Imagine a world where officials in the National Football League stopped calling pass interference in the Super Bowl. Or where National Basketball Association officials simply began to allow travelling and flagrant fouls during the post-season. Or where baseball umpires arbitrarily expanded the strike zone just before the start of the World Series.
Well, that’s what we have in the NHL right now. One set of rules for the regular season and another for the playoffs. And it’s absolutely ridiculous no matter how you try to justify it.
There is not enough space in this column or any other to chronicle the litany of blown calls and shoddy work done by the supposed best officials in the world during these playoffs. But wouldn’t you like to, just once, see an important game that is officiated to the same standard as one in the regular season? And it all comes down to one of two things: Either the officials are making up their minds to be far more lax during the playoffs in the name of “letting the players decide it” or the league is mandating they change their approach. Neither one of them, quite frankly, is very appealing.
Case in point was Wednesday night in Game 3 of the Boston-Pittsburgh series. Had referees Marc Joannette and Dan O’Rourke called all the violations of the rulebook, there probably wouldn’t have been enough players to play 5-on-5 at some points in the game. Then again, had they called the fragrant fouls early, perhaps the players would not have gone through the game thinking they could get away with pretty much anything.
Instead, the two of them made it very clear that they were going to call next to nothing. Then what happened? Well, Jaromir Jagr clearly hooked Evgeni Malkin in the neutral zone and scooped the puck from him, a play that ultimately resulted in Patrice Bergeron scoring the game-winner in double overtime. Basically, Joannette and O’Rourke set the standard and the players responded to it and the game was decided in large part by a restraining foul that clearly should have been called.
Where, I ask, exactly is the part in all of that where the referees are not determining the outcome of the game? By not calling Jagr for the hook, they effectively did decide the game, which was 100 percent counterproductive to their goal. The only problem was that by that point in the game, they had allowed so many transgressions to go unpunished that they it would have looked weird for them to make that call at that juncture of the game.
And on we go. How many times have we seen crosschecks, both by defensemen on opposing forwards and vice versa, that have gone without a penalty call despite the fact that one of the two referees is right there watching the entire thing unfold in front of their eyes? How is crosschecking a forward in the back when he doesn’t have the puck not affecting the outcome of the game? In the Chicago Blackhawks’ win over the Los Angeles Kings in Game 4, a blatant crosscheck by Jonathan Toews led to the tying goal.
The NHL has come up with a marketing campaign for this year’s playoffs in which the slogan is, “Because it’s the Cup.” It also inadvertently supplied the answer to anyone who questions why there are clearly two sets of rules for two different times of the season.
* After a decade of defying logic and stonewalling the NHL in the name of personal choice, the NHL Players’ Association finally relented and gave its blessing to grandfathering the use of facial protection starting next season. Good work, fellas.
But before we all shower the players with kudos for finally seeing the light with their two good eyes, the fact is that for players who are NHL regulars, almost nothing has changed. Personally, I would have been a lot more impressed with the players had they moved to force the 27 percent of players who currently don’t wear visors to begin wearing them.
Instead, the NHL’s competition committee, comprised of representatives from both the league and the players, came up with a proposed rule that will force players who have played 25 or fewer games – the specifics of the plan are still not finalized and nobody seems sure whether that includes regular season and playoff games – to wear facial protection.
This is pretty dubious on a couple of fronts. First, it comes about 10 years late and at a time when the vast majority of players are already wearing visors. Second, the players seem to think this is an issue of utmost importance when it comes to their freedom to choose. But not important enough to give future players the same right to make the same choices they’ve had the freedom to make. If the players had really seen the light and finally come to the realization that facial protection is good for everybody, why not immediately make it mandatory for all players?
I went through all the rosters from this season and separated the players who had played 25 games or fewer through the end of the season. There were 116 players in that group, 107 of whom already wear visors. So the league is basically going to have nine players, most of whom are fighters, wearing visors next season who weren’t wearing them already.
* And while we’re on the issue of player safety, it’s nice to see the league and the players are putting such an emphasis on it. Not only did the competition committee propose the visor edict, it has proposed experimenting with hybrid icing and looking at alterations to the hard-cap shoulder and elbow pads. (Nobody does committees or examines things like the NHL does.) Of course, nary a thing was proposed about fighting. Do players suffer catastrophic injuries chasing down pucks on icings? Of course they do. But chasing down an icing is at least a part of the game that can sometimes have a tangible effect on the outcome. Fighting accounts for far more injuries and has nothing to do with what happens during play.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.