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Hockey by the rules

April 26, 2006

Before the playoffs started, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettmann issued a memo to the referees who would be working the playoffs. Paraphrased, the memo stated that if the officials did not call the game as they had throughout the regular season (where hooking actually is hooking), they would not be refereeing any more playoff games.

In years past, fans have become accustomed to the difference between regular season hockey and playoff hockey. The major difference is that in playoff hockey, there are much fewer trips to the penalty box. No referee wanted to “be responsible” for calling a power play for a team at a crucial moment and thus jeopardizing the “integrity” of the game. Never mind that this essentially allowed cheating in playoff hockey.

The crackdown on obstruction penalties seemed to result in more power play opportunities during the regular season this year, and it is apparent after five days that the playoffs will be no different. It takes a bit of getting used to, seeing the players wear a trail to the sin bin, but I think in the long run it will be healthy for the game. While there are some questionable calls (I still don’t understand how you can have a hooking call on one player and a diving call on the other. Either the hook was a penalty, or it wasn’t) being made, I’m not sure I’d label the officials as overzealous. I’m choosing to see it as the players not catching up to the reality of the rules of hockey.

If you don’t have position and you impede your opponent’s progress, it’s a penalty. Is that they way the rules are written? Yes. Is that they way the game has been called in past years? No. Did I commit these sins when I played? Yes. Should they have been called penalties? Definitely. NHL players are used to a standard (two years removed) of being able to get away with breaking the rules, especially in the playoffs. The look of incredulity on so many faces of the accused makes me laugh. One can tell by their expressions that they know they did wrong, but absolutely cannot believe that the call is being made.

My more sensible side implores me to remind hockey players that they 1) are getting paid to play a game and should relax; and 2) will rarely if ever change a referees mind by arguing. But my realistic side says this will never happen. The competitive nature of the game takes over when you step over the boards and hit the ice. Everybody complains about getting called for a penalty, that’s the way it works. (Mostly because the ref didn’t call the big lug on the other team when he whacked you in the back three times with his stick right in front of their goalie, and that makes what you did justified.)

Where am I going with all this? I’m glad I asked. I’ve seen opinions on both sides of the “Are all these penalties good for the game?” question. A good game has to have rules. And for the game to thrive as intended, the rules have to be followed. Because human nature sees the will to win higher on the food chain than the will to play fair, we need someone to enforce the penalties for breaking the rules of a good game.

While the tickertape parade to the penalty box seen in many arenas is odd to see, I’d argue that this is how we should be seeing hockey.

Thanks for stopping by the end of the bench. Come back soon.

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