A No-Game Suspension Of Belief
In criminology they call it recidivism— the tendency of criminals to re-offend, revert to the norm, as it were. While there is much noise about rehabilitation in society, a certain percentage of the usual suspects end up precisely where we found them. Bad to the bone.
So recidivism might be the best way to explain the National Hockey League and its sporadic efforts to go straight. Its attempts at curbing the malevolent instincts of players on its teams. In some respects, rehabilitation has worked splendidly. Fighting— at least the mindless video-game version between players with no other skills but punching— has thankfully left the sport. While Don Cherry still rages like Lear on Saturdays about instigators and deterrence, the game is better off without its periodic outbreaks of bare-knuckled madness.
In other fields, however, the league just can’t help itself. For the years since “freeing up the game” was loudly declared following the 2004-05 lockout, fans have endured episodes of reform and recidivism on the flow of play, on minor fouls, on major fouls and on video reviews into the sport.
“Wasn’t that a penalty in December?” a befuddled fan has asked his remote this spring as some miscreant gets away with crime against the home team. The infraction could be as benign as how much interference to allow a defenceman when the puck is chipped behind him into the zone. Or it could be a two-handed crosscheck to one of the game’s elite players that drew a suspension in the early season but now draws a mere wrist-tap from the risibly named Player Safety department.
The current fan confusion concerns the outbreak of vicious stick work in the 2017 playoffs. Anyone watching will recognize the crosscheck victim mentioned above as Sidney Crosby of the Penguins, who was fed a graphite sandwich by Matt Niskanen of Washington when Crosby fell into him in Game Three of their current playoff series. Crosby had been propelled into Niskanen by Capitals star Alex Ovechkin who’d applied more graphite to noggin of the Pens captain.
For those scoring at home, Niskanen received five minutes for trying to garrot Crosby. But no suspension or fine. Not even a hearing about the act. Great news for Caps fans but a “what the hell?” from fans off other teams who’ve seen less from their teams punished more severely. (Canucks fans will offer this late-but-otherwise legal hit by Aaron Rome in the 2011 Final: (https://goo.gl/5K3BeU).
Usually referees set a rigourous standard early in the playoffs, calling marginal fouls to halt boys with no impulse control otherwise. But the refs seemingly let it slide in 2017. Now, players have begun to employ the lacrosse standard of using a stick check to discourage opponents from breathing normally for two or three weeks. In this context the Crosby crosscheck is a go-sign to push the standard as far as it can go.
The Niskanen/ Ovechkin example is not exceptional. Anywhere close to the net, the two-hander has been de rigeur lately. While a penalty for breaking an opponent’s stick has been rigorously called, there has been no similar prohibition on breaking your stick over an opponent’s more vulnerable parts.
Then there was this vicious pitchfork spear by Boston’s perpetually offensive Brad Marchand to the junk of Jake Dotchin just before the playoffs. Despite a long rap sheet, Marchand got just two games for (https://goo.gl/5K3BeU), and— crucially— no playoff time off.
Indeed it seems that, not only is there a different standard from the regular season in these playoffs, there’s a different standard from one playoff year to the next.
Now before we declare a fatwah on referees for ruining the postseason by neglecting their whistle we need to point out that anyone who thinks referees call what they please (á la Frank Udvari, Andy van Hellemond or Bruce Hood) is delusional. The game-to-game behaviour of zebras is monitored and shaped by a torrent of corrective memos from the league head office.
The head office, meanwhile, is monitored and shaped by ownership and management of teams which keep up a steady stream of helpful suggestions about how the opponents are the most dastardly foes since Genghis Khan and their own players are pure as the driven snow. Often it’s really not worth a referee’s job to get too far out on a limb when Jeremy Jacobs of Boston thinks you’re biased against Beantown.
The dissatisfaction with all this will no doubt reach the ears of commissioner Gary Bettman. Another campaign to clean up the game will be launched. Players and fans will howl, “You can’t call that!”
But they will. Until the next time it’s convenient to re-offend.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. He’s also a regular contributor three-times-a-week to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. His website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com)