swerved behind the goal, laid into Zetterberg with a left elbow and kept goading him until the gloves came off and punches went in both directions.

And he did this knowing that the league would never, ever suspend him. Players realize the NHL is weak in mind and spirit. It could, ironically, learn something about toughness from them. So they’re going to continue to flout the rule until Campbell or commissioner Gary Bettman or someone else steps in and abolishes it or enforces it.

The league must make up its mind. If it agrees with the principle of the rule, live with its consequences. Otherwise, get rid of it and mete out punishment in its usual manner: devoid of logic and consistency.

Next thing you know, the players will look at the book and wonder what other rules they can break. In fact, that happened Sunday. At the end of Campbell’s statement, the NHL made sure to include this chestnut:

“NHL Hockey Operations also determined that Malkin should have been assessed a game misconduct for not having his jersey tied down.”

Well, that’s grand. An unnecessary elbow. A few good punches. And the NHL is worried about Evgeni Malkin’s clothing.

Like you’d expect anything different.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jun 1, 2009